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  • Rabbi Mordecai Finley

Training the Emotions


Here is the problem with empathy, for example: when you are truly being empathetic, you have to give up a part of yourself, even if only for a little while. You have to give up your own perspective. We all have a natural resistance to giving up our view of things, even if only for a few moments.

Our senses of self are hard won. Many of us have had to fight hard to get where we have gotten. We have dealt with issues with our parents and many of us have dealt with tough times in school or other parts of our lives. It is not easy to make a living for many of us. You have developed your ideas about right and wrong over a long time. You believe certain things about people and how things should be done. When someone acts against your ideas, and it affects you, of course you want to judge them. Judging others is a core part of what makes us human. Judging others is more natural than empathy, for many of us.

Even people who say we should not judge others are judging others. They are telling someone else what they should or should not do.

If you have any sense of right and wrong, of course you judge others. I call this "using our moral judgment." People who refuse to judge are sometimes just cowards. They don't want to take a stand.

I do distinguish between using moral judgment and "judgmentalism." I hate to butcher the English language like this, but this word works for me. "Judgmentalism" for me means judging others unnecessarily. There are people who walk around always vigilant about what other people are doing, saying, wearing, driving and seem to always have a negative comment. I call this the "complaining brain." They like to see what is wrong with everyone else. I think that most of the rest of us want to stay away from these types.

Let's say you are one of those who has a pretty good moral grasp of the world. Your sense of right and wrong is intact. You don't believe in slogans that people throw around. You try to think for yourself, based on what you think the best way to live is.

You will always run across people that live life according to some other set of rules. It might be the person you are partnered with, it might be the family in which you grew up. It might be at work, or some social or communal environment. We all have the habit of exercising our moral judgment and decide that what another person is thinking, saying or doing, is wrong.

At times, it is better, for at least a little while, that we suspend our judgment and try to have empathy. Having empathy does not mean you have to agree with another person. You might end up agreeing with them, but maybe not. Having empathy takes the edge off of our judgment. Having empathy, seeing the world through another person's eyes, can help us to judge without the hostility.

I think we all know that empathy at times is good. I have seen lots of YouTube videos on how important it is to know that other people are different from us, that they have an entirely different life experience and perception of the world from ours. These videos encourage empathy. These videos get thousands of "likes." We get inspired not to let our using good moral judgment slide over into judgmentalism - unnecessarily finding things wrong with others.

I wish inspiration from YouTube videos created change. Being inspired is like a little bud of a plant peeking up through the earth, wanting to grow. Strong wind or rain comes along, maybe a dry spell, and that little bud is wiped out. Those storms and dry spells are the thoughts, feelings and emotions that come soon after you were inspired, that wash away or wilt that bud of inspiration.

Think about this. You watch that inspiring video on empathy, and you show it to someone because you think it is so great. This other person thinks it is dumb. What do you do? You judge. Perhaps you are a little upset. You try to persuade them why the video on empathy is so great. You don't realize that you are doing the opposite of what the video you liked is actually recommending.

YouTube videos can inspire, but then you have to train, just like learning a sport or to play a musical instrument or mastering any skill worth doing.

Working with the emotions is the same thing. Just about everyone gets inspired to be better, but they don't realize that it actually takes hours of dedicated and skillful introspection to change the way you think and feel.

Those hours of training produce amazing benefits. We think more clearly. We are calmer. We are more rational. We gain perspective. We spend more time being happy and less time angry or depressed. We become wiser, not just older.

Match your inspiration with a dedication to train.


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