When the popular author of books about positive thinking met his mother-in-law, he couldn't have guessed how she'd influence his life—and work.
- Posted on Sep 7, 2017
My girlfriend, Allison, and I pulled up in front of a nondescript two-story house in Waltham, Massachusetts—a working-class suburb of Boston. The house had two units and was where Allison had grown up. Her mom, Terri, lived in the top unit. Her grandmother lived downstairs. Allison and I had met in New York, where I worked in publishing and she was in TV news. We’d been dating about six months. It was time to meet Allison’s family. Given that this was a tight-knit Italian Catholic clan (and I’m Jewish) that had a protective attitude toward Allison, the stakes were high.
I tried to remain positive. In fact, I’d spent a lot of my life trying to remain positive. Ever since I was a teenager, coping with my parents’ divorce and the plunge into near-poverty that followed, I’d relied on what I called practical spirituality to keep myself mentally and emotionally centered. Things like the precepts in a book called Ethics of the Fathers, a distillation of wisdom from the Talmud I’d stumbled across as a teen and clung to for dear life.
I knew the work of Norman Vincent Peale and other writers and spiritual leaders who taught the manifold benefits of having a prayerful, faithful, positive attitude toward life. My temperament was naturally pessimistic and self-doubting; I had to work against that all the time.
Like now. What would Allison’s mom and grandmother think of me? I envisioned sharp-eyed, appraising stares, questions about how I’d raise kids, Bostonian suspicion of a native New Yorker.
“Don’t worry,” said Allison. “I’m sure my family will love you.”
I loved Allison. We were talking about marriage. All I could hope was that I’d find some way to connect with her family. Allison and I walked up a flight of stairs to the second-floor unit. She opened the door, and we went inside.
A woman of medium height with smartly done brown hair and smiling eyes walked right up and gave me a hug.
“It is so nice to meet you, Mitch,” she said. “Allison has told me all about you. This is my mother, Josie.” She introduced me to Allison’s grandmother, who embraced me just as warmly.
I looked around. The house was cozy and a little cluttered, with knickknacks and angel figurines on just about every available surface. I noticed something else too. Something odd.
Everywhere—on walls, lampshades, figurines, the coffee table—there were what appeared to be small cards affixed with tape. The cards looked like business cards turned around to their blank side, with a sentence or two written on them. Short sayings:
“Being too serious about all I have to do can make me unrealistic,” said one.
“If anyone speaks badly of you, live so that none will believe it,” read a second card.
And another: “When you cannot pray as you want, pray as you can.”
Other cards had Bible passages, prayers or 12-step slogans on them.
Who had written and taped these up? It must have been Terri. Obviously she felt a need to surround herself with positive messages. Was she into practical spirituality too? It was the first hint that she and I shared a vision.
Thus began my relationship with one of the most important people in my life: Terri Orr, my mother-in-law. Allison and I did indeed get married. We settled in New York, where I rose through the ranks of publishing to become editor of my own imprint at Penguin Random House. I’ve also written my own books, including a history of positive thinking in America called One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life. Allison and I have two children and feel blessed by the life we’ve been given.
Terri has been a secret source of inspiration for all of that. She’s been a mentor and a teacher, not only showing me how to live a faith-filled life, but also pointing me toward parts of America’s spiritual history—especially the development of 12-step programs—that I never would have thought to look into. Meeting Allison was the best thing that ever happened to me. So was meeting her mom.
The night of that first visit, I slept in a spare bedroom, which doubled as Terri’s office. Like the rest of the house, it was festooned with faith-filled business cards. Allison and I stayed up late talking before she padded off to her childhood bedroom. I was distracted half the time by reading Terri’s cards.
“Has your mom always done this?” I asked, gesturing at them.
“I guess so,” said Allison. “They’ve been there as long as I can remember. I don’t even notice them anymore.”
I spent the rest of that visit reading as many of the cards as I could. I longed to know what had given Terri the idea and how the cards helped her.
Over the years, I learned answers to my questions. It turned out Terri hadn’t always been a positive thinker. Just the opposite, she told me.
Born the daughter of an Italian-immigrant barber, Terri went on to become the first woman in her family to earn a college degree. She attended Brandeis University on a merit scholarship and embarked on a career in academia that propelled her to the job she held when I met her—associate dean of admissions at Harvard Medical School. Along the way, she married and had two daughters.
All of that threatened to fall apart in the late 1970s, when Terri and her husband divorced. Two years later, her father died. Terri was devastated by the loss. A single mom, she remained in the house where I met her, so she could stay close to her mom.
That same year, Terri was diagnosed with a sleep disorder often associated with obesity. Food had become a source of comfort following the divorce and her dad’s death. She’d gained a lot of weight. For the next decade, she tried every diet imaginable. The pounds always came back. She was depressed. Lonely. She felt out of control.
The year 1991 was her darkest. She weighed nearly 200 pounds and moved so unsteadily that she’d broken a foot. A doctor told her, “You’ve got to take the weight off or you’ll never heal.”
That night, she sat at her dining room table, confronting an array of diet plan brochures. Each one made her feel more and more depressed.
Suddenly she heard herself saying, “God, please, just tell me what to do and I’ll go do it.”
An answer came: “Join a 12-step program.” Terri had tried a 12-step program once before but hadn’t stuck with it. This time she remained committed. Gradually the weight came off. And stayed off.
More importantly, Terri’s whole approach to life changed. Around the time of her divorce, a friend who served with her on a church committee said jokingly, “Terri, if there were a cabinet position called the Secretary of Worry, you would be a shoo-in!”
While taking a spiritual inventory of herself—one of the 12 steps—Terri realized that worry and negative thinking dominated her life. Clearly that was not God’s intention. If she was going to turn herself over to a higher power, she’d have to give up the worrying too. But how?
Reading 12-step and other inspirational books wasn’t enough. Terri’s negative outlook was too ingrained. She needed positive messages in front of her eyes every second. And so she took some old business cards that she had from a previous job and began jotting down inspirational messages and taping them to the fridge. When the fridge got too crowded, she moved other cards to kitchen cabinets and to the dresser in her bedroom. Soon the whole house was speaking positive messages to her.
“I decided to call them my ‘God cards’ because I believe God speaks to me through inspirational literature,” she said to me once. “These cards keep me going.”
They sure did! By the time we met, Terri not only was a Harvard dean, a devoted mom and daughter and a churchgoer, she was also incredibly optimistic. A doctor at Harvard once said to her, “Terri, you are the most positive person I’ve ever met.” I looked forward to trips to Terri’s house, not only for her company (and watching her dote on our boys) but also for the latest batch of wisdom I’d glean from her and the God cards.
When I told her I was researching a book about American spirituality, she asked if I was going to include a chapter about 12-step programs. I told her it hadn’t occurred to me. “That’s okay,” she said with a smile. “I’ll tell you all about it, and then you will.” And that’s exactly what happened.
Many of her God cards have ended up going home with us, where they now adorn our own fridge or are tucked away in drawers or between the pages of favorite books. For Terri’s seventieth birthday, we gave her a leather-bound album of the cards’ “greatest hits.”
Among my favorites:
“I can choose to be right or to be happy.”
“My helping hand is needed. I will do something today to encourage another person.”
“Abstinence is not difficult; withdrawal is!”
“I am able to feel my feelings and not think something is wrong if I am not happy every minute.”
“Waiting has more power than an ill-timed decision.”
And from the very first page: “Faith in God + Mental Reeducation = Modern Miracle.”
That’s Terri—a miracle of faith and positive thinking.
Of course, she’d never boast about herself. “I’m a quick forgetter,” she says. “I slip into negativity very quickly.” Just like me! “The cards remind me that God is always with me.”
I’m sure that message is on a card somewhere in Terri’s house. Actually, it’s on all the cards. It’s the message behind each one. A solid foundation for an inspiring life.
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