Friday, February 14, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Tissa 5774–Faith Amnesia (and Anger Management)

I just went downstairs to do my laundry. After dragging my accumulated laundry to the basement of the apartment building in which I live, I discover a small, handwritten sign indicating that the dryer was not working, and that maintenance has been called. Since there is only one washer and dryer in each small building section, my only alternative is to take my laundry back up the stairs, go outside and make my way through the snow and ice-covered sidewalk and parking lot, over to the next section of the building, go down to its basement, and hope its lone washer and dryer are are available and in working order. Let me tell you, I had a snit fit of the highest order, ranting, stomping, slamming doors, cursing up a blue streak, and generally being overly histrionic as I dragged my full hamper and my laundry supplies next door. Fortunately, I don’t think many, if any, of my neighbors are around to hear the expletive-laden tirade.

Now, truth be told, I’m not under any particular time pressure at the moment. The way my current schedule is, Friday mornings are generally free. Why was I so upset? Why am I still a little worked up? Truth be told, it’s because I wanted to leisurely have the time to work on this musing. Going from my first floor apartment to the basement to keep my laundry going is a minor inconvenience, but to my petty, obsessed brain, having to put on boots and a coat and walk the few steps to the next building entrance every 40 minutes or so was like the worst possible thing that could happen, and would totally ruin my day.

Oops, excuse me while I put on my coat, go outside to the next building entrance and tend to my laundry. Be right back.

OK, I’m back. As part of my self-work on anger management, and calming myself down (in addition to the catharsis that writing this musing is affording me) I focused on counting my steps. Since in either location I would have to go down stairs, I discounted those. There are only 100 extra steps (round trip,) taking a mere few extra seconds of my time, required to do my laundry in the next section over. Yes, I do have to put on my coat and shoes or boots, but so what?

There are people who say they never get angry. I don't believe them. Everyone gets angry. Setting aside what I know about my own faults and flaws, you know how I can be sure of this? Well, we are made b'tzelem El”him, in the image of G”d. Guess what? G”d gets angry! G”d does things like opening the ground to swallow sinners, flooding the whole planet and destroying almost all human life, zapping Nadav and Avihu into toast, striking Miriam with disease, wiping out Sodom and Gomorrah, and, well, the list goes on. (Sometimes, G”d’s anger appears to be manipulative, and not true anger – witness the plagues upon Egypt. Was that G”d being angry, or G”d making a point?)

Now, you might say, it says right here in this parasha that G”d is slow to anger. I don't want to get into a debate about the validity of the biblical text on that point, but, all I can say is, there certainly seem to be cases where G”d was not so slow to anger. Maybe G”d is slow to anger most of the time, or maybe that's our ideal view of G”d. But if our reflection of G”d, being in G”d's image, reveals anything about G”d, it is that not even G"d” can behave in a  consistent manner all the time.

It’s also wise to remember that this is a self-description by G”d of G”d. We all know how accurate our own self-perceptions often are. Even people who have spent a lifetime getting to “know themselves” are still left with a complicated psyche that can somewhat blind them to their actual behaviors or seemingly mitigate the extent of their faults. Take me, for example. Now, I cannot claim to have spent a lifetime mastering the art of self-knowledge. I’ve actually done pretty poorly in that regard. Nevertheless, I do know that I have learned to be aware of and temper my passive-aggressive nature. I am better at sitting in traffic, dealing with delays and frustrations, and allowing myself to express my emotions more often so they do not build up inside and inevitably explode. I’m better at it, but there’s still a long way to go. People who have known me a long time have noticed the change. Someone getting to know me more recently might suggest I am being as self-deceptive about believing I am mastering my passive-aggressive tendencies as G”d is when G”d self declares to be “slow to anger.” They may be right, but I will say to them, you think it’s bad now, you should have seen it a few decades ago. I think the most telling thing is that these days more people who only interact with me on occasion view me as pretty laid back, calm, easy-going, hard to upset. Fewer and fewer people experience the short, aggressive snit-fits. That’s progress, I guess. Baby steps count. Sadly, those closest to me have generally borne (and still bear) the brunt of the downside of my passive-aggressive nature. It hurts me to know that this highly effective yet brutal form of catharsis, which enables me to be better at the things I do for others, most often hurts those who care for me the most. It is my fatal flaw, and it has cost me. Enough, for now, about the particular of my issues with anger management. Let’s be more generic.

It is good to be slow to anger - most of the time. It is best to not allow ourselves to get upset with every little thing, and lash out. Not everything in life is worth getting angry about. So, when we can, we, like G”d self describes, strive to not get angry, to have high tolerance and loving acceptance, to be patient and loving and kind and merciful.

There is, however, a downside to not getting angry, or being slow to anger. Sometimes this lets the anger build up inside us, when it may be better to let it out in little bits and piece, rather than to save it up until one explodes with fury and rage. We call that being passive-aggressive. It’s not a healthy way to be, and I should know, because that’s me, as you have read.

Even if you’re not passive-aggressive, you probably have an occasional snit fit. We all have them. Even G”d has them. G”d, it appears, isn’t always capable of stuffing all the frustration and anger inside without it eventually leading to an emotional explosion of some kind. How else could you explain what happened to Nadav and Avihu? G”d just had a snit fit. It happens. We must make our apologies and go on afterwards. Better yet, we should strive to understand why we behave this way, and work to mitigate the tendency, if not altogether eliminate it (a worthy goal which some people I know seem to have achieved – I am so jealous of these people.)

There are those times when we are trying so hard to not get really angry. There are also those situations when we know that it would be difficult to restrain ourselves for very long. What is it best to do in those circumstances? Perhaps G”d has role-modeled a solution for us. Knowing how Angry G”d was, G”d knew G”d could not trust the ability to maintain composure while being amongst the troublesome, stiff-necked Israelites. A golden calf, for goodness’ sake! An idol! Aaron helped fashion it. G”d must have been fit to be tied! G”d was keenly self-aware of this. Being a loving parent, G”d knew he must not allow G”d'self to be an abusive parent. And so G”d says that G”d cannot go in the midst of the people, for surely if G”d did so, G”d would destroy them. (Ex. 33:5.)

Now that's anger management. G”d knew not to subject G”d’s-self to a situation in which it was likely G”d would have a fit and do something mean or would later regret in a fit of pique. Well, that's one kind of anger management - yet another installment in G”d's little instruction book we call Torah. But there is another form of anger management - one that can come from outside us. Moshe was a practitioner of this form.

Moshe knew there was a way to convince G”d that the anger could be controlled. If G”d could be reminded of just how much G”d loved these stiff-necked, arrogant people, then this love might defuse the anger and allow it to ebb away.

This is a different reading of the text of Ex. 33:15-16. I know that in other musings on this parasha I have offered other interpretations. Most notably, Moshe's clever trickery in getting G”d to accompany the people by playing to G”d's ego and pride-how is it that we shall be known as G”d's special people if G”d does not go with us, in our midst? It's a clever ploy by Moshe-and it works! Moshe as G”d’s shrink.  Let that thought swirl around your head for a minute, while I go put in another load of laundry.

As I have said, there is another reading. Moshe is not trying to persuade G”d with a little psychology. No, Moshe is trying to remind G”d of the special feelings that G”d has for these people. Moshe knows that, reminded of this, the warmth of love will flow through G”d, G”d's anger will subside, and G”d will be able once again to be among the people without fear of lashing out at them in anger. Self anger management by situation avoidance. Anger management with the assistance of someone else to guide our thoughts and feelings into a better, more loving place.

I think I understand one reason why I had a snit fit today. I’m not presently married or in a relationship with anyone. I didn’t have that safe, secure relationship that would allow me to ask to be “talked down” from my fit of pique. (I have been known to call or text my significant others when I felt a fit of passive-aggressive pique coming on so they could help me calm down. It has always worked. It indicates, at least, some level of self-awareness, so I sometimes salve myself with that thought.)

This is the Homer Simpson moment, the “doh!” Stop and think about what you know, what you have lived, what you experienced, Adrian. You’ve hade counseling, belonged to self-help groups, you’ve experienced Al-Anon and Codependents Anonymous. You’re a Jewish educator and a practicing Jew. Where might I turn for that help in the absence of another human being? The answer was/is staring me in the face, and I didn’t/don’t see it. Hello, earth to Adrian. The word G”d has appeared in some form in this musing so far over fifty times! Yet not once had it occurred to me to turn my anger and frustration over to G”d, and let G”d “talk me down” from my heightened state of misplaced and probably inappropriate anger. That is, until now. Which leaves me in a bit of a causal loop. My own histrionic snit fit, my own passive-aggressiveness, at its worst, led me to a true moment of discovery, a religious epiphany. Sort of. The question also remain, what will I do next time? will I remember that I can turn to G”d, and do so?

Time to shift more laundry around. Hold on for a bit.

[Heavenly Ringtone] Hello, this is G”d. Compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness..

Me: Yeah, yeah, I know all that stuff. Can we skip the formalities? If You’ve got a minute I need Your help.

G”d: [You can almost hear the world weary sigh in the silence]

Me: I’ll take that as a yes. So I go downstairs to do the laundry and the dryer is broken and I start getting all upset and…

G”d: Calm down. Relax. Count to ten. Take a deep breath. Think “Slow to anger, slow to anger.” Now what is it that’s upsetting you?

Me: Oh, that’s clever! Count to “ten.” Ha-ha. Got it. Shouldn’t it be count to 613?

G”d: Stop deflecting. Oh, ha. Now I get it. Very funny, Mr. smarty-pants. A little humor never hurts. Feeling calmer yet?

Me: Why, yes. Yes, I do.

[Sound of mild snow thunder in the distance]

Me: Ah, yeah. How easily we forget our manners. Thanks, G”d!

G”d: Anytime.

I could have done that. I should have done that. (I know, all those 12-Step programs discourage saying “should.”)

Yes, the G”d of my understanding is a very imperfect G”d, but that doesn’t mean I can’t ask G”d for help when I need it. I’m going to have to ask myself why I wrote this whole diatribe about being alone and not in a relationship with anyone and not having anyone to call to calm me down, when all along I knew there was someplace to go for help. Is it lack of faith? Is it a fault of my current understanding of G”d? Or is it simply the human tendency to often not see what is right in front of us?

There’s danger of a spiral here. I could get so worked up about why I didn’t jump right to knowing that G”d could help calm me down that I work myself up into another fervor. So time to take the advice and slow down, breathe, count to ten (or 613,) relax. I selfishly write these musings to have just that impact upon me.

I must remember that. Sometimes, the raging passive-aggressive co-dependent in me insists that I write these musings for you, my dear readers. Truth is, I write them as much for me as for you. They are how I explore my faith, my world, my life, my Judaism. They are sometimes how I trick myself into looking at myself. Our Torah is so rich with text to explore, and text that gives us good tools for self-examination, for behavior modification (and a good dose of things not to do as well.)

I’m on my last load of laundry now. Oh, look what just showed up – the service truck come to fix the dryer in my part of the building. #$!!  Deep breath. Try a prayer, maybe. Ok, the Serenity Prayer might not be a classic Jewish prayer, but it works. That helps. I’m not so alone. There is someone to whom I can turn for help. I’m feeling better now.

I’ve still got to grapple with why the thought of asking G”d for help didn’t rise to the surface so quickly, but there’s plenty of time for that. For now, I’ll simply accept things as they are, and work to make things better. Lo alecha, and all that. This refers to both my passive-aggressive tendencies and what I think I will call not a lapse of faith, but a case of faith amnesia. I like that understanding of what I experienced. A little faith amnesia. Hey, I think that’s a better title for this musing, so I’ll go change it!  

This musing began as a reworking of my 2000 Ki Tissa musing Anger Management, and still contains a bit of what I wrote then, and a bit of a reworking of those thoughts. I closed then with these thoughts, which I will also use to close this year:

The booksellers can all go out and empty their self-help and pop-psychology from the bookshelves and warehouses. They can replace all those books with just one. Our holy Torah. If you turn it and turn it again, it is all in there. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About....Well, Everything!!
Do a little Torah turning of your own this Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester
(Portions ©2000.)

Other musings on this parasha:

Ki Tissa/Shabbat Parah 5773 - Fortune and Men's Eyes (Redux and Revised)
Ki Tisa 5772 - Other G"d?
Ki Tisa 5771 - Still Waiting for the Fire
Ki Tisa 5770 - A Fickle Pickle
Ki Tisa 5768-Not So Easy? Not So Hard!
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5767-New Hearts and New Spirits
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5766-Fortune and Men's Eyes
Ki Tisa 5765-Re-Souling Ourselves
Ki Tisa 5764-A Musing on Power Vacuums
Ki Tisa 5763-Shabbat is a Verb
Ki Tisa 5762-Your Turn
Ki Tisa 5760-Anger Management
Ki Tisa 5761-The Lesson Plan

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