Imagine yourself a writer with two books. You are waiting in line after an event to introduce yourself to the speaker. Someone in front of you was talking about a manuscript they have that no one will publish. You offer your card, saying you’ll introduce them to your agent for the book. After some more conversation on and off over the next 15 minutes, you walk away thinking, “They will never email me.”
You go on to construct a story in your head about everything wrong with this other person. You know Mussar enough to recognize a soul trait imbalance in the other, and weave that imbalance into your story. After all, they bragged to you that they already had one book out that sold more than 10,000 copies. You decide they would rather be a victim about their book and story, rather than taking ownership and opportunities for help.
You even find a text to back you up.
He who purifies himself will be assisted. One who sets out to defile himself will find the way open. (Yoma 38b)
You teach text all the time to help build resilience. When we are willing to reach out to others and ask for help to improve, help will be provided. But if we want to let ourselves go down a negative path, we have the free will to make those choices.
As you may have guessed by now, this is not a hypothetical example. I am describing an incident that happened recently, and those thoughts and reactions were my own.
I journaled about them, and a small warning bell went off in my head.
Greg, you are being awfully judgy.
Judging others is a big no no in a Mussar practice. The soul trait of Honor teaches us to be wary of judgements. So I asked myself a question: “What other explanation is there for this person’s actions? Maybe I did or said something that elicited their response.”
Here are a few things I noticed when I thought about our interactions in more detail:
- They never asked me for help or advice
- I inserted myself into their conversation several times as they spoke to different people
- The final time I inserted myself, I said something about writing 2 books, to which they responded about the success of their first book.
My entire perspective on the experience changed. I don’t know what their situation is, and frankly it isn’t any of my business. Offering help is a fine thing to do, but all the other stuff, including the story and judgements I constructed is the work of the Evil Inclination throwing me off track.
And it is an important reminder of the following teaching:
“Wisdom is what brings a person to conceit and haughtiness more than anything else, because it derives from a noble quality that is inherent in the person himself—the intellect.” –Rabbi Chaim Luzatto, Path of the Just
The tone of this quote is a bit harsh, but I don’t take it that way. My Mussar knowledge should not be used to judge other people. And I normally don’t push myself on others in that way. I find comfort that this mistake is made by many of the most wise.
And I am so thankful that I have this practice to help me learn and grow.
Want to give Mussar a try? Take the Soul Trait Quiz.
Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash