Have you ever wondered why the plays of William Shakespeare are still being read and remain popular after four hundred years while most books written fifty years ago are already out of print? The answer is that they reveal reality. They teach how the world really works. Another way of describing it is to say they provide wisdom.
Information on the other hand is information. And never has information about anything been more available to anyone than it is today. But having access to information doesn’t mean making wise life decisions. For that, wisdom is needed. People with a great deal of information still commit acts of appalling brutality. Wisdom goes hand in hand with self-restraint.
Woodrow Wilson was an early twentieth century American president with a great deal of information but very little wisdom. Harry Truman was a mid-twentieth century America president with little education and information but considerable wisdom. (One could also imagine an American president with neither.)
In about six paragraphs, I could provide you with the information you need to extract more battery life from your mobile phone. I can give you the data necessary in order to navigate a small boat safely from the West Coast to Hawaii. It will take longer than two hours, but we could do it. However, try as I might, I cannot imagine what online information will stop people from losing their tempers. We don’t explode in angry outbursts because we lack data. We are yielding to our lower selves and are manifesting, as well as encouraging, character weakness.
Please note that I didn’t say that feeling anger is a character weakness—I said that acting upon that anger is.
Ancient Jewish wisdom critiques Moses’ anger on three occasions:
…and he was angry with Elazar and Itamar, the sons of Aaron…
And Moses was angry with the army officers…
…and Moses said to them, Why do you strive with me?…
Yet there were other occasions when Moses was not criticized for anger:
And Moses was very angry…
…and Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets…
…and Moses was angry with them…
What is the difference between these instances? In God’s blueprint for humanity, the problem is not that we experience anger. The problem is that we err, often with terrible consequences, when we act inappropriately in response to that anger.
It is worth noting that the Torah contains 365 negative commandments. That is to say that we are told not to do close to four hundred actions. Not even once are we prohibited from feeling anger. We are not even prohibited from displaying anger, especially as a carefully modulated communication for educational purposes. However, out-of-control emotional outbursts are poisonous. Acting in the grip of anger is seen as tantamount to idol worship.
It makes such sense that God doesn’t prohibit us from feeling anger. After all, sometimes good and proper conduct is fueled by righteous indignation. Sometimes anger at an injustice propels a necessary action. However, we are repeatedly warned that anger has the capacity to stimulate improper response.
We can train ourselves so that stimuli that at one time would have made us furious become a minor annoyance instead. We can even train ourselves to respond appropriately to a red haze of furious feeling. Controlling ourselves and avoiding acting inappropriately is a function of maturity and character strength, not of accessing information.
How do we achieve emotional maturity and self-control? That cannot take place through an online course, nor can it be accomplished in two hours. It takes constant practice and continual picking ourselves up after failure.
You see, every small triumph over childish indulgence strengthens character and makes the next challenge easier to overcome. Every failure sets one back and tempts us to give up. One of life’s greatest adventures is self-improvement. God gives us numerous opportunities each day, such as foolish politicians saying and doing silly things, to practice reacting appropriately (or perhaps not at all) to frustrating, annoying situations that seem designed to make us angry. Viewing these circumstances as self-improvement opportunities is the key. Viewing them as opportunities for becoming wiser makes them valuable.
Susan and my mission is sharing over 3,000 years of ancient Jewish wisdom to help people live more fully in all areas of life: family, finances, faith, friendship and fitness. Many of you have already joined our We Happy Warrior community where we constantly add valuable teachings. If you haven’t yet joined, may I invite you to look at our improved membership page?
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