אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר, הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי טז) טוֹב אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם מִגִּבּוֹר וּמשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ מִלֹּכֵד עִיר.
Who is the mighty one? He who conquers his impulse, as it says, “slowness to anger is better than a mighty person and the ruler of his spirit than the conqueror of a city.” (Proverbs 16:32).
Ethics of the Fathers 4:1
Western culture is filled with self-help literature in a way that many other cultures would probably find confusing. Why would you need a book, website, podcast, or coach to help you navigate your life? Conversations with friends, neighbors, and family typically provide all the wisdom and insight that daily life requires, and if you need extra counsel, you could always speak with a community elder, religious leader, or your mother-in-law, if you are desperate.
In these places, wisdom comes from lifeways that have been handed down through generations, slowly and imperceptibly adapting themselves to gradually altered circumstances. It comes from relationships, experiences, and stories. It comes from art and music. It rarely comes from a book. We need self-help because we are disconnected from many of these sources of wisdom. Few of us spend time exploring music, poetry, and art. It is much less common for us to spend quality time with friends, neighbors, and family members, because we live apart and work so much. Our relationships become about remaining connected, rather than sharing stories and trading wisdom.
In the quote above, the wisdom being offered is a kind of self-help. It suggests the fundamental truth that most of what blocks us from success comes from within ourselves, rather than from external circumstances. Situational factors matter, of course, but when we turn our attention to removing the stumbling blocks that we place in our own paths, we are vastly improving our chances of growing and learning. This is part of what we do in our social-emotional curriculum at Gesher. We help children consider their choices, and help them understand the impact those choices have on their experiences.
This is powerful work, as it let’s children know that they do indeed have the ability to effect themselves and those around them. They have power and the attendant responsibility to use it wisely, because our actions are ultimately the only things any of us truly have the ability to direct. That sounds like a lot to lay on a six year old, but we believe that if you do this with sensitivity, and within the boundaries provided by caring adults, that learning to move through choices without yielding to impulse is one of the most important skills an adult in our world can acquire. We don’t expect them to succeed every time, and it is their failures that allow us to actually consider outcomes with greater meaning.
This Shabbat, I encourage you to share a negative impulse or tendency of your own with your child, and talk about what you do internally to wrestle with it. Ask your child what kinds of choices they’ve made that they wish they hadn’t, and what they learned from that.