September 26, 2018

The Meaning of Life in Four Difficult Steps

In my previous column, I ended with the question: How do we defend our hearts when someone is not acting lovingly toward us? Let’s cut to the chase. Here are the four steps: Do your duty. Find bliss when possible. When you can’t find bliss, be resilient. Everything makes a difference.

“Do your duty” does not provide an immediate answer to life’s questions, but this guidance helps organize consciousness. I have counseled many people stuck in anger. Inevitably, this involves venting and blaming, and wanting my counsel in how to change the other person. “Do your duty” turns the pointer of consciousness away from the other person, and onto yourself. Your duty, when you are angry, is “thou shalt not.” You can be angry, but do not express it. Remember the four C’s: No criticizing, complaining, condemning (including accusing, blaming, labeling, unkind comparing, contemptuous gestures of face and hands, etc.) and no escalating conflict.

When anger tempts you, run it through what I call the wisdom mill, not the bottling factory. For example, ask yourself what you want the other person to do. Not understand, know, realize or be aware of. What I want them to do now — a clear, rational, achievable behavior, with a time stamp on it. Not, “I want to be affirmed.” Instead, “I would like you to praise me.” Yes, that clear. It feels weird to say such a thing, but that is what “I want to be affirmed” often means.
(Sometimes people say, “But they should know what I want if they loved me” and I think “What are you, 14?”).

Here is a life truth: We couple up with people who, by definition, regularly don’t know what we want and/or don’t know how to give it. There is a reason for this, that I will discuss another time.

Doing your duty often reminds you that you are not center of the universe, that you often will not get your way.

A corollary to, “No Criticizing, Complaining, Condemning or escalating Conflict”: Never try to persuade a resistant person to do, know, understand, realize or be aware of anything. Just ask them for what you want, and be ready to take no for answer. And decide what you are going to do next.

If you are going to do nothing, do nothing. Arguing typically won’t make it better. Whatever you are going to do, don’t be petty, passive-aggressive or resentful. That never makes things better.

“But,” people observe, “then they just get their way!” Yes, doing your duty often reminds you that you are not center of the universe, that you often will not get your way. And they were probably going to get their way anyway, just after lots of arguing.

I find that couples and families, or any group of people brought together by common purpose, find the bliss inherent in human relationships when they work on reducing toxic speech between people, and reduce toxic emotions within.

And when (heaven forfend!) someone aside from you gets their way, be resilient. However meaning in life is constructed, it is not from “I get my way or I will get angry or depressed.”
Judaism is a spiritual path of duty. We observe mitzvot, commandments, whether one focuses on the moral or the ritual. Leviticus 19:18 does not say, “Do not seek revenge nor bear a grudge unless you are really angry; if that’s the case, then go ahead a bear a grudge.” People say, “But it is natural to resent people who have hurt you.” Well, if it were not human nature to resent, then the Torah would not command against it. The Jewish tradition understands human nature; it just demands that we transcend it. One might say that transcending the pitfalls of human nature (the yetzer ha-ra) is at the core of Jewish spirituality.

The pits of human nature are often bridged in the smallest of ways. In a difficult conversation, the smallest act of empathy or remorse, as the case may be, can lead back to the bliss of finding meaning together.

In sum, when someone else might be shirking their duty, you do yours. You be the one who leads on the path back to the beauty possible in human relationships. Be resilient – don’t give in to the pitfalls in human nature.

As you will see in future columns, everything matters.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah and professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy of Jewish Religion, California.