I finally understood why all the modern English reading I’d invested in frum self-improvement never worked for me as well as I wanted.
Hashem MUST be in the picture: beginning, middle, end, all the empty space between the lines, and the picture frame too.
And these books often didn't focus on Hashem to the extent necessary for real transformation.
I enjoyed these books, of course, and I certainly felt inspired to fulfill whatever my spiritual potential is, to keep striving in that never-ending journey of self-improvement, and the whole bit.
They are good books and good for you.
But no matter how clear the directions, strategies, and parables were, I mostly found it hard to wrap my mind around it all and to actually apply it in real life.
The lack of application wasn’t a yetzer-hara blockage; no matter how clearly and compellingly it was all explained, I literally could not see how I could apply that same reasoning or strategy to whatever individual situation I found myself facing.
In other words, in the heat of the moment, all the beautiful words and ideas disappeared.
Finding the Key...
If you’re going to conquer any negative trait—like anger, for example--it ultimately can’t be done without working on full acceptance of the infuriating incident coming from God as a loving test or rectification.
No matter how hard you try, no matter how much you pump yourself up with information regarding Gehinnom, earning a solid place in the World to Come, bringing Mashiach, building the Heavenly Beit Hamikdash, health issues (angry people=poorer health & die earlier; happy people=better health & live longer), the importance of giving the benefit of the doubt, counting your blessings, keeping a gratitude journal, building or wrecking relationships or the self-esteem of those you love, counting to ten, asking yourself re-orienting questions (“What kind of person do I want to be?”)…it ultimately cannot rescue you from the nitty-gritty of your bad middot.
Each time you face a truly infuriating situation, each time you are genuinely overwhelmed and exhausted…you will fail.
No matter how hard you try, no matter how sincere and self-aware you are, you will fail.
UNLESS…you pull God into the picture.
Opening the Locked Door
- This is from Hashem
- This has nothing to do with the person or situation making you angry because HASHEM created the whole shebang.
- Hashem loves you more than you can imagine and this awful event is actually something loving and beneficial in some way that may or may not be possible to understand
- This infuriating situation carries some kind of message (a wake-up call, an atonement saving you from suffering in the Next World and even winning you reward, an atonement that will earn you reward in This World, an unfathomable soul rectification, a “mirror” to clue you on something similar you need to fix in yourself, and more)
- In His Great Love and Compassion for you, God is with you right in this very infuriating moment. And He and His Heavenly Hosts are all rooting for you.
And this is true for all bad middot: envy, gluttonous eating, passive-aggression, narcissism, anger, negativity, ingratitude, grudge-holding, fearfulness, being a control freak, and more.
Stumbling across the Newly Opened Threshold
Of course, you should count your blessings.
Of course you should keep a gratitude journal.
Of course you should do all the good things mentioned above.
The point is that doing it without involving Hashem, without cultivating your relationship with Hashem, is ultimately not going get you through a nisayon that hits you at your weakest point in your weakest moment.
I always feel a bit weird talking about this stuff because I see how I’m still so flawed myself.
But being flawed doesn’t mean I haven’t made any progress.
I used to read so much, listen to so much, and apply so much…and I would do really well for about 2 weeks and then—BOOM! SMASH!
Preparing for a situation, developing well-thought-out strategies, judging favorably, cultivating the “right” attitude, asking a rav, consulting with an expert…it always ended in failure.
You know why? Because the baldfaced Truth is that EVERYTHING really is from Hashem:
- the situation
- my bad middot
- the other person's bad middot
- the build-up
- the consequences
- the WHOLE PACKAGE
And since that is so, then logic follows that I need to deal with stuff through Him, not through myself and not through other people, no matter how well-intentioned or wise.
Because you know what?
- Sometimes, you genuinely feel you don’t have so many blessings to count.
- Sometimes, the stuff you’re grateful for doesn’t outweigh all the big bad ugly stuff wreaking havoc on your life.
- Sometimes, people mean to hurt you. They like it! They enjoy it! They think it’s funny or well-deserved. How do you give such people the benefit of the doubt, eh?
- Some situations truly are outrageous or totally unfair.
- Sometimes, you stop worrying about Heavenly reward or punishment because you’re suffering so much you feel like such atonements are a guarantee of Heavenly reward, which kills your motivation to improve yourself.
(Seriously. I’ve talked to people who told me outright they think they suffer because they’re soooo good and that they’ve got it made, spiritually speaking, because of all their suffering. And ironically, these same people commit serious transgressions and cause tremendous suffering to others because of this attitude.)
So what are you going to do then?
But when you bring Hashem into the picture and start thinking in terms of emuna, then the entire situation changes. Your whole perspective and hence, your goals totally change. Your actual emotional response changes.
Is it perfect? No.
Does it always work out? No.
But I’ve been able to face certain experiences and deal with them appropriately in a way that I NEVER could have before.
No matter what.
No matter how hard I tried or how good and firm my intentions were.
And even when I still fail, it’s not as bad as it was before. And at least I can turn to Hashem about it. It’s not all on me.
And I’ve seen other people experience the same.
With emuna, they were able to succeed when they never could before. And even when they find themselves in truly grueling situations, they still manage to keep their head above water where they never could have before.
So this is where we’re holding:
We get a lot of guidance and advice.
And it is good.
But unless it’s taking the next step of involving God ALL the way (and this means directly interacting with Him in an ongoing relationship), all the best advice and strategies in the world are ultimately not going to work.
May we all succeed in facing our lives with solid all-encompassing emuna.