Sometimes, it’s just so hard to stay calm. The impending economic sitution right now seems so bad. Will I be able to buy food, pay the mortgage? I feel my heart rate increase, and I stop to take a deep breath. I repeat the “facts” in my mind, reminding myself that G‑d has always provided for me in the past. It will be no different this month. I have to remember my pearls.

What bothers me most is that everything is changing Finances aren’t the only worrisome part of my life. What bothers me most is that everything is changing. Everything’s just so ... indefinite. My life, my job, my children. Congress, Israel and the Middle East. I can’t even define these feelings which assail me. It’s as if so many separate irritations and fears just keep forcing their way into my mind and heart. Should I move to Israel? Should I quit my job now and sell the house? What should I do about my children? They’re just about ready to begin their own independent lives, but they still need me. Don’t they? And my parent’s? Momma’s got Alzheimer’s, and I can’t help Daddy when I live thousands of miles away.

I know I’m not alone. Everyone questions their choices, even the “good" ones that life places before us. We reach some goals and have to set new ones. Sometimes, dreams of long ago just aren’t good enough anymore. And sometimes, the really bad stuff—death, illness or divorce—happens to us. And in the dark and lonely hours, the only thing that seems constant is pain, loss and fear. And then, I remember my pearls, and sleep washes over me for another night.

Once, many years ago, I happened to voice my concerns about a particularly difficult situation to a group of close friends. “Life’s tough, and then you die,” spouted one, known for her “no nonsense, take charge” personality. “Well, that just about sums it up, doesn’t it?” I thought, but her words made me feel as if I had been slapped. There has to be more to life, I reasoned.

As if she felt my disquiet, my more “motherly” friend pointed to the lemons on the luncheon table and patted my hand. “If life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” she quoted with a smile, as if all of life was just as sweet as her platitudes. I knew she meant well, too, but her simplistic attitude burned in the back of my jaw, as if I had bitten down on one of the lemon wedges. Too many tears had soaked into my pillow for me to believe “lemonade” was possible in this situation.

I felt boxed in, condemned to years of painful suffering Didn’t I have good reason to feel worried or blue? My discomfort over this situation lasted for weeks. I knew I had valid reasons for being angry and resentful. I was in a situation, both personally and professionally, that was not going to change, no matter what I did. I felt boxed in, condemned to years of painful suffering outside of my control. There was nothing I could do about it. Then one day, I opened the lid of my jewelry box and saw my pearls.

Now, my strand of pearls had always been one of the few material things I treasured, and I had always taken good care of them. Since I had been in a bit of a hurry the last time I’d worn them, I had just dropped the strand back in the box without putting them away in their drawstring bag. But now, as I was about to slide the strand back into its black, velvet bag, I had a revelation. I suddenly realized I actually had a choice to make about my life. But it wasn’t going to be easy.

I had often heard motivational speakers use the pearl-making capability of the oyster as an example to inspire higher performance. An oyster responds to a grain of sand intruding into its closed ecosystem by secreting a solution called mother-of-pearl, which covers the irritant and eventually makes a pearl. I had always thought about this analogy from a somewhat distant place, emotionally. When I wore my strand of pearls, it was nice to think that what was once an irritant had become a thing of beauty and lasting value in my jewelry box. Suddenly, I saw the situation from its other side. I saw that the recipient of that oh-so-wondrous pearl wasn’t the same creature that had to suffer with the irritant for who-knows-how-long.

I had never thought about what the oyster got out of the pearl-making bargain. Now I did. If the sand was an irritant, wasn’t the pearl simply a bigger annoyance? After all, the oyster keeps secreting the mother-of-pearl, and the pearl just got bigger and bigger. Admittedly, the oyster’s central nervous system wasn’t particularly sophisticated, I mused, but it would seem some pain would be associated with wrenching the oyster apart to implant the offending tissue or to extract the pearl. And what happened to the oyster after the pearl was harvested? Well, not being a marine biologist or an oyster farmer, I didn’t care to research the topic, but I knew the oyster didn’t have a choice about whether to make a pearl. Fate gave it an irritant, it made a pearl; and I had reaped the benefits—literally.

I now know that I have a choice Just like the oyster, irritants continually intrude into my personal and professional life. Some of these intrusions aren’t merely irritants but full-scale catastrophes, which through no fault of mine, have caused me and others great personal suffering. Unlike the oyster though, I now know that I have a choice. I don’t have to accept the pearl-making process. I could refuse, or resist, or complain it away. Or I could give in, deal with my emotions and choices, and make a pearl. Even if I won’t ever be the one to reap its value.

The metaphorical pearl-making process is long and uncomfortable. Often, the pearls (those things of great value to our families, communities, or society as a whole) will be harvested at great personal cost and sacrifice. Like it says in “The Woman of Valor,” the Eshet Chayil—a song in praise of women, written by King Solomon: Am I willing to produce pearls under those conditions? Am I personally willing to risk pain and loss for a better way and a better world? Do I dare to take that risk, even if I will never know any other outcome but personal suffering?

The strand of perfectly matched spheres spilled over and dangled from my palm that day so long ago. But even in the dim, closet light, it was if they were a glimmering, luminescent waterfall of hope. The oysters which had made this thing I treasured were long dead, while after my death, the pearls and their value would be passed down to my daughter or granddaughter.

“Who can find a woman of valor, her value is far beyond that of pearls ... .” I think I’d like to leave even one pearl behind. It’s better than an empty shell.