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Thought Of The Week

Seeking the Good
My Teacher

Here is another one that I sometimes hear: "Anger is my teacher." There is some wisdom buried under this platitude (unlike "expressing anger at my spouse/kids make me authentic" which is plain foolishness, with a dagger in hand).

I think the "anger is my teacher" comes from the mistaken but oft repeated idea that we should bless or welcome all that comes our way. Instead of resenting, resisting and denying reality, we should confront the hard stuff squarely and realistically. I think "welcoming" is overdoing it, and not really psychologically honest. I don't counsel the couples I see to "welcome" their sometimes bitter and often debilitating strife. Hurt is manageable. Disappointment is inevitable. Learn how to face things with courage, wisdom and dignity. Welcoming hardship is unwise. It might move in.

Undoubtedly, as we learn to face things with greater strength and humanity, we grow in wisdom. Learning how to deal with anger, for example, absolutely requires restraint, wisdom, the cultivation of equanimity and eventually empathy. The anger did not teach you, though you did learn. Anger, as in losing it, and especially as in losing it with your intimate ones, usually makes things worse. Anger is not your friend and not your teacher. I don't welcome it. I welcome the wisdom that manages it.

Who is our teacher? This is a really good question, one worth dwelling on for a moment. Essentially, we learn virtue when we can exit the grip of the ego self and access the higher self, where, among things, conscience resides. Our conscience is the part of our inner life that instructs us morally. Every morally healthy human being has a conscience, though many of us can't access it easily, unless we train ourselves.

But the conscience must also be instructed. People who learn foolish platitudes ("express your rage at your kids!") mean well but do dumb things. So we learn from our conscience, but our conscience must also be shaped by wise teachings. And how do we know which teachings are the wise ones that we should learn, if we don't have wisdom to begin with? This is a very sad thing.

And it gets even sadder. I know many people who can recite good wisdom, biblical wisdom, for example Proverbs, chapter and verse. Others can speedily whip out pretty insightful and impressive epigrams from 12 Step and Al Anon, or from the hundreds of self help books out there every season (I am hoping to add my drop to the deluge, eventually).

Being able to whip out an epigram or a verse in conversation does not mean you can use it when under stress. Epigrams and affirmations don't seem to have coercive power when the ego self rebels. Compact wisdom is necessary, but not sufficient.

Who is our teacher? Our tradition says that ultimately our teacher is God, but this does not tell us why some religious people stay fools and some atheists find wisdom.

Here is my bottom line. I think that saying things such as "Anger is my teacher" or "The cancer is my friend" are misguided. The fact that we do learn, that we find a way to live well and wisely, does not mean that we can easily explain how we learn.

Here is my summary, to be unpacked later. First, at some point, refining our character, regulating the ego self, learning virtue, all start in the will. We must will ourselves daily in the work of self-transformation. Second, we have to cultivate a fairly detailed vision (subject to revision) for that which we want to become. Third, we have to master the inner life skills to make that vision real. Fourth, we have to cultivate the reflective ability, enlightenment, as it were, to observe this inner work and assess what is actually working.

The mystery of what aspect within me that is inspiring, managing and guiding this process still eludes me.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mordecai Finley


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