“I would never do something like that,” I have thought to myself, probably at least a thousand times. Whether it was small, like not following up, or something big, like lying and cheating, there have been too many occasions on which I’ve been severely let down or deceived or hurt. But of course, that was only everyone else. I had never done anything – ever – even remotely related to what those people had done. Except, you know, maybe that one time, but that was different. And, OK, so maybe I did, and OK, so maybe it was more than once.
So while I could go on for a long time about everyone else I think should change in some way, I realize that the only person I can change is myself, so that’s probably the place to start.
For someone looking to be a better person, there are a million and one books, programs, philosophies, etc. offering paths to self-improvement and/or finding happiness. You can go on a soul-finding trip across the world, you can take up a new hobby, go to bed earlier, and get more exercise, you can do yoga and meditate. And any of those might work for you, but I wanted to seek a different approach.
And at the same time, I felt somewhat perplexed about why the question of becoming a better person wasn’t more of the purview of the Judaism I participated in. Sure, there are prescribed mitzvot to do, and by doing them I should make a positive change in the world, but at least in my daily life, I didn’t feel like praying at shabbat services and keeping kosher was making me kinder, nor was mingling at Jewish happy hours making me more compassionate. And I started to think, was there really no facet of Judaism that spoke to what I felt?
But then I discovered that there was: a movement called Mussar. The basic premise of Mussar is to refine a number of traits. What makes it Jewish is that it is based on finding and cultivating the characteristics of the divine that we are imbued with within ourselves with the goal of eventually projecting them outward, to reach our fullest potential, as we were created to by the divine. For each trait, there is a spectrum, and the goal is to find the middle path, between either extreme.
Having discovered this approach, I’ve decided it is time for me to take it on and see what I learn from my experiences. And, dear readers, you too will get to learn from my endeavor, as I will be sharing my experiences as I endeavor on them. The prescribed approach is to pick 13 traits that are particularly problematic for you and focus on each for one week. In the interest of having time to write, I will do one per month. Along with each trait, I will identify tasks, and I will journal to try to see how that trait plays out in my daily life. The prescribed approach also calls for meditation, which is beyond my capacity at the moment, as well as supplementary reading and study, and I’ll do my best on that front.
The traits that I plan to tackle are: patience, gratitude, compassion, equanimity, honor, simplicity, enthusiasm, silence, generosity, truth, loving kindness, trust, and faith.
For this coming month, I will focus on patience. Taking a cue from Alan Morinis in his book on Mussar, Everyday Holiness, I seek to, “…walk a middle path, not leaning to the one extreme of being inactive and fatalistic – because that way I negate the powers I do have, limited though they might be – nor veering to the other, where impatience reigns.” To start, I’ll try to not freak out when I don’t get responses to emails. And I’ll try to refrain from running red lights and stop signs while biking, and maybe even from yelling obscenities at cars and pedestrians who happen to be blocking my way. But I’m curious to see where I find opportunities for patience pop up once I’m looking for them.
I’ll be back next month to let you know how that goes. In the meantime, what could you be more patient about?