I'm not a big one on celebrities and award shows, but my law firm represents the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is how I found myself in the audience last week as Angelina Jolie received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
I did not expect to be deeply moved. I was.
Jolie is, of course, beautiful — no less so, by the way (and a number of people have asked), since her double mastectomy. The film clips showing her visiting refugee camps in danger zones around the world were riveting. But it was her speech that left an indelible print on my heart.
Looking around the room of well-heeled Hollywood types, she said simply: "We are all so fortunate." We are, in fact, the luckiest people on the face of the globe, but sometimes — when you're lonely or scared or tired or depressed, and I am, sometimes, all of those things — it is hard to remember that. Knowing that others suffer so much more does not bring happiness.
"I have never understood why some people are lucky enough to be born with the chance that I had, to have this path in life, and why across the world, there is a woman just like me, with the same abilities and the same desires, the same work ethic and love for her family, who would most likely make better films and better speeches, only she sits in a refugee camp, and she has no voice."
I don't know that she would make better films and better speeches, but surely there are millions of women who love their families as Jolie does, and as I do, and have no choice but to watch powerlessly as they suffer.
And knowing that may not bring happiness, but it does bring a sense of purpose. I have a little paperweight, and the message is simple: "The purpose of life is a life of purpose."
I believe that. Not all of us are in a position to do what Jolie does. But every one of us is in a position to help.
I don't really have hobbies. I'm not much for sports or museums or adventure travel. The happiest time in my life was when my children were young, still living at home, when I was overwhelmed with my love for them and not my missing them.
And what next? What now?
The most satisfying thing I do, I have come to realize, is help others. The truth is, it makes me happy. Sometimes I get taken advantage of. It happens. But mostly, I feel that when I help others, I feel better. For me, it is a blessing.
Jolie lost her mother to ovarian cancer. Her speech was a tribute from the heart to her mother, who drove her to auditions and celebrated her successes. But even as they jumped up and down in celebration, Jolie said, "She was very clear that nothing would mean anything if I didn't live a life of use to others. "
My father was a lawyer in private practice in Lynn, Mass. ("Lynn, Lynn, city of sin" was one of the nicer descriptions.) He never made much money, and he died at 54.
When I was growing up, my father's "clients" were forever doing things for us. The television repairman, the guy who fixed the car, and the guy who put down the linoleum were my father's clients.
There was one guy who sent us handmade cribbage sets from jail. What I didn't understand until much later was that these were people who couldn't afford to pay for my father's help, and that in asking for their help, instead of sending a bill, my father was respecting their dignity.
There are many ways to help people.
Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful, certainly. But it is also a time to find the joy and satisfaction that comes from a life of purpose.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.