What Gregg Levoy and Dr. Ruth know about passion and joie de vivre

Two very different people last week inspired me to lean into life with rekindled zest

Gregg Levoy and Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer

By happenstance, I encountered two very different people last week bringing eerily similar messages.

Gregg Levoy in a workshop last Sunday at Unity Spiritual Center Denver called it passion. Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer in an interview Wednesday called it joie de vivre, which she translated as zest for life.

Levoy, a journalist turned author and speaker, recently turned 60 years old. Dr. Ruth, a Holocaust survivor who 30 years ago became a famous psycho sexual therapist via radio, TV, and books, will be 89 in June. He is at least a foot taller than she is. I don’t think they have ever met.

I hope their paths cross someday, because I am sure they would have lots to talk about.

You can hear each of them on an episode of my Kindle Chronicles podcast — Gregg in January of 2015 talking about his book, Vital Signs: The Nature and Nurture of Passion, and Dr. Ruth on Friday, discussing her book, The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life, and Joie de Vivre.

I am writing this post in Casper, Wyoming, where my wife Darlene and I met 35 years ago. We are staying with our friends Tom and Tish and reconnecting with other old friends. We moved to Denver in 2000, and whenever I return to Casper I am blown away — inside joke, this is a famously windy city — by how fast the years fly by.

It’s a good place to write down why Gregg Levoy and Dr. Ruth made such an impression on me last week. Writing helps me to claim the fire they kindled, to remember it, and to act on it.

I’ll start with Gregg’s workshop, which he structured around a series of questions designed to help us uncover passions that we may have been overlooking or hiding with mindless routine. Darlene heard his talk at the church but had a prior commitment and could not stay for the workshop. I told her I would share his questions with her.

I did not record the workshop, so this account of Gregg’s questions is not a word-for-word transcript. This is how I heard them:

  1. I like myself _______. Fill in the blank with a person, a place, or an activity — someone or something that makes you feel good about yourself.
  2. What activities put you in a flow state and make you happy even when they are hard?
  3. Make a list of pleasures in your life.
  4. If, like Google employees, you were granted 20 percent of your time to work on a project you wanted to do just for the love of it, what would work on?
  5. What activities in your life always create anticipation and excitement?
  6. What are you most passionately curious about?
  7. What wows you? What fills you with wonder and awe?
  8. What’s the one problem you were born to understand?
  9. Imagine your life is at a crossroads, with two signs pointing in different directions. Each sign has one word on it. What are those words?
  10. What wants to emerge in your life? What wants to happen?
  11. What profound change in your life could be healing?
  12. What decision to you need to make now?
  13. What recurring symptoms in your body might be dreams trying to come true?
  14. If you could pursue another profession, what would it be?
  15. What must you do or die?
  16. What decision could you make today that your future self would thank you for?

It took three hours for Gregg to walk us through these questions, with many entertaining and enlightening asides. After each question, he gave us time to jot down our answers, writing quickly, intuitively. He invited us to share some of our answers with the group. At the end, we gathered in twos and threes to share what themes could see in our answers.

I will keep most of my personal discoveries in the workshop to myself for now, because I’d like to see where they lead before gushing about them in public. One action which I will mention is that I decided to take a break from the news. I have not read a newspaper or a news-related tweet or Facebook post in seven days. I have also starting playing the guitar again.

Darlene and I listened to my recorded conversation with Dr. Ruth in the car on our four-hour drive to Casper yesterday.

“She’s a kick,” Darlene said after listening to the interview.

I agree. Dr. Ruth’s joie de vivre is infectious. Her favorite animal is the turtle, because it has to stick its neck out in order to go anywhere. It has to take risks. She has taken plenty of risks in her life, and not just by speaking plainly about sex on the radio before anyone realized you could do that.

Her zest for life is the more inspiring because of the tragedy she experienced as a child. She lost her entire family to the Holocaust. She survived by being put on a kindertransport to an orphanage in Switzerland. As a sniper for Haganah, the Israeli freedom fighters, she had her legs badly injured in a bomb attack on her 20th birthday in 1948.

Dr. Ruth’s use of the French term joie de vivre connects with the five years she lived in Paris after fighting for Israel’s independence. Though poor, she was able to study at the Sorbonne. She then moved to the U.S. and continued her studies in New York, eventually earning a Ph.D in Education from Columbia University Teacher’s College.

What I will remember most from Dr. Ruth’s book and our conversation is the story of how she met her late husband, Fred Westheimer, on a 1961 skiing trip in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Here is what she told me:

While I went up the mountain with Fred Westheimer, I decided, “This guy I’m going to marry.” He was an engineer. He was German Jewish. He was good-looking, and he had never been married. He played guitar and harmonica, but then I found out he had left his guitar with a girlfriend. I did not want him to see that girlfriend! Who knows what would have happened? I didn’t have money, but I borrowed money, and I bought him a guitar.

The guitar cost $28 — the equivalent of a $227 purchase in today’s dollars. Her investment paid off handsomely. She and Fred were married for more than 30 years until his untimely death 20 years ago.

I love that story, and not just because the guitar has been an oft-interrupted passion of mine ever since I was a boy. I love Dr. Ruth’s out-there determination not to let Fred Westheimer end up with another woman. But what to do, knowing his guitar had been left in the apartment of a rival?

Her answer: Buy a guitar!

As I bend again toward my own guitar playing, I will never forget Dr. Ruth’s inspired purchase of a $28 guitar for Fred in the Catskills more than 50 years ago.

It’s about passion. It’s about joie de vivre.

It’s about how sometimes it takes two people in one week to bring you a message you need to hear.

Tonight in Casper, Wyoming, I hear the years rushing by like the wind. It’s a good place to remember my answers to Gregg’s questions and to savor the irrepressible laughter and zest of Dr. Ruth.


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