When I was a young rabbi, my time was consumed by people who were constantly in a state of anger, frustration, and offense. I was not usually the cause of it, but they contacted me to express their emotions over whatever it was that upset them. I found myself emotionally drained and tired, and all my study and training did not prepare me for the burden of human emotions. At times I felt my time would have been better spent training to be a firefighter, to deal with the onslaught of human crisis.
My response to people in emotional upheaval usually was to get upset as well, trying to comfort them, calm them, and otherwise trying to put out the fires. Usually, my efforts didn’t do much to help, and occasionally I got burned by these people in the process. It left me frustrated and hurt, and hesitant to get close to people for fear of getting burned. They were not bad people, but they were frustrated and didn’t know how to deal with it.
Over time, I learned to remain calm and not get emotionally involved in people’s frustrations. It was not easy, because I tend to be an empathetic person. It wasn’t that I stopped caring for them, I didn’t. It was just that by not getting drawn into their anger or frustration, I was guarding myself from being drained by them, and was better able to help them. If I was calm, it had a calming effect on others. If I got as upset as they were, it only fanned the flames of their emotions and didn’t help the situation at all. I learned several principles that helped me.
First, I learned not to get too emotionally involved with people. Keeping a professional distance enabled me to be objective and better help people through their difficulties.
Second, when people turned on me, I found it was better to not take it personally. I have a good friend who was the object of a great deal of negative attacks by people who angrily disagreed with him, and were committing Lashon Hara, speaking evil against him. I tried to encourage him and asked him how he was able to put up with it. He told me that the people who were speaking badly of him were people he honestly didn’t respect. He felt that if he didn’t respect them, he didn’t care what they thought and said. There is a lot of wisdom in that. If we worry about everything anybody says, we will always be upset. I make a choice to only care about the opinions of people I respect. If I don’t care about their opinions, whatever they say really doesn’t matter. People who don’t agree with me feel free to blow off my comments, why should I have to value theirs?
Third, when I become too sensitive to other people’s emotions, they can use my empathy to control me. How many times do we curb our behavior or words to not “upset” people? When they recognize that we will respond that way, they use it to manipulate us. It’s just not worth it. The Holy Scriptures teach us to “speak the truth in love.” That means to speak the truth, and not evade it, but also to do so in love, not to hurt, not to appease, but to ultimately help them face reality. If all I do is appease people, I am selling myself out, and not really helping them. I don’t want to conduct myself from a position of weakness, but from strength.
People who are always upset, will always be upset. It’s just a matter of time before they are upset over the next “issue.” We are supposed to live our lives in tranquility, not in a state of constant crisis. Sha’ul wrote in Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” If we are always looking for an argument, always wearing our emotions on our sleeves, we are not living peaceably. It’s an issue of maturity.
The bottom line is that the world we live in is not peaceful. If we want to have a measure of peace in our lives, it depends on our attitudes and what we bring to the situations that present themselves to us. We are not responsible for other people’s emotions and reactions, but we are responsible for how we respond to them. Its like the old advice we learned in grade school if your clothes caught on fire. Remain calm, stop, drop, and roll. You can’t put out the fire if you aren’t calm. If you are calm, you can do the right thing.