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  • Writer's picturePaula Braun

Live Large and Make a Dent

When it first went on air in 1981, Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s late night talk radio show, Sexually Speaking, defied expectations. The sex and relationship therapist, immediately identifiable by her thick German accent, gave her audience permission to talk about fears and desires that were strictly verboten. While not everyone approved of her tactics or her subject matter, Dr. Ruth knew that she could use her age, her credentials, and her charm to educate and inspire people to express themselves fully and let go of their suffering.

A recent documentary directed by Ryan White, Ask Dr. Ruth, explores the life experiences that shaped “Grandma Freud” and the heartaches she endured. The experience of having been raised in Germany in the years leading up to World War Two, of seeing her father having been taken away by the Nazis, and of having been sent as a child to Switzerland not knowing if she’d ever see her family again had a profound impact on the woman she became. She knew first-hand the horrors of treating groups of people as subhuman--both of her parents were murdered in the Holocaust--and so, for Dr. Ruth, respect is not debatable.

In the film, she recalls a time after the war had ended when she was on a train leaving Switzerland. Another train passed by filled with Nazi soliders, and she wondered to herself, “Maybe you killed my family?” Perhaps that’s what inspired her to become a sniper in the Jewish Underground Army while she lived in Palestine in the late 40s? Or maybe it’s what gave her the drive to go to college and ultimately get her doctorate since, in her words, “No one can take learning from you”?   

As the film comes to an end, Dr. Ruth reflects on her life and concludes, “I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world.”

What might happen if we all took these words to heart and followed Dr. Ruth’s example?

We might be more honest and straightforward with one another. We might not be so bothered by criticism. We might be less judgmental. We might be more trustworthy. We might be more adept at reaching people on a very human level that transcends their political and religious convictions. We might be able to see women in their 80s and 90s as something other than grandmothers sitting in their rocking chairs. We might be more enterprising. We might take the time to listen and get to know one another. We might be there to support one another as we grapple with aspects of our lives that we have not yet come to terms with.

If nothing else, we might all look up at the 91 year old woman who stands only 4 feet, 7 inches tall and conclude once and for all that size, in fact, does not matter.

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