Visualize the flame of a match touching a fuse. See how the flame moves to touch off the fuse. Now, in your mind’s eye, imagine the flame moving more slowly toward the fuse. Next, try to picture yourself in control of the flame, in charge of how quickly, or how slowly, the flame will ignite the fuse. You, and you alone, can control when the explosion will occur.
The flame represents your anger. The explosion is your anger engulfing those around you. You, and you alone, can control how and when your anger will affect yourself and other people.
Recently, I was challenged by a situation of escalating anger to the point where in the past I probably would have exploded and unraveled a very long friendship. My friend and I went to a concert that meant a lot to me—one I had waited a very long time to attend. About ten minutes into the performance, my friend began to complain about the venue and the music and insisted we leave. We got up, and as we were walking out, I felt my anger welling up. I began to visualize the match and the fuse…and soon calmed down. My friendship was more important than a concert. I could always go to another concert.
* * *
Though I love my life—being married, raising children—still, with a demanding job and many bills, it can be tiring and stressful. Sometimes I find it difficult to cope, to reign in my temper and emotions. Mussar exercises have strengthened my self-discipline, allowing me to recognize and control those parts of my character which otherwise make daily life more difficult or uncomfortable. When I feel myself becoming angry, I visualize the match touching the fuse. Just the act of creating this mental picture is often enough to slow me down, buying me the few seconds I need to think before I allow myself to react.
Most responses to emotional triggers are automatic. Through Mussar I’ve come to understand that destructive responses to myself or others can be transformed into actions that produce positive results.
Mussar is the Jewish way to become that ideal good soul, a real mensch.
Henry Wodnicki is a surgeon and member of Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach, Florida. To read the full text of his story visit www.reformjudaismmag.org.