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.
Want is a dangerous word. Want is often regarded as evil, you know. It can be, too – especially in a society where so much is easy, so much is available for so many; and yet so much is completely unavailable and hard to obtain for others. Addiction, whether out of ease and boredom or out of desperation and need, is an ever-present yetzer harah, making basic “want” into a dangerous “WANT, WANT, WANT – MUST HAVE”.
There are recognized addictive behaviours, addictive substances and addictive activities, and so, many people in today’s society, who naturally want to get things done, give them up in the interest of accomplishing true good things. In the process, some of these people give up on wants altogether, trying to focus primarily on what needs to be done, whether we want to do it or not. This leads, sometimes, to the “anorexia” version of the same addiction where people starve themselves of activities, of substances that would be good for them.
So, “want”. How to want safely? How to want responsibly? How to respond to a want and use it without letting it rule your life? Want has a bad rap in the bible, starting from Eve seeing the fruit of the tree as something she wanted and sinning in eating it, and going through to Proverbs where it says “give me neither poverty nor riches, feed me with food convenient for me lest I be full and deny You and say, “Who is God” or lest I be poor and steal and take the name of my God in vain.”
It’s clear desires are dangerous, needing to be satisfied just enough so that we’re not likely to fall into the addictive behaviours that not having enough leads to. What are we supposed to do instead? Maimonidies says “Anything the Torah doesn’t forbid, don’t deny yourself because that’s a sin too.” So, walk that thin line, already! You’re supposed to balance on the roof, there’s no easy way out, indulge your wants – but only appropriately.
Whereas there are rabbis who talk about avoiding desire as much as possible (and who are probably no fun at barbeque parties), most agree with Maimonidies. The trick, they say, is to identify the good desires – the ones that correspond to health, to love, to learning (studying Torah is supposed to be one’s top desire – it is the Talmud’s suggestion for getting one’s partner excited – just whisper sweet words of Torah in her ear) and go with those, in moderation. It’s quite a trick!
At least knowing that there is a way God wants us to deal with desire gives us a starting point. Now, all we have to do is walk without fear on that very narrow bridge, avoiding the dangers on either side.
Listening is a skill. It’s essential in relationships, and it’s one of the ones I fail to use over and over again. Why? Because as soon as there’s something said, my mind goes elsewhere. There’s defending myself after all. “What? Broken? I didn’t do it. I wasn’t there and if I was, I didn’t touch it, and if I did, it wasn’t a bad thing.” There’s relating and empathising. It’s good to relate and empathise, but it can totally take over.” You have a new pair of black shoes? Me too! Only mine are brown and I bought them last winter. What a coincidence!” There’s fixing. “If you feel sad, I know just what you need – cookies and a bubble bath. That cures anything, right?” Then, there’s judging – meaner but it’s there. “What do you mean you are having trouble with this task? Two year olds can take care of this task. What on earth is your problem?!” Meanwhile, who knows what the person is actually saying?
Of course, the skill to be able to quickly absorb what another person is saying, process it, and respond appropriately is important. It doesn’t do to be standing there going ‘um’ for half an hour while one tries to figure out what a person really meant. Leaving a space to truly listen in, however – that’s its own skill. If I don’t hear what another is saying, I will respond in a way that leaves him sad. He might have wanted a hug, and I offered a solution. Maybe he wanted me to celebrate his new shoes, not share in the fact that we both have them. Hearing not just the words but the meaning and more, the need behind the words, is something that I do way too rarely. It requires a pause, a deliberate lowering of defences, a willed focus and attention, and some patience. It requires interest in things that I’m not actually always interested in. (This will come as a shock to those who think you know me, but I actually have very little interest in shoes.)
It is an area for me to work in. Now, there are those who feel that this is something that I should have mastered long ago and that you have no problem in this area. You might be right. You might be an excellent listener and hear pretty much everything that a person is saying. What if the person isn’t all that good at saying things, though? What if she has trouble finding the words, speaks slowly, has a funny accent, isn’t always clear about her feelings or, heck, has no idea what her feelings are? Can you still hear her? Can you still understand her? This is an area where we can all improve – you know that. You’ve gotten judgement when you wanted understanding, and hugs when you needed solutions. I know I have.
This is an area where I can do t’shuva whole-heartedly. I know I need to listen better, to truly hear what the other is saying, to be able to understand what’s behind the words. I know that by taking time to focus on the people I’m talking to and to show an interest in what they say, I can improve my ability to hear them. I hope to improve on this skill this year, and thus, to be able to say, ‘wow, I was having trouble with that last year. I’m glad I worked on it’ when the topic comes up next. Maybe, if I listen carefully, I’ll hear something worth knowing.
You know that feeling? The one where you have a bit of salad, because you want something but you’re not sure what it is. So then, you have a bit of pie, but that’s not it either. Is it the handful of raisins? No, that just isn’t satisfying right now. Or maybe for you, it’s when you look at your facebook page, and then pace around for a bit, and then pick up a book you should be reading, and then put it down, and then text someone, and then pace a bit more, and then look at your e-mails and then decide to check out what’s new on twitter? You might be the type to start sewing something by getting out all sorts of sewing things and then realize that wasn’t it and find some craft supplies to make a bracelet, and then leave both mixed together on the work table and go upstairs to start making a cake.
It’s that nagging underlying sense of dissatisfaction with the universe. I want something. I mean, I want it. I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t that. It’s whiny, and constant, and persistent. It is one of the nasty voices that underlies addiction (which shuts it up the way a soother shuts up a baby,) it is occasionally a way to procrastinate although not always. Sometimes, it’s even a way to release enough nervous energy to let one study or work. It has connections to craving and to anxiety and to distraction. It’s that first whisper of the yetzer ha-ra (the evil inclination, the push factor) saying ‘do something – but not that’.
It can drive you crazy. I’ve often sat there trying to ignore it. “I don’t want anything to eat,” I say in a logical fashion, “I had a healthy lunch just recently.” “I don’t need any electronic or entertainment devices at all, I have a simple mundane cleaning job I should start.” “I don’t need new clothes, jewelry or desserts – I need to finish a homework assignment.” I say these things. I repeat them to myself. I say them the way a parent talks to a child. I am nice and polite, I am sweet and cajoling, I am firm and determined, I am grim and annoyed, I am hysterical and frustrated, I am loud and insistent by turns. But the voice, like an annoying three year old, continues to whine. Just as I’ve finally shut it up (I think,) I have that feeling at the back of my head – “but maybe just one or two raisins, pages, stitches or whatever? It will help me focus…”
Sometimes, I give in, hoping that one or two raisins will get that whine to stop. Anyone who has had a three year old knows exactly how effective that is. “Just one more?” The voice whines “and it wasn’t raisins I actually wanted, it was a piece of toast with butter. That’ll do the trick, definitely.” By now, the yetzer ha-ra is having a heyday and my afternoon will be filled with distraction after distraction. I have found only two ways to deal with this annoying voice, and I don’t use them often enough and I put them here as a reminder to myself that I can do better.
They both have as their underlying truth that the yetzer ha-ra is important. That whiny voice is trying to tell me something I need to listen to. If my neshama – my soul – has a need to search out satisfaction, maybe I should honour that search. So, how can I do that? The first way is simple and immediate. I plan the search. “Fine,” I answer the whiny voice. “I’ll read my e-mails – in 15 minutes. I’ll look at facebook after I finish this blog. I’ll read my novel right before bed. See? It’s OK to want all these things and you will get them shortly. Now, be quiet and let me work.” While this may not work with the average three year old, this actually has a great effect on the voice in my head. I am over three years old and I can wait. I just have to remember to plan instead of mindlessly following the whims of my desires.
The second is to stop trying to finish my homework, do the dishes or whatever other useful task I’m trying and failing to accomplish and to really pay attention to my inner need. If I am dissatisfied, if I am searching for something that isn’t there, if the sewing and the bracelet aren’t it, then maybe I need to do some of the self-care things that tell me what it is. Maybe what I need is to write, to meditate, to talk to someone or engage in whatever reflective activity works for me to tell me what I’m searching for. Often, (yes, I know – here I go again) at the core, I’m just searching for more meaning, more spirituality, a deeper connection to God. The writing and meditation help with that, I remember that God is and I am, and I can focus on that darned French essay without any raisins or Facebook whatsoever. Sometimes, the need is for something I had and can have no longer and I need to mourn a loss (whether it’s the loss of a family member to a horrible illness or the loss of my favourite flavour of cookie from the grocery store) and take time to acknowledge my feelings about a situation. Sometimes I need to to look at my life and see if it’s actually my life tasks and goals that aren’t satisfying me. All of this takes time (and sometimes needs to be planned too – need to do the dishes now, will find an acceptable cookie substitute tomorrow) but it can lead to life changes and to bursts of creativity I could never have imagined while hunting for that raisin. It was that persistent nagging voice that finally got me to start blogging for example. It was partially behind my last career change.
The yetzer ha-ra, that whiny nasty search for some form of satisfaction, that craving – that is an important and useful tool that God gives me to learn more about myself and the world. When I listen appropriately, I realize that my inner three year old is whining due to a need that I can do something about. Oh, not by succumbing to the surface item being asked for but by being mindful of the need and responding to the true nature of the search.