Latest update: August 15th, 2013
As we begin the New Year it is with a sense of hope that we can avoid the painful arguments, hurtful remarks and misunderstandings which have harmed our relationships in the past. We seek to make amends with friends and family over the High Holidays and resolve that things will be different in the future. But moving forward, we may also wonder if we can really change patterns of relating that have been perpetuated for years or decades.
Many people recognize the power of affirmations to help create our reality, even if we don’t initially believe what we are saying. In a sense, by constantly affirming what we want to become, we create the motivation to actualize it. Of course, words alone have minimal impact if they are not concretized through actions.
What follows are ten affirmations to increase our ability to reduce or eliminate many of the contentious interactions we wish could have averted. With G-d’s help, they can provide a foundation for a more peaceful future for each of us as individuals and as part of the Jewish people.
1. I Place A Great Value On Maintaining Peaceful Relationships And Am Willing To Invest The Time And Effort To Actualize This Value.
We all say we want more peaceful relationships. But how much do we want them? If we really want a job, we might seek advice from mentors, study the field we are interested in, speak to people in the field, etc. This could require a lot of effort on our part, but it would be part of the price we pay to hopefully find a job/career that gives us satisfaction. Even if economic circumstances or industry trends prevent us from getting that job, at least we know we did all we could to make it happen.
So it is with creating a climate for peace. In this endeavor, the work could be reading books that outline ways to avoid conflict; preparing for encounters with difficult people by anticipating their behavior and strategizing in advance how to deal with them; seeking advice from a trusted friend and praying for the strength not to react with anger when our buttons are pushed the wrong way.
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes in his book, Harmony With Others: Formulas, Stories,
And Insights: “When you’ve integrated a love of peace, you will be willing to put in much energy and effort to attain it…How do you build up a love of peace? The same way you build up positive feelings toward another person: You focus on the virtues. The more virtues you see in someone, the more positively you will feel towards him. Reflect on the benefits and virtues of peace.
“A question to keep in mind is: If I had an intense love of peace, what would I be willing to say and do? So before getting involved in a quarrel, ask yourself: Compared to my ultimate purpose in life, how important is this…Will I regret that I did not quarrel when I look back at my entire life?”
2. I Accept Responsibility For My Words And Actions And Their Power To Create Peace Or Divisiveness.
In most arguments, it’s easy to look at our adversary and find one or more reasons why he/she is responsible for the acrimony between us. Indeed, these reasons may even be valid. But this focus prevents us from acknowledging our own role in the dispute and our power to change the destructive dynamic. On the other hand, accepting responsibility will allow us to seek alternative ways of dealing with the substance of the dispute. We will strive to use non-threatening language, moderate our tone of our voice, strive to see the other’s perspective, etc. As Dr. Richard Carlson noted in his best-selling book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…And It’s All Small Stuff: “In terms of personal happiness, you cannot be peaceful while at the same time blaming others. Surely there are times when other people and/or circumstances (contribute) to our problems, but it is we who must rise to the occasion and take responsibility for our own happiness.
“…This doesn’t mean that you don’t hold yourself accountable for their reactions, but that you hold yourself accountable for your own happiness and for your reactions to other people and the circumstances around you.”
3. I Accept That G-d May Bring Difficult People Into My Life To Help Me Grow In A Spiritual Direction.
If we are going through a difficult challenge and meet a compassionate stranger who helps us, it is easy to be grateful that G-d brought this person into our life. It’s much harder to thank G-d for the person who makes our life more stressful. However, this person may be an unwitting messenger to help us recognize a part of our character that needs to be addressed.
If I’m struggling to become more patient, perhaps the handyman I hired to fix a few things in my house will take a disproportionately long time to complete the job. If I resist giving charity, I may find myself swindled by an acquaintance who convinces me to invest in a scam. If I judge others harshly, I may find myself castigated by a friend who misinterprets an action I took.
Of course, this does not mean these people are unaccountable for their behavior. No one can excuse his or her negative actions by saying it’s ultimately for someone else’s character development. But at the same time, we can still search for a deeper meaning in the way others act towards us. While we still need to respond to inappropriate behavior from others, our internal anger can be tempered by an awareness of the bigger picture. As Rabbi Tzvi Freeman writes in his book Bringing Heaven Down To Earth:
”Know that all that befalls you comes from a single Source…. And although this person who insulted you, or hurt you, or damaged your property–he is granted free choice and is culpable for his decision to do wrong—(T)hat is HIS problem. That it had to happen to YOU—that is between you and the One Above.”
4. I Examine My Motives When Disagreeing With Another And Am Willing To Receive Guidance To Gain A More Objective Perspective.
Sometimes when there is a disagreement about money, one or both of the parties will declare, “It’s not about the money. It’s about the principle of the matter.” But a neutral person viewing the dispute may think otherwise. The reality is that when our interests are at stake, our mind will consciously or unconsciously seek out arguments that support what we really want.
For example, I want you to invest in my business venture, so your reservations about the economy seem overstated. I am upset about an argument with a friend, so your comments about his positive characteristics are dismissed. I hate to get up early, so my co-worker who suggests an 8:00 a.m. meeting is met with my reasons why it would be better to meet at 11:00 a.m. instead.
The Torah declares that a judge is prohibited from taking a bribe. Fair enough, but what if one takes the money with the intent of judging the case simply on its merits? The bribe is still forbidden because its affect can be so powerful, it can sway a person’s judgment no matter what his or her stated intentions.
So what can two people in an argument do when their own internal “bribes” have been part of their lives for years? At the least, they can seek the opinion of objective outsiders who can see the matter more clearly. Even if the other party doesn’t want to, we can seek out such advice on our own and clarify how our personal bias is affecting our judgment. We can also spend a greater amount of time and introspection determining our true motivations.
5. I Will Treat Myself With Respect And Compassion.
Much of the emotional baggage that exacerbates conflict comes not from the other person, but from within ourselves. To become happier and more secure people, we need to become more adept at changing the unhealthy way of communicating. This process begins by treating ourselves with a spirit of respect and compassion.
For example, if we come at an adversary with a barrage of angry and sarcastic remarks, it could be because our own ego is too fragile to accept we might have made a mistake. We may have a relentless inner critic just waiting to say that we are too stupid, naïve, lazy or some other negative thought triggered by the argument. Our defensive response may very well be a way of staving off that internal critic rather than an attack on the other person.
But what if we could replace this critic with a more compassionate voice that reassures us when our vulnerabilities are being exposed? As Dr. Dovid Lieberman, author of Seek Peace And Pursue It: Proven Strategies To Resolve Conflicts In Relationships, has noted:
“Accepting who we are is not the same as approving of our mistakes. When we accept ourselves, we embrace the truth of our imperfection. To see oneself as less than perfect is honest and healthy. Insisting that we are perfect is dishonest and healthy.
“The dual themes of acceptance and approval exist in our relationships as well. We often confuse acceptance and approval, where if we do not approve of another’s actions, we cannot accept him. This erroneous thinking not only negates the concept of unconditional love, and results in strained relationships, but also impairs our ability to accept ourselves—faults and all.”
6. I Will Treat Others With Respect And Compassion.
By being in touch with our own humanity and being sympathetic to our own vulnerabilities, we are in a position to extend that gift to others, even if we disagree with them on a particular issue. A key component in doing so is discussed in Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:
“Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel…
“Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart…You’re focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul…
“When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air. And after that vital need is met, you can then focus on influencing or problem solving.
“The need for psychological air impacts communication in every area of life.”
7. I Will Seek To Understand Another’s Point Of View Even When I Think It’s Wrong.
Sometimes our ego is so consumed with the truth of its position, there is little room to truly appreciate another’s perspective. The idea of creating space for such a perspective can be threatening. Perhaps we believe that entertaining such ideas will somehow take away from our argument and strengthen the position of our ideological adversary. Or maybe we’re afraid that we ourselves will be “taken in” by a position with which we strongly disagree.
But of course, understanding is different than accepting or agreeing with a point of view. I can believe that the death penalty is immoral, but still articulate why others would feel differently. I can see a business proposal as foolhardy, yet still come to understand why the person suggesting it could support it. Ironically, when the other party sees that he is really being heard, he can then respond in kind.
The result can save each party wasted time and energy trying to convince the other person why he or she is “wrong.” As Rabbi Pliskin humorously puts it:
“When you find yourself in a conflict with someone, focus on finding solutions. This is in contrast to thinking and speaking in terms of blaming…The person on the receiving end of this blaming rarely responds: ‘You’re right. It’s all my fault. I’ll act better from now on.’ ‘My negative traits are truly negative. I’ll work on refining my character and then the root will be taken care of and we’ll get along.’ ‘…I’ll switch my entire way of thinking, speaking and acting to the way that you do and then we’ll have peace’…Whenever you find yourself in a conflict, ask yourself, ‘What can I say or do that might be a solution to the problem?’” 8. I Will Be Sensitive To My State Of Mind And That Of Others Before Discussing A Contentious Issue.
At the end of a heated argument where hurtful words are said, one or both parties may seek to make amends by explaining that they were under stress, deprived of sleep or simply in a bad mood. The recipient of our anger may say they understand, but often the damage done is not so easily repaired. In retrospect, a simple delay in dealing with an issue could have avoided such harm. Except for time-sensitive emergencies, waiting until a time when both parties are in a better emotional state will have a positive impact that supercedes whatever value could be obtained by discussing something in the moment.
Dave and a friend were on a camping trip. At one point Dave began hurrying to prepare dinner. When his friend asked why he was rushing, Dave remarked that it was getting dark and there were things which needed to be taken care of before nightfall. The friend realized that Dave did not know he was still wearing tinted sunglasses and it was making Dave believe it was much darker than it really was.
When we are feeling low, our perspective is often like that of Dave, and our interactions with others will reflect that “darker” misperception of reality. To make matters worse, part of our low mood may create an impatience to “talk things out” or “get to the bottom of things” right away. Resisting that temptation can be the difference between a successful resolution of an issue or a trail or resentment and regret. As Dr. Richard Carlson puts it: “Your own moods can be extremely deceptive. They can, and often do, trick you into believing your life is far worse than it really is…When you’re in a good mood, relationships seem to flow and communication is easy. If you are criticized, you take it in stride.
“On the contrary, when you’re in a bad mood, life looks unbearably serious and difficult. You have very little perspective. You take things personally and often misinterpret those around you, as you impute malignant motives into their actions…
“The truth is, life is almost NEVER as bad as it seems when you’re in a low mood. Rather than staying stuck in a bad temper, convinced you are seeing life realistically, you can learn to question your judgment. Remind yourself, ‘Of course I’m feeling defensive (or angry, frustrated, stressed, depressed); I’m in a bad mood. I always feel negative when I’m low.’ A low mood is not the time to analyze your life. To do so is emotional suicide. If you have a legitimate problem, it will still be there when your state of mind improves…”
9. I Can Choose To Accept Life On Life’s Terms.
Many of our arguments are often the result of our being upset that events are not unfolding the way we would like. Our car breaks down and we yell at the mechanic who promised us the car was fixed. We miss a deadline at work and take out our frustration on our spouse when we get home. A child comes home with a bad report card and we lash into him or her for not doing better.
Dealing with the difficulties of day-to-day life, large and small, cause us to feel various degrees of anger – depending on much of our vision of how things should be has been disturbed. But such an emotional state doesn’t solve the problem and often makes it worse by damaging relationships and hurting those we love the most.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski is a doctor who has worked with alcoholics for many years and believes that each of us can exhibit the behavior of an addict in times of stress. While we may never act out by misusing a substance, our anger can seem as addictive as alcohol or drugs when things don’t go our way. In that sense, we can benefit from the suggestions in various “12 Step” programs. An oft cited passage from the primary treatise outlining the plan of Alcoholics Anonymous can be quite helpful if we remember it before our emotions take over:
”And acceptance is the answer to ALL my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation—some fact of my life—unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly as it is supposed to be at this moment.
“Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in G-d’s world by mistake…Unless I accept life on life’s terms I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.”
10. By Acting More Peacefully With Others, I Can Help To Achieve Peace With Israel And The World.
It is easy to feel frustrated when confronted by global problems, including Iran’s nuclear program or terrorism. We may support particular political, economic or military options we think can make a difference. But deep down, we realize that our true source of protection is G-d. Practical measures are certainly necessary, but their success or failure ultimately depends on Divine assistance. As Rabbi Yaakov Solomon wrote shortly after the 9/11 attacks:
“In the back of our minds, we probably all reserve some space for the possibility that G-d truly runs the world; not kings, presidents, prime ministers, or terrorists. But the fact is that we are human, and we forget….(T)he time has come to lift our spiritual cataracts. The only way the script is going to change is if we resolve to do something about it…(I)t is only when we stop vilifying our leaders, solely blaming our enemies, and worshipping the media…and begin to seriously look at OURSELVES, that this madness is really going to stop. Nothing else can, or will work. The time has come.”
It is not easy to change ways of relating to others and it’s an ongoing process of affirming and putting into practice the values stated above. But the rewards are worth it, not only for ourselves, but the Jewish people, as we seek to fulfill our mission in creating a peaceful world for all of humanity.
About the Author: Gary Tolchinsky works at a consulting firm in New Jersey. He is a graduate of Columbia Law School, where he studied mediation and alternative dispute resolution. He is on the Advisory Board of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and is founder of the website jewishbooksforpeace.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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