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The Richest Man in Jerusalem

The Richest Man in Jerusalem

August 29, 2012

Rahamim Melamed-Cohen, Ph.D. continues to inspire and motivate me to this day even though he can do nothing more than think and blink his eyes. To me and countless others, he's a living miracle. I'm pictured here seated to the left of Dr. Cohen along with his wife, Elisheva, and his Adobe Illustrator tutor from the Betzalel Academy of Art.

Want to be truly rich?

Just a few days ago, my family got a rare chance to meet with my mentor for many years, who is by far and away what I would consider to be the richest man in Jerusalem and the happiest man in the world. And if anyone has a reason to be bitter and unhappy, this man certainly does. Why?

Because, in most people's eyes, he has nothing!

He's trapped inside a body that can't feel, can't move, can't speak, and can't do anything that most of us take for granted every day. He can only think and blink his eyes. That's it! Nothing more. Even so, he tells me, "These are the best years of my life."

That's incredible to think about because if you have a hand that you can move, you have more than he does. If you can speak, you have more. If you can feel, you have more. Yet, he has more than most people will ever have!

Find out why in this inspiring story that has helped me understand what it means to be truly rich and happy. And I hope it will help you too.

From well-known pioneer to invalid

While traveling here in Israel my family and I made a special visit to see my long-time mentor, Rahamim Melamed-Cohen, Ph.D. who is well-known as a pioneer in special education programs in the country. To understand what makes him so special, you have to understand how his life suddenly changed one Friday evening. While holding a glass of wine, his hands shook uncontrollably. His wife, Elisheva, took him to several neurologists who gave him the diagnosis they dreaded. He had ALS or what is commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The doctor's prognosis was dire indeed. "Here's what you can expect over the course of this disease," he recalled the doctors explanation of what was to come. "At first, your limbs are going to become paralyzed, and then the muscles in your neck, esophagus and tongue will stop working. Finally, the day will come when a fly is going to land on your nose and you won't be able to even brush it off. You'll become dependent on other people for everything. And in your final stage, your lungs will stop working. You have three to five years to live, at best."

"So much life left to live"

That was about 17 years ago. Dr. Cohen has outlived three of his doctors! Did you catch that? He has outlived all expectations. The question is, why? I'll share the answer in a bit. He always tried to stay one step ahead of the disease. When he lost the use of his legs he got a wheelchair, then an electric one when his arms stopped.

Then he got a feeding tube and catheter when his organs stopped. When his voice stopped, he got a microphone, then a ventilator. At one point, doctors were so concerned they asked his wife if they should 'pull the plug' on her husband. "Why?" she asked. 'He still has so much life in him.'

A life of thinking and blinking - how could he be happy?

This is one of the many beautiful pieces of art Dr. Cohen created simply by blinking his eyes!

Today, he can't do anything for himself as the disease has slowly stolen his physical functions. The only things he can do are think and blink. Can you imagine it for yourself? How would you feel?

Yet, with this disability he's still managed to write 12 books, he regularly corresponds with people like me via email and just last week the Jerusalem Theatre opened his art exhibit that featured a full gallery of his art in his new book about colors. Check out this incredible piece that he did with his eyes. He learned Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. He found inspirational verses about colors and created over 20 beautiful pieces of art. How he's accomplished all this is a testament to the incredible advances in technology and his will to live life to the fullest in the most difficult circumstances is awe inspiring.

Life can never be the same for you or I. Anytime I get frustrated or feel like complaining about how unfair life can be, I just think of Dr. Cohen.

He told us that there really is no place for self-pity. Here's someone who has so little but has done so much. People tell us all the time, "I can't write a book", "I'm no good at writing reports or white papers." Here's a guy who can't even move his hands or fingers and has accomplished more than most people.

Amazingly, he's still able to write books, poetry and even create art with new technology that translates his eye movements into text and images. It's the same technology fighter pilots use to control onboard weapon systems. With a blink of an eye they can drop a bomb. In the same way, Dr. Cohen blinks his eyes to turn his thoughts into books and images. In fact, eight of his books have been created with his eyes!

I met Dr. Cohen years ago. I was inspired even then as he continued to choose life over death. Ever since then he's been a personal mentor to me.

A mentor who continues to inspire even today

He's also been an inspiration to many others, as well including a group of men he taught in 1961. At the time, they were troubled sixth graders who were considered so out-of-control no other teachers wanted to work with them. Dr. Cohen did. He continued as their teacher for seventh and eighth grades and created such a bond that continues to impact them to this day. For more than 50 years, they get together once a month and several of them stop by regularly to help their ailing teacher.

It's not simply out of respect and responsibility that they come. They come to catch his infectious resilience, optimism and hope. Look, the take away here is that if you invest in your relationships it comes back tenfold.

"Who is the honored one? The person who honors others." It's counter intuitive but true.

''Think of what's possible to do in your present situation"

"Don't despair. Be optimistic and work on joy in your heart. No matter what you're lacking think of what's possible to do in your present situation." - Dr. Rahamim Melamed-Cohen

Despite the fact he is completely dependent on others, he considers himself a giver.

He really is a giver to this day! He refuses to spend more than 15% of his day dealing with his physical needs and therapies. The rest of his time is spent dealing with the welfare of others. He tells others, "Don't despair. Be optimistic and work on joy in your heart. No matter what you're lacking think of what's possible to do in your present situation."

He continues to think about the possibilities despite limitations most of us could never imagine. "I want to stay alive for many more years," he adds, "and not miss out on one moment of life. I want the opportunity to actualize the true me, to enjoy others and to be enjoyed by others and to convey the message of optimism. Life is holy."

"Sometimes they look at me with pity. But they have no idea how rich, happy and interesting my life is, usually more than theirs!"

Who is the rich one?

Do you have a definition for "being rich"? For me, he has come to define what it means to be rich and happy. "Who is the rich one? The one who is happy with his or her portion." -- Chapters of the Fathers. Here's a man who is happy with his portion. This is a game-changer. Dr. Cohen embodies the spirit of living even though he can do nothing more than blink his eyes. He's a living miracle!

He accepts what is and strives to make it better. That's truly what happiness is about. It's a balance of letting things happen and making things happen. Most of us are so busy doing things that we're not willing to accept what is. It's a struggle we all wrestle with every day.

The 'Coin of Happiness'

If you could create a coin that would make people happy what would you create? Well here's what we created. Something I call the 'Coin of Happiness' with my friend Dr. Cohen. Why are these coins so special? Let me explain.

On one side, the coin says, Strive. Why Strive? Because we are all born into this world to accomplish something great and, therefore, we must strive to fulfill our mission. But one thing is for sure. When you strive it's going to get messed up. Life does not work as you would expect it to. So therefore, striving isn't enough.

The other side of the coin says, Accept. Why? Most of us simply can't accept what is. We always wish our lot was different then it is. But if you cannot accept what is, you won't achieve fulfillment in your life.

You're probably asking, "So which is it, Jon? Do I accept what is or should I strive to fulfill my mission." The answer is both. If Dr. Cohen simply accepted his situation, he would have been miserable. So he strives to do something more. He goes back and forth. And that's the secret of the coin of happiness. It's a reminder of we must always flip back and forth between striving and accepting.

This model is based on the Western and Eastern worlds. The Western world is all about seeking, doing, and actng. America is about performing, increasing, and more of everything. We are 'more-aholics.' We want to do more, have more, and be more.

The Eastern world is about accepting. Meditation is all about accepting what is. During my journeys at one phase of my life I was a serious Buddhist and we learned to meditate, we accepted the pains that came up in our body as we didn't move. Many of us accept our position in life.

The key to happiness is in the balance of the coin, which is why there are two sides.

Life is constantly switching back and forth between accepting and striving, making it happen, and letting it happen. If you can find the balance between striving and acceptance, you will find happiness. It reminds me of the Beatles who sang, 'Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.' But it doesn't stop there; you have to make it happen too.

The final secret everyone should know

During my family's visit with Dr. Cohen, he "typed" this message ... "Children. What did you learn here today?" He went on to tell them..."See life in a light of greatness/beauty. You all need to alway be happy as there is ALWAYS suffering. But never give up. Crisis is the the beginning of new life."

Here is the final secret of happiness. But it is not for everybody. The crown on the coin is 'Gratitude' because it's the highest level one can achieve. The essence of life is to be grateful -- grateful for what is. However, most of us cannot be grateful for an illness or for an accident, or grateful for the loss of money, or a difficult family situation, or any of the challenges in our lives. But when you can be grateful for what is, you can become truly happy.

That's why I developed this coin with Dr. Cohen's inspiration. He has not only accepted his situation and 'what is,' he is actually grateful for what is. Yet, he continues to strive and contribute with a deep sense of gratitude. In this screen shot last week he told me 'Crisis is the beginning of new life!'

To help you flip between ACCEPT and STRIVE as you pursue the goal of true GRATITUDE, I was inspired by Dr. Cohen to create this "Coin of Happiness".

The 'Coin of Happiness' is a constant reminder for each of us in our struggle each day flipping back and forth between accepting and striving as we search to be truly rich and happy.

Bottom line: Let's remember to try to deeply ACCEPT what is. Then STRIVE with all our abilities. When it doesn't work out so well flip the coin and ACCEPT. Ultimately the goal is to reach a level of feeling GRATEFUL for the good and the bad.

May we all be blessed with the ability to find happiness in our lives.

In this way, we will bring more happiness into the world as we pass it forward.

Always taking you from where you are to where you want to go,