*****WE ARE WHAT WE SAY
Recall for a moment someone you recently saw getting angry. Did you notice the metamorphosis? The face turns red or pale, the shoulders stiffen up, and the nostrils flare. The tone of voice changes dramatically, and the volume hits the far end of the sound spectrum. The overactive hands reflect the speed of the fast-paced heartbeat. You begin to wonder whether the person in front of you is just “angry-mad,” or perhaps stark-raving mad. If you were unfortunate enough to see things get out of hand, you might have witnessed the angry person punch the wall, throw household items around, or even harm those around him – possibly even himself. No wonder the Talmud says of someone who gets angry: All types of hell rule inside of him (Nedarim 22a). Just by seeing someone in this state, we make up our mind that we do not want to go through this ourselves.
Rationalizing Wrath and Rage
When things calm down, our furious friend may tell himself that this sometimes happens to the “best of us.” But this is a dangerous rationalization, no less foolish than building a house on a potential volcano. Only a few seconds are needed for friction to erupt into an outpour of wrath destroying everything in its path.
Of course, not every outburst of anger is as dramatic as the one described above. Indeed, there are many levels of anger. Anger is an emotional state that varies in intensity from fury and rage down to mild annoyance. But they share a common root. Since few of us can say that we are totally successful in controlling our anger – regardless of the level of intensity – we owe it to ourselves to invest some time and thought in the subject.
A great deal of professional and popular literature can be found on how to deal with anger once it surfaces. Some experts speak of recognizing anger as an inevitable emotion that needs to be controlled. Others take a quick-fix approach, offering readers “Ten Ways to Control Anger.” These include breathing exercises, counting to ten, going for a walk outside to take a time-out, getting into a relaxing posture, verbalizing the emotion and expressing anger constructively using the words I feel angry when… because…, speaking slowly and calmly, sitting down and having a glass of water, listening to music, laughing, etc. But these approaches all assume that one cannot rise above his nature and avoid anger altogether. Is anger really an emotional response that surfaces too fast to nip in the bud?
Therapeutic Consolation or Exacerbation
When dealing with patients who suffer from anger and rage, many therapists make the mistake of assuming that anger is not a bad thing, that it can be used positively if it is controlled. They assume that by accepting or expressing anger, the individual will be in a position to contain it. But this approach does not, for example, take into account the harm caused by the expressions of annoyance or insulting sarcasm which stem from anger. These are very harmful for interpersonal relationships, and we must find a way to rein in this emotion (making sure it does not rise to begin with) for the sake of our loved ones. This is equally important for accepting our lot in life and, in general, for healthy living. Angry people are at much greater risk of injury (such as through banging into things), heart condition, stress, and depression. Even worse, as the Sages tell us, a person who breaks things out of anger is similar to one who involved himself with idol worship (Shabbat 105 and Nedarim 21a).
The High Price of Anger
Nobody – not even the greatest or humblest human being – can escape the negative consequences of anger. We find in this week’s Parashah that Moshe Rabeinu got angry: ויקצוף משה על פקודי החיל — Moshe got angry at the army generals (BeMidbar 31:14). Indeed, the Midrash observes that Moshe got angry at the nation a total of three times, and each time he suffered the embarrassment of forgetting a law of the Torah (Vayikra Rabbah 13:1). Now, let us keep in mind that there was absolutely no egotism behind Moshe’s anger. He acted solely for the unselfish purpose of rectifying a wrongdoing or in response to a desecration of G-d’s Name. Why then was he be punished with forgetfulness? Apparently, as the saying goes, a person is not only punished for his anger, but also by his anger. No-one can escape this fate, not even the incomparably humble Moshe Rabeinu.
If even Moshe Rabeinu succumbed to anger three times, we would be naïve to think that we can completely eliminate this response from our lives. But with serious and consistent effort, we can cut it down to the minimum and only for the most vital issues. Imagine being eulogized as a person who almost never got angry or annoyed – perhaps only three times during his entire adult life! Wow!
A Positive Approach
The best way to eliminate anger is take a positive approach, and cultivate a stress-free and content-rich life. Before focusing on what this means in practice, let us take note of some primary causes of anger. Needless to say, some of them overlap:
* Having expectations from others, G-d, or ourselves that are not met
* Being pressured to do something we find very difficult
* Being insulted or shown disrespect or lack of consideration
* Being neglected
* Being disobeyed
* Being jealous
* Seeing our efforts fail
How can we stay calm under these circumstances? How can we rise above our nature and avoid anger? The more we can internalize the concepts below, the easier it will be. But again, the challenge is not an easy one. It is the work of an entire lifetime. It involves constantly checking ourselves, and reviewing our actions to make sure they are in line with what we know – intellectually – to be the correct outlook. In short, we need to:
* Realize that it is our responsibility to overcome this emotion/urge before it overcomes us, and understand that no-one else is responsible for us living happy lives except ourselves.
* Accept others, G-d, and ourselves in our relationships with them.
* Be well-planned and patient; know how much time, effort and money each life-project requires, and do the best with the resources at our disposal.
* Avoid perfectionism, and accept that if something we do is not perfect, it is still worth something (perhaps even a great deal).
* Maintain a non-inflated ego by knowing that we are important, but not more important than others.
* Do what is good and what needs to be done because it is the right thing to do – without expecting a payback in honor or pleasure.
* Use emotional intelligence to understand that often the other party did not mean to make us feel bad; judge others favorably.
* Know how to ignore people when they deserve to be ignored.
* Know how and when to express feelings.
* Relinquish old feelings of resentment; a “must” because anger is often the result of an accumulation of past feelings. When gripes (and the like) sit too long, we may no longer know how to express our feelings about them, and they will stay bottled up inside us until they explode unexpectedly.
* Be cognizant of how much G-d loves and cares for each and every one of us. He knows what is best for us, and we must understand that no-one can take away anything He wants to give us.
* Realize that each and every person has worth and value, and is actually full of potential for greatness if he learns from his mistakes and those of others
Accepting the Dog’s Bark
Notice that many of these concepts are, in one way or another, connected to acceptance and a properly adjusted ego. No-one gets worked up over a dog that does not purr or a cat that does not bark. But for some reason, we are annoyed at others – or at ourselves – for the way they are, and we often try to “fix” them. The fact is, though, that the only person we can try to “fix” is ourselves. Ironically, when we see something that needs to be changed in others, it is often something that needs to be changed in ourselves. Unfortunately, though, we are often too lazy to do so and so we expect the change to take place in others. In our relationships, we find ourselves grinding water as we become enraged, and express our feelings of disappointment towards others for simply being what they are. In our iPod generation, we would like to “fix” and change others as fast as we change a song we dislike. Is there anything more egocentric than this? As the saying goes, “Anger is a way one tries to take control when he is out of control.” On the contrary, we must focus on controlling ourselves before our anger controls us.
Just a word in closing on the quick-fix techniques mentioned above. While they have some value, they too much resemble that proverbial hospital built under an unfinished bridge for treating injured drivers and passengers who crashed down below. We must work to make ourselves “anger-proof” by changing our perspective and the way we live. The only way to live content-rich lives and ultimately eliminate anger from our lives, is to invest in working on ourselves.
WE ARE WHAT WE SAY
Moshe Rabbenu made a rare display of anger when he was approached by the tribes that wished to settle on the east side of the Jordan River – Gad, Reuven and half of Menashe. He shot back with the rhetorical question: “Your brothers will go out to war while you settle here?” The spokesmen for the tribes responded that they definitely were not thinking of dodging their military responsibilities to their brethren, and would join the war effort to conquer Canaan. They noted, though, that they first wanted to make arrangements for their families and possessions: “We will build enclosures for our flock here on this side of the river as well as towns for our children .” When Moshe acceded to their request, however, he made a significant reversal in the stages of the plan they had suggested: “…build towns for your children and enclosures for your flock.” This reversal was no accident!
What someone mentions first in a series is usually of greater value and importance to him or her. In making their request, the spokesmen for the tribes first mentioned how and where they would place their source of sustenance – their flocks – and only then did they indicate how they would ensure their children’s safety. Moshe reprimanded them about this indirectly by first mentioning the placement of the children and then the safeguarding of the flocks.
And what about us? People can invest so much time, thought, and money in their investments. But for some reason, their children – their best investment in the future – often take second place. Children need their parents’ time, interest, and thought. Of course, they also need money. But money given to meet children’s needs can never be a substitute for their fundamental need for parental time and thought. Would anybody dispense with putting time and thought into an investment, and just throw money into it?!
It is the naive parent who convinces himself that the child does not know about his or her priorities. The subconscious of a child even picks up subtleties like the order used by the parent in mentioning life values. And, of course, spouses can sniff these things out on each other as well.
Moshe helped the two and a half tribes prioritize by re-arranging their “list.” If we can learn from Moshe, and take care about organizing our priorities before mentioning them to others, we will be better parents, spouses, and – generally speaking – better people.