Journey into the High Holidays with Amichai Lau-Lavie, founder of Storahtelling and the spiritual leader of Lab/Shul. It’s a daily dose of inspiration to get you focused and ready for the new year, featuring daily intentions, simple tasks, and tools for living better.
I started making a list of the emotions I want to work on in preparation for the new year; anger came up first.
I’m not concerned with full-blown tantrums—those are rare—but I’m aware of recurrent growls of displeasure over this or that, which can elicit the kind of rage reaction that sparks a harsh email or conversation, which then requires an apology.
I’m not saying that it’s good to bottle up anger. Expression is better than repression, but still, I want to possess better control over my anger. I also want to explore where anger and other feelings come from, and what I can do to have fewer angry reactions and manage myself better, faster, and with compassion and a smile.
Just thinking about this Prepent task already helped me this morning: Did I just wake up on the wrong side of the bed, or did something happen between the time I woke up and a few hours later as I sat under a tree in a beautiful Southern Californian valley, on a gorgeous clear day, well-fed and taken care of, wanting to punch someone and scream with rage? Why was I so mad?
The official reason was that I was made to wait. I had an appointment, and the person I was meeting with was 30 minutes late. It wasn’t that big a deal, but we did have important stuff to discuss, and, as always, there’s never enough time. I watched myself grow more furious with each passing minute, noticing my clenched jaw and frustrated frown, angry with myself for getting so mad about such a minor offense.
I took a deep breath and a time out. Like we do with kids: Close your eyes and count to 10. And then, as a friend taught me just last week, I tried to interrogate this feeling with no judgment: why does waiting trigger my anger?
A quiet moment and the soul speaks up. The anger about wasting time and having to wait for someone else brought up the fear of being disrespected, the displeasure of being ignored, the possibility that something or someone else is more important than I am, and the pain of feeling less valued. No need for therapy right now or an examination of where all this comes from—it was just important to recognize the depth of my feelings, sit with it and breathe. I heard my friend’s words in my head and followed her instructions.
Rage, the Talmud tells us, is like worshipping idols. What I think that means is that even though it’s natural for us to get angry, and sometimes even appropriate, when we give in to rage we limit our ability to live to our highest selves, our so-called divine essence. Anger requires attention, moderation, patience, and maybe a hug. It comes from a deep source of need that should be respected before moving on.
By the time my meeting shows up, a few minutes later, and with an at least plausible excuse, I’m still angry, but the interrogation of the feeling helped me to calm down, unclench my jaw, and explain my frustration to her in a less-than-hostile tone that it made it possible for us to still have a productive meeting. By the end I was relaxed and smiling.
The task of dealing with, observing, and refining our emotional patterns may seem too daunting for a simple daily exercise during these days of Elul. It takes major therapy for change to occur, we’re often told. But even without Freud, these days provide a helpful structure for awareness and intention—a time to accept our failures, and reflect on the fact that we come back here, year after year, to get better at being human.
What’s the next emotion on the list?
Follow along with the Scroll’s daily Prepent series here.