The root cause of many issues in my life goes back to how I relate to others. It show up for me in judging others, respect issues, craving recognition, and just good old fashioned not thinking about the impact of my words and actions on others. In Mussar terms, this means that an Honor imbalance is at the core of my spiritual curriculum.
Before I go on, a side note about Mussar practice. I have been doing this for seven years, and part of the practice is self knowledge without feeling shame. I don’t write the litany above to beat myself up – rather it is a recognition of a reality of tendencies in me. If left unchecked, they would have gotten worse instead of better. More on that later.
So it is interesting, and not a coincidence, that three of my Mussar groups have independently converged on practicing Honor.
In the Mussar For Men men’s group, we discussed the assumption that we all have a Divine Spark occluded by our baggage. If you are unsure of the Divinity, think of it as the core of goodness in everyone, the common spark of humanity that we are all born with, and can never be taken away. The baggage are those hurts and societal influences that make it hard to see our own spark, and the spark of others.
Someone objected, asking “What about horrible people?” Later, the idea of “finding the good in anyone” came up. Here, the objections became even stronger. Someone said, “I need to find the good in a monster who harms children?” And many found it challenging to Honor parents who have been very hurtful in the past or in the present.
If you can’t find the good in someone because they are a horrible person, don’t beat yourself up. The Path of The Just, by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto outlines a path towards becoming a saintly person, a mensch among mensches. Finding the good in a child molester, or in someone who has harmed us terribly, may be beyond where we are today.
However, before you jump on this as a means to cop out of looking for the good in a “horrible” person you know, ask yourself why you think they are a horrible person. Is this person horrible because they have hurt children, or because they voted for or against the current President? Did they order genocide, or repeatedly torpedo your ideas at work?
It is critical to focus on a person’s behavior, and not to label them broad brush as a bad person. Most people have some good that we can find. When we do, it changes us. You’ll find your entire energy shifts, towards a calm that lets you choose an appropriate and measured response.
To help you find the good in anyone, I suggest the following Mussar Practice.
***************Here’s The Mussar Practice****************
Praise three people a day. The praise should be heartfelt, and not empty flattery. I learned this practice the first time I was working on Honor, as part of the Everyday Holiness class from the Mussar Institute. As I’ll explain below, it was anything but easy for me.
In fact, I could not do it. I could praise my pets, I could praise people for their clothes, I could thank people, but I could not give praise in any other way. This was true for both strangers, and people in my own home.
It was the first time I came face to face with my spiritual curriculum. I realized that what I though was a Humility issue was actually an Honor issue for me. I felt bad, although more than anything, I felt shock that I just couldn’t do it. If I hadn’t tried it, I would not have known I needed work in this area.
Don’t worry too much about the people at the extremes. Start with people near you, and move towards more difficult people until you find where your limits are today.
If you find it hard to look for the good in a monster, or a parent who has harmed you, that is ok. You may not be ready to go there.
The more important question is where you are today. Seven years ago, I could not Honor regular people by giving heartfelt and deserved praise.
In one of my groups, I shared the story above, and someone suggested I try the practice again. I quaked with terror at the thought, but I never say no to a suggested Mussar practice that fits with the soul trait I’m working on. Especially one that scares or repels me.
Good news: I have tried the practice again this week, and I am better at it!
Yes, we can get better. When you start to walk the path, you’ll be surprised at how far you can go.
I really hope you’ll try this Mussar practice to find the good in anyone . Taking action is the key to changing the heart.
When it comes to Honoring others, what is your biggest challenge?
You can read some excerpts about Honor for free from my book The Spiritual Practice Of Good Actions here.
Image credit: Photo of the original painting by Pablo Picasso: `Girl before a mirror`Zoltan Tarlacz | Dreamstime.com