We all have challenges and struggles in our lives. But how we live with them or through them is what defines the kind of person that we are. I believe that we have something to learn from everyone we encounter and everything we experience. Finding that lesson can be tricky, but when we view the world around us as bits of information to help improve our lives and our characters, it helps us connect to others in a way that we would otherwise dismiss.

A few days ago I read an article about how Elizabeth Edwards, the estranged wife of Vice-Presidential nominee John Edwards, had stopped her cancer treatment. The article stated that the doctors had told her that there was no point in further treatments, that they were speaking in terms of weeks and not months left for her, and that all that could have been done had been done.

And then late last night, as I checked my computer just one last time before going to sleep, I saw the headline that Elizabeth Edwards had passed away, surrounded by her loved ones, in her home. Maybe 24 hours or so from the first report that she had stopped her treatments. She did not have months left, she did not have weeks left, she maybe had a day.

As I read this article, I found myself crying. There was something so powerfully overwhelming about being told fairly definitively that you only had such a limited amount of time left in this world. And yet, in a strange way, I felt she was fortunate to have been given the advance notice. After all, none of us know how much time we have left. Yet most of us live like it is endless. We procrastinate because we can. We will spend more time with our kids on the weekend, we will get started on that project we have wanted to do for years, tomorrow. We will make sure next week to call our elderly relatives or check up on a friend. Today we are too busy with too many things to take care of all those important things that we will get to as soon as we have time.

Yet Elizabeth Edwards didn’t have that luxury, and from everything I have read about her, she recognized the importance in every minute that she had and tried to use it for the best. This was not a woman who had it easy. Not only did she suffer from an uncurable illness, she had suffered through the utter humiliation of her husband’s infidelity in the public eye and had lost a child in a car accident. And yet she always held her head up high. This woman had so many reasons to be angry, to be bitter and to spend her time feeling sorry for herself and her misfortunes. Yet she didn’t. She understood she didn’t have much time left, and she knew that she wasn’t about to waste it.

What impressed me most about her was her focus. It seems that her positive attitude and optimistic outlook was due to her recognizing that there were always others in a worse situation, and using that to appreciate what she had, and not what she didn’t have. She would speak about how even though she was suffering, she had an incredible support system of friends and family. She spoke about how she refused to focus on dying, because by doing that she was letting her illness win. Rather, she would live each day in a way that would impact others. And even when she was asked what she saw when she looked at her estranged husband, rather than answering with resentment or anger for the pain he caused her, she responded, “I see the father of my children.” And she continued that because she would not always be here for her children, she needed to ensure that he was empowered by her to be the primary parent and give them the love and support that they needed.

In Jewish law there is the concept of giving maaser, which is 10% of one’s income to charity. What is most interesting about this law is that the giving of this money is not a kindness, it is not in and of itself a charity, it is our obligation. There is the underlying understanding that 10% of what we make does not belong to us in the first place, therefore it is not ours to keep. When we give this 10% it is because it belongs to those who are helped by it.

So what happens when we are the ones in need of that charity? When we don’t have enough money to make ends meet? Do we still have to give that 10%? So the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke about the importance of this law. And he explained that the power in giving this money was to acknowledge and recognize that even when we are struggling or even suffering, that others have even less than we have. When we can recognize that we might not be able to pay our mortgage, but we have a roof still over our heads, and someone out there is sleeping on a park bench, then we can appreciate what we have and not just focus on what we don’t have. More so, the Rebbe explained that by being careful with ensuring that we always give this 10%, it will actually be a spiritual impetus that will help us with our own financial situation. For when we put our focus on another, we then make the room for someone else to focus on us and help our needs.

Elizabeth Edwards did not have an easy life. But she had a meaningful one. And both in her life and even in her death she taught the power of a positive attitude, of recognizing the goodness in our lives and in focusing on what we can do and not just what we need. I have no doubt that her loss will leave a hole in the lives of all those who knew her and loved her, and yet the lessons she taught will provide the strength and direction for them to move forward. I for one, a complete stranger, hope to be able to tap into some of the lessons she taught. For she truly exemplified the meaning of the verse in Psalms: “Remind me that my days are numbered,” (39:4).