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Who's the Boss?

Who's the Boss?

Nearly all anger is rooted in the thought that "I can control the situation."


In 1986, scientists at the Harvard Medical School tested the psychological well-being of 1,305 men. Using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2), which includes a section designed to quantify anger, the scientists gave each participant a score that indicated his level of anger and hostility. The men returned for comprehensive medical examinations every seven years, at which time they were checked for heart disease.

When the study began, all the participants were healthy; but during the seven years of observation, 110 of them developed heart disease. The men with the highest anger scores were at the greatest risk for developing heart disease. And the risk was substantial: heart disease was diagnosed three times more often in the most angry men than in the least angry men.

These statistics are frightening, but anger can be overcome.

Changing Our Nature

Nearly all anger is rooted in the thought that "I can control the situation." This thought leads us to form mental images of what should be happening to us and how other people ought to treat us. When these expectations are not fulfilled, we become angry.

This concept is clearly illustrated by parent-child relationships. Perhaps one of the reasons people so frequently find themselves angered by their children is that parents have such profound feelings of control over them. Having brought them into the world and having provided them with everything they need – clothes, food, schooling – a parent feels he "owns" his children, just as he owns a piece of property. Since he has mental images of how they should behave, he becomes frustrated when they act up.

Of course, it is a parent's responsibility to educate his children and make certain that they behave properly, but at the end of the day, children have their own free will. If they disobey, the correct response is not unrestrained anger, but another attempt to calmly teach them better. Even when the best way to teach them is through showing anger, it is meant to be an external, premeditated show of anger, never a real, inner, spur-of-the-moment anger.

Besides persuading himself that he controls other people, a person also imagines that he controls his time. That is why nothing rattles a person more than when his meticulously planned schedule goes awry. We can all relate to the frustration of missing a plane or watching the clock tick by as we wait for a friend, knowing that our time for lunch together is getting shorter and shorter. Convinced that he has some kind of ownership over his time, he becomes irritated when faced with the stark reality that he is not really in charge after all.

Who's Really in Charge?

Since anger is often rooted in issues of control, one way to overcome anger is to come to terms with the reality that we are not in control of our lives – God is. As King Solomon, said, "Man makes many detailed plans, but the counsel of God alone prevails." Life demands flexibility; to be able to adjust easily from one's envisaged plans to those of the Master Planner is a key element in conquering anger and calmly dealing with the unexpected.

What matters most is not whether he arrives on time, but whether he is the best person he can be along the way.

Once a person understands and accepts that God is in control, a large amount of anger can be eliminated from his life. But this knowledge also helps overcome anger in another way, namely, by changing the focal point. Instead of focusing solely on the outcome – that things didn't turn out as expected – one thinks more about the intermediate steps. Take, for example, being late for a meeting or wedding: When running behind schedule, the reason a person finds himself angry with anyone who gets in his way is that he is concentrating exclusively on the end result of being on time. He views the preceding steps – the process of getting there – as inconsequential and, therefore he is frustrated when they don't go as planned.

When one bears in mind that God is in control, his perspective changes, for he realizes that the end result is not in his own hands, but in God's. One who is late no longer gets annoyed, as he understands that what matters most is not whether he arrives on time, but whether he is the best person he can be along the way.

When a person expects frustrations and mentally prepares himself for them, he is capable of managing almost any challenge. The reason people are so frequently frustrated is that they are not expecting the test. They think only of the end result – getting to the meeting on time or being ready for Shabbos – and view any obstacle along the way as a nuisance. But the "obstacle" is not an obstacle at all; it's the main point of the event. Facing that challenge and conquering our undesirable character traits gives meaning to our lives.

This article is an excerpt from Rabbi Roth's new book, Relevance: Pirkei Avos for the Twenty-First Century. Taking selections from Ethics of the Fathers, the book shows how the classic text of Pirkei Avos pertains to the modern world, and is as vibrant and contemporary as if it was written today.

June 21, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 9

(9) raymond bastarache, June 25, 2008 3:56 PM


thank you , I learned A VERY VALUABLE lesson....also be angry and sin not? angry at the sin,not the person you guys.keep up the good work.......

(8) sjhepner, June 23, 2008 11:15 PM

Too much of anything will make you sick..

Tru, too much anger levels, make you very sick.. but enough anger can point you in the right direction.. ie the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Moses killing the Egyptian taskmaster, and Abraham shatterring his fathers idola snd statues, then hot footing it down to the promised land..

What about the anger of Mattathias at Modiin, when he killed the Jewish traitor, and thenstarted a 25 year battle against the Seleucid Greeks, and thus saving Judaism and Mankind from Paganism..

Anger, definitely has its place...

(7) Liora, June 23, 2008 9:30 PM

to Ilan


The fact that G-D is in control and that human beings have free will are not in contradiction to one another. G-D controls WHAT happens, but we have the free will to decide HOW we respond to the situation placed before us. For example, it is G-D's will that I will be stuck in traffic, but it is my CHOICE to get angry about it.

Just a thought :)

(6) tzippy, June 23, 2008 5:31 PM


I was born innately with a lack of anger. I don't know why, just fortunate or blessed. I often turn the other cheek or step around events and situations that are geared to stir me to anger. While I will stand up for myself, will challenge a wrong that I perceive, I do so without anger. When things do not go my way, I shrug my shoulders and say, that must be the way it was supposed to go! (the Plan?)

I have been involved for some time with a man who is very quick to anger for the very reasons you describe. The exact opposite of me. He has an expectation, often unreasonable or ill-defined, and then becomes angry when the outcome does not meet the expectation. It is all about control with him. I know that he feels out of control about other aspects of his life. Therefore, he attempts to control me in order to regain some sense of control. I do understand this, but I learned long ago, that what you seek the hardest to control will a) become resistant to that control (laws of opposition), thus leading to b) anger when one does not gain the control desired. When one seeks too desparately to control, then really the need for control is controlling one!

I love this man with all my heart and soul. Does he not realize that he does not need control? That he has what he seeks? Love? That I surrendered to him long ago as I have to Hashem?

He recently stated that he "owned" me ... and I know that is important to him, to make him feel as though he is in control .. but I also know that "owning" whether that be material goods, or as in the above example of parents and children .. just feeds anger in the long run, and anger makes us out of control, and when we are out of control we lose our soul ...

Right now we are apart .. because of his anger over an unrealized need that I had no way of knowing existed. So all I can do is love him from afar and hope that Hashem watches over his soul while he is angry ... because it is a good soul indeed ...

(5) Debra, June 23, 2008 10:03 AM

I liked this article a lot, it had a very strong message we can all relate to. I think we are all sometimes too obsessed with trying to control every detail of our lives when in the end, it is not the destination that matters, but the journey we choose to arrive there. That being said, there was one thing I did not comopletely agree with. The author says, "Once a person understands and accepts that God is in control, a large amount of anger can be eliminated from his life". I think that believing that g-d is in control of every little detail of our lives can be very dangerous. It causes an external locus of control, where we blame g-d for everything that goes wrong. And what eventually happens is that we turn our anger towards him, which is clearly not the goal. I think that g-d gave us the tools to achieve success, and so if we choose to think that every bad thing is his his fault, we will simply have no motivation to put effort in our lives. I get what the author is saying, that if we have an obstacle along the way, that we should realize that g-d has a bigger plan for us. But I also believe in persistency and the power of ambition, and I think that in then end, g-d wants us to use the tools he gave us to the best of our ability, this way, whether we succeed in achieving our goals or not, we can grow from that experience.

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