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.