The Mussar Institute

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Real-Life Applications of Mussar

Hannah The Free

A mother (we’ll call her Hannah), who was learning in Everyday Holiness, focused her efforts on the cultivation of what we call “the space between the match and the fuse” – which means staying aware and retaining freedom of choice right in the face of the tests life can and does hand us. Hannah kept being tripped up in her relationship with her teenage daughter (we’ll call her Sophia). Everything Sophia did seemed custom-designed to provoke an intense negative reaction that Hannah knew deeply was damaging to both their souls. She worked at the learning and practices of Everyday Holiness and one day, she had a breakthrough. Her daughter had accidentally kicked over a can of green paint on the beige carpet. Hannah was standing there right as it happened, and in the next instant, two doors popped up before her. Door #1 led to the familiar and now detested track of tearing a strip off Sophia for being the clumsy, careless, undependable oaf she so obviously was. Door #2 cracked open to a novel approach. She could say to Sophia, “Oy! What a mess! Let’s clean this up.”

Stepping bravely into her new freedom, she said, “Oy! What a mess! Let’s clean this up.”

Mussar teaches us this: to cool anger, suppression is pointless; better to cultivate a trait like humility. So too with jealousy – the countervailing trait to develop will be “honor”. These ways of fostering inner wholeness in the face of brokenness can be learned, aided by the hundreds of years of accumulated wisdom in the Mussar tradition. Then they must be practiced to become real in the flesh of your heart.

Joseph The Humble

Most spiritual traditions praise humility, but one student in Everyday Holiness (we’ll call him Joseph) was more than a little surprised when he learned what the Mussar masters had to say about this trait. They see humility as the cornerstone of a spiritual life but their understanding of humility is so different. Through the lessons, discussions and practices of Everyday Holiness we’re taught that humility means "occupying your rightful space." That explains why the Bible can describe a great prophet and leader as Moses as very humble – he occupied the space that was right for him. When Joseph applied that perspective to his workplace, he realized that he was nowhere near occupying his rightful space. He needed to step up more, speak up with less hesitation, know and hold his boundaries. This would be his practice of humility. After doing just that for some time, Joseph reported that the results were undeniable. He no longer felt the same toxic anxiety that used to be his constant companion at work. And while it may not be the only factor involved, he had no doubt that the Mussar work he did on himself was a big part of why he was recently promoted.

Most people think humility means being meek and unassuming, even letting people step on you. The above story illustrates how humility has played a role in a man’s career.

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