Using Our Free Will Effectively
The image we carry of ourselves is key
Free will and teshuvah, Rabbi Akiva Tatz points out in Will, Freedom and Destiny, are inextricably connected. Free will is the precondition for teshuvah. As Rambam writes, "Since a person has free will... he should strive to do teshuvah...." While all mitzvos require intention, with respect to teshuvah, "an act of will itself constitutes the mitzvah." That is why, Rabbi Tatz suggests, Rambam includes his discussion of free will within the laws of teshuvah.
Our free will allows us to become creators of ourselves, and thus to bind ourselves to the Creator in His Image. That relationship would be impossible if our actions were compelled and not the fruits of our decisions. For then nothing about us would be intrinsically ours, or worthy of connection to the Divine.
Dr. Dovid Lieberman's How Free Will Works: The Blueprints to Take Charge of Your Life, Health, and Happiness offers numerous practical suggestions for strengthening our free will and utilizing it more effectively so that we can become the people we seek to be. The common element is that all the recommendations require advanced planning and preparation. The more the better.
In one experiment described in Lieberman's book, two groups were encouraged to exercise more regularly, but one group was told to create detailed plans for doing so and the other left to their own devices. The former group succeeded 91 percent of the time; the latter group about 20 percent.
The Chazon Ish writes that the one overriding middah that a Torah Jew must possess is self-control. The opposite of self-control is anger, which makes it impossible to think rationally. Why, for instance, did the Egyptians continue hitting the frogs during the second plague, even though doing so only caused the frogs to multiply many times over? The Steipler answered simply: They were angry, and when one is angry he cannot think straight.
With every action — whether positive or negative — we create neural pathways, Dr. Lieberman explains, and make more likely the repetition of the same response in similar circumstances. Every angry outburst in the name of letting off steam makes the next explosion more likely. The trick to making the negative responses — e.g., anger — less likely is to break those pathways.
Athletes speak of the need "to slow the game down" in the midst of fast-moving competition, and we need to do the same in everyday life. Visualization is one means. For instance, imagine potentially stressful situations and responding calmly. Dr. Lieberman cites studies that such visualization techniques can be almost as effective as actual exercises in changing muscle reactions.
The image we carry of ourselves is key. If our self-image is that of a calm person, then we are more likely to act accordingly. So when klopping al cheit over every loss of temper in the preceding year, be sure to include plenty of memories of acting with control in the face of provocation as well.
A major part of advanced planning is identifying potential temptations and pitfalls. Rabbi Tatz quotes the Gemara (Bava Basra 57b), which discusses the case of a man whose journey will take him past women washing laundry in the river, and who may not be modestly dressed. Even if he passes by and averts his gaze, if he had an alternative route, he failed the test of choosing the path of least temptation.
Keeping a journal — e.g., of the number of times checking one's e-mails or sites visited — is an effective tool in changing behavior. Dieters who kept a food journal of everything eaten lost on average twice as much weight over a six-month period as those who did not. The journal also allows the discovery of recurrent patterns. If the store-bought desserts left over from Shabbos prove irresistible, throw them out. (More discretion is required with respect to your wife's homemade brownies.) A journal also prevents overemphasis on a single failure that can result in binge eating.
Not only does planning help us attain specific goals, but the more structure we achieve in our lives, the greater our overall self-control. While we can increase our self-control over time, our capacity for resistance to temptation is not unlimited. Dr. Lieberman cites studies showing that resisting temptation may deplete our reserves of willpower and make us more vulnerable to the next temptation. An ordered life, however, helps prevent depletion of our decision-making energy by lessening the number of ordinary decisions to be made.
When I read that, I thought of a friend who has not missed a haneitz minyan in over 30 years. He dissipates no wasted energy every morning deciding which of the available minyanim to attend.
I once asked a young man who had been Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky's hausbochur what he had seen in Reb Yaakov's home. He replied, "Nothing, absolutely nothing." Everything had been worked out decades before. And that was no doubt the source of Reb Yaakov's fabled calm. Being with him, said one close associate, was like traveling in a luxury car. You did not feel you were moving.
The difference between a minor and a responsible adult, I once heard from Rav Ariev Ozer, lies not in their capacity for daas, but in their capacity for gemiras daas, making a final decision and being able to stick to it. May some of these tips help us turn our Yom Kippur kabbalos into reality.
As far as I am aware I don't have any real enemies or harbor enmity toward anyone. But I confess that there was one fellow with whom I frequently davened whose presence in the minyan would distract however slightly from my concentration.
I don't remember exactly when I became aware of that aversion. Perhaps it was when he commented for all to hear one day that my column the previous week was "shtuyot (nonsense), like everything you write." Once I made the mistake of occupying a seat he had temporarily vacated — not his makom kavua — and received an earful about taking other people's seats.
Shortly after the latter incident, I was walking with my wife on Shabbos and I saw the fellow in question on the sidewalk ahead of us. I quickly motioned to my wife that we should move into the street, as I had no desire to be seen by him.
Two days later, I was going into the doctors' office to pick up some prescriptions when I saw him getting out of a cab, with the assistance of the cabdriver, looking badly shaken.
When I came out of the doctors' office a few moments later, he was sitting on the curb. I considered just passing by — the verbal altercation in shul was still fresh. But instead I asked him whether there was anything I could do to help, and he replied that he was waiting for his wife to get there.
I told him I had seen him getting out of the cab, and asked what had happened to him. He answered that he had taken a fall while walking on a busy street in a distant neighborhood. We chatted for about five minutes about nothing in particular, such as whether he was still riding a bicycle. Eventually his wife arrived, and I wished him a refuah sheleimah and started walking away. I had gone five or six steps, when he called out after me, "I'm sorry about what happened in shul."
For weeks thereafter, I would ask him how he was doing. And our relationship today is perfectly cordial.
Obviously, I mention this incident now because of its connection to Yom Kippur. Chazal instruct us to be forthcoming in our forgiveness, and add as an incentive that as we judge others so will Hashem judge us. I'm also aware of the abundant psychological evidence for the beneficial effects of letting go of past grudges.
But the truth is I needed none of those incentives. The pure elation of overcoming my yetzer hara, even before he called out to me, was sufficient in itself. I felt like a burden had been lifted from my shoulders