So, wants – we all have them, they’re not needs, most religions agree they should be left to God, or at best sought in moderation. But what I want – at least what I want to talk about in this blog, is what happens when wants clash.
And what happens is anger. We don’t understand why the person we are trying to spend time with, communicate with, or work with in some way won’t simply do what we want. It would, really, be best for everyone. It’s just that they have a similar idea and so poof, anger, conflict, ick.
Now, don’t get me wrong – Anger is useful. It’s sort of like oxidation. It creates energy, sparks change, removes blocks. It’s powerful and effective, or at least – it should be. But oxidation is also rust and fire. It can destroy, slowly, one tiny bit of rusty nail at a time or rapidly in a huge conflagration.
Most people (myself included) are really bad at dealing with anger. We are way more likely to create rust and flames than change and energy. There seem to be two ways of dealing with anger – you can hold it in and keep it to yourself, or spew it out all over everyone. Holding it in – that’s my specialty – and that leads to rust. Soul rust is when the foundations of your dream temples are slowly eaten away, and you are unwilling to build, when you find yourself putting more and more walls on that temple to hide the rusty spots and to keep the collapse at bay. It’s ugly. At the totally wrong moment, the temple – now looking much more like a fortress – collapses anyway and in the process, self esteem and relationships have been destroyed.
Others (and I know them too – and you know who you are) light the world on fire with their anger, making sure everyone knows that they are UPSET. This is not much better, as it not only burns bridges between us and other people, but actually, it’s almost impossible for our own soul temple to not catch on fire, leaving ethics and priorities, courtesy and breath as a pile of ashes.
So what to do? God seems to frown on anger, sending plagues and swallowing people in the earth if they let it out – except when God encourages anger and tells us to fight for this or for that. Confusing. The Pirkey Avot says that they are strong who are slow to anger and can master their own spirit. Hmm. So, the first thing one must do is accept that one is angry – because our wants will not always be satisfied. We’ll get mad. We’re going to have to notice that and slow it down, and not react immediately. Then, it’s a matter of analysis. Is this the kind of case where our anger is due to a misunderstanding, an unhealthy want being unsatisfied, something we can fulfil some other way? Then we find ways to deal with that anger privately, to scrub the rust off the foundations, and do a bit of internal restoration here and there. We could write and tear up angry letters, punch pillows, go for a brisk walk, find a distant and private location and scream, visualize, make art – whatever turns the anger into something productive for us.
If the anger is motivated by something being truly wrong, on the other hand – an injustice, a lack that reflects a need rather than a want, someone’s cruelty or disdain – then we have a responsibility to act. The Torah is big on warning someone who is about to do the wrong thing and rebuking someone who is acting badly. The trick is to do so calmly, to ensure that our goal is improvement and not destruction. Embarrassing a person, using cruel pointedly sarcastic remarks to wound, pointing out flaws in public – these are totally against Jewish precepts. (If you ever were in Jewish Junior High with the Rachels, you wouldn’t know that and would actually think the opposite, but hey…) You need to find a way – a gentle but powerful way to use your anger to create change.
How can we help each other repair our soul temples instead of burning them down? It’s a daily challenge. Learning to work with anger – to neither swallow it into myself as the earth swallowed Korakh, nor throw it out to destroy others – that’s a challenge for this year. And getting that skill – now, that’s something I definitely want.
OK, but I can’t. I mean the big things – those I can forgive. (Although, I admit, for those of you who can’t – I’ve not had a lot of horrible big bad things done to me which makes it easier.) It’s the little things, the little daily mosquito like things that people do completely unconsciously – those, I can never forgive. I can never forgive them because they’re still there, still filling the air with that nasty buzz, still causing nasty little pinpricks of pain, still causing me to swell up and itch and want to swat them and crush them flat! (Which is not something I would do, really but sometimes when I’m frustrated…)
How am I supposed to forgive that? I can’t. I can’t think of any good ways to forgive them. I’ve tried praying to have the anger gone, and it does go away – and then it comes back in full force the next time that person says that thing, or has that look or whatever. I’ve tried praying for good things for them – same problem! I’ve tried praying that those words wouldn’t matter – that they wouldn’t affect me. I’ve been more effective at praying for real mosquitoes to not affect me. At least there I could use after-bite. (Hmm…after-bite for people – there’s a winning product that would totally sell.)
Focusing on the positive aspects of the person helps sometimes, as does sharing good times with that person. Other times it’s easier when I’m not around them (although that is more rare – generally when I’m not with someone who annoys me, my mind keeps replaying that nasty mosquito bite over and over, itching at the sore spot until it bleeds.) Even saying “I forgive you – in my head, by my self, with no one there – causes me grief. It’s amazing how hard my teeth can clench. And of course, that forgiveness isn’t real, and we all know there’s nothing as empty as grudging forgiveness. (It was one of dad’s phrases – “as empty as grudging forgiveness” – I’ve always been so impressed with the man for being able to use a phrase like that in a language not his own.)
Still, I keep saying the words, again and again, focusing on the appropriate thoughts, and finding the healthy ways to make the relationship a better place (never mind the world). Sometimes, it’s even successful. I manage to keep coexisting with the people who annoy me, after all, and finding healthy ways to relate. It’s never fun. It’s work, it’s annoying and I don’t like it. But hey, there’s Elul in a nutshell right there! I pray to keep doing the work of Elul – just after I itch that infernally itchy spot right behind my…
I’m a very forgiving person, or at least that’s how I see myself. I love forgiving others – it makes me feel all magnanimous and mature. I usually let things go after only a very minor, a token bit of an apology or even none at all.
Except when I don’t. And now and then, something hurts me a lot, and it leaves me feeling vulnerable and a bit broken and then – then forgiveness is a bit more difficult. In fact, basically, I don’t.
For me, it’s around trust. I have a number of attributes that could put me on the autism spectrum, and one of the biggest is that when I communicate, I don’t do a lot of interpreting of body language, or context for meanings and shades of meaning. Even when I think I’ve done an amazing job of telling two feelings apart although the words said were the same, and share this astonishing discovery, I find people looking at me with this expression which says, “yes, pink and green are different, aren’t you brilliant?” As for feelings that are as close together as violet and magenta, there’s no way at all.
People should know that by now. People shouldn’t trick me by saying one thing and meaning another. People shouldn’t lie to me. I am cautious these days, and have safeties up, and places where I don’t trust. Sometimes, however, those places are entered by someone to whom I offer closeness. Then, they lie about something emotional. When they do, especially when I’ve put all of me – my heart and soul – into a relationship, and then I discover that I’ve been thinking pink whereas actually they’ve been saying green all along – well, my heart breaks. It doesn’t matter if the person is a parent or a child, a beloved or a friend – it’s just, it’s just – it’s insuperable, that’s what it is. I can’t take it, I can’t fathom it and I feel like joining the autistic people in my life, and screaming, “liars! You are all liars and should go to the fields of punishment immediately!” as one child I know has been wont to do.
Forgiving that – that blatant disregard for my difficulty, that placement of a stumbling block before the blind – that is brutally hard for me. Oh, I know. It’s a misunderstanding, for gosh sakes! It’s barely worth mentioning. No one died, or even got seriously hurt. It’s an attitude problem having to do mostly with MY attitude. But yet – it hurts, and I can’t forgive it, and the pain keeps coming back again and again. Oh, it’s not that I actually want anything bad to happen to that person – in fact, I pray daily for good things to anyone I’m feeling this way – all hot and bothered and resentful – towards. I mean, yes, the thought of “I hope someone makes you question the world and yourself and feel as hurt and sad and broken as you’ve made me.” comes into my head. I am not, however, a little kid, and do have the skill to tell myself what’s wrong with this approach.
So, I pray about it. I try to think of the people involved in positive circumstances and remember things they did for me or things we did together that were worthwhile. I remind myself that the misunderstanding is from my side as much as theirs, and I write and say and think words of forgiveness. Yet, in my heart is that knot, so difficult to untangle. This Elul, I own it. I say clearly, “I do not always forgive easily.” I accept that dark part of me. Right now, that’s where I am. With God’s help, may this month move me to a place where I can forgive the unintentional (and maybe, while protecting myself, even the intended) betrayals in my life.
Oh, I really don’t think this word is a good idea. I don’t think I should write about it. I don’t think this is a good idea at all, at all. You see, this year has not been a good one for me and trust. I don’t know how trustworthy I’ve been, but for better or worse, I lost a lot of trust this year, and that’s hard. Of course, I know the fault is entirely mine in this case. The thing about trust is that while trust is an excellent idea, it’s all tied in with expectations, and those guys are bad news.
Losing trust – coping with the bad things that happened in my life when I expected God or other people to make good things happen – has felt incredibly horrid. I cried a lot. I gnashed my teeth and fussed at the evil that was my lot and was angry at God and institutions and individuals – all of whom failed me at times. I got depressed and decided nothing was ever going to work out again. It got so bad that I had to stop thinking about how much it hurt because it was bringing me down and making me a negative person. I actually give myself a point if I can avoid thinking about this stuff.
Now, look! It’s Elul, and I have to look into this mirror. Sometimes, the whole Elul thing is mildly annoying. It’s the beginning of a new year (Not only am I Jewish, but I’m a teacher and a mom) and I’m incredibly busy. I could have done without all this emotion wrenching soul searching stuff. Because what I see in the mirror makes me mad all over again – not at God, institutions or other people, but at myself. I see that naïve little girl who believes that if she’s nice to people, they’ll all like her and be her friend. She either blames others for things that go wrong in her life or feels defeated because things are too hard. She takes peoples’ words literally at face value, and is shocked when it turns out those words were never meant to be taken the way she heard them, and that people change their minds all the time.
Am I still, after all these years and all this learning, that naïve little girl? Because I am neither little nor a girl, so it’s time for the naivety to go as well. It’s way past time I grew up. So, I face the mirror. I say, “people are, like me, imperfect. Institutions, being composed of lots of people, are even more imperfect. And I am not smart enough to know what God means when something happens.” I stop waiting for someone else to solve a problem or provide comfort or share an emotion. I realize that I have all I need. If God is asking it of me, I can solve my own problems. I can find comfort in many different ways. I am lucky in that there are many people who love me and whom I love in this world and so there’s always someone to share an emotion if I really want to.
I need to accept things and people as they are and relate to them in that way, without the fantasies and expectations getting in the way. I need to even accept that the naïve little girl in the mirror will probably be a part of me for some time to come, because I too am not perfect. I need to rebuild my strength, release my expectations of anyone, and then, slowly, start investigating what there is that’s left that’s worth building into a new, and different trust.
(I know – two days behind. I’ll catch up this week – really!)
You know what’s easy? To see what everyone else is doing wrong. I know, I know, that’s so cliché – look for your faults, not your neighbour’s, and all that. And we all know it. And we all work hard to live by the principle of examining our own faults rather than looking at others – and we all fail miserably. (If you have been successful, and truly find your own flaws the easiest to find, please write me – we’ll chat and I’m certain I’ll learn something and so will you.) Of course anger totally blocks our vision in this case – that’s why it’s called ‘seeing red’ – at first you can’t see anything but the anger, and everything else, even when it becomes possible to see it, is only seen through that red haze.
Anger totally blocks our ability to see clearly then – what else? Fear. If I’m scared it’s all going to go wrong, I might shy away from any responsibility in the matter at hand. I will avoid embarrassment, and the easiest way to do that is not to see. “Why isn’t that spill cleaned up? I don’t know, I never saw it.” But did I look? Probably not.
So what am I supposed to do? How can I see what the world holds? This is made harder yet because I believe that what we see with our eyes is just part of the surface stuff we all agree is there. It’s easy to believe that the inconsequentialities, the little details of everyday life are all that is. That’s not what I want to see.
Here is my deepest desire – my goal. When I look at people, I want to see God shining through. They are all made in the image of God, after all, and that’s what I want to see in them. That doesn’t mean blinding my eyes to areas of difficulty in a relationship – boundaries are a thing – but it does mean that I remember that those difficulties don’t define the person I’m looking at or the relationship between us. They are difficulties because no one is perfect and we are all learning – and they may cover the divine within us, but they don’t obliterate it.
When I look at the world, I want to see God shining through. I want to see the beautiful spaces under the mess, because when I see them, I’m inspired to clean up the mess and let the beauty shine through. I want to see what God put there for me to care about, whether that be plants or animals, floors or even dishes. I want to do that care in the spirit of love that doing God work can bring.
When I look at myself, I want to see God shining through. I know that I too was made in God’s image. I want to look without fear or embarrassment, and in this case, to see the blemishes that hide Godliness as something for me to work on. I want to like myself, not by ignoring my faults through fear and anger, but by accepting them as one of my imperfections that I work on to bring that God image out.
It’s the same in all three cases. It’s the same as I wrote about hearing. It’s the same as I wrote about Shabbat. It’s going to be the same this whole Elul I think. (OK, God – I can see you’re being very firm about this one!) I need to pay attention. I need to be mindful. I need to up, up, up the activities I take for mindfulness, whatever they may be and to accept what I hear and see when I really look and listen.