Taking Control (of What You Can)
How to stop being a victim and attain happiness.
A single statement said to me by a holy woman when I was 37 years old turned my whole life inside out – or rather, outside in.
After living for 15 years in an Indian ashram, I had come to Israel to search for my Jewish roots. A friend who was editing a book asked me to write a chapter on “Holy Women in Israel.” My search led me to a ramshackle rural settlement in the Jezreel Valley to meet Rebbetzin Chaya Sara Kramer. I had been told that she was a Holocaust survivor. At the age of 20, she had been taken to Auschwitz, where her whole family had been murdered on the first night there. She had been kept alive to be experimented on by the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele. Now I was sitting across a rickety table from Rebbetzin Chaya Sara, eating cucumbers and farmers’ cheese, interviewing her about her life, and particularly the Holocaust.
“Auschwitz was not a bad place,” she said to me.
What? I was sure that I hadn’t heard her correctly. I asked her to repeat her statement.
“Auschwitz was not a bad place,” she repeated clearly. “There was a group of religious girls there. We stuck together. And all the mitzvos [commandments] that we could keep, we did keep. For example, one girl kept track of the days, so we always knew when it was Shabbos, and whenever possible, we avoided doing any forbidden work. We recited blessings over our food, meager as it was.”
“Bad” and “good” had nothing to do with what happened to you. All that really matters is what issues from you.
The holy woman fixed me with her pale blue eyes. “A bad place is a place where Jews can observe mitzvos, but don’t do them.”
With that, she inverted my whole reality. According to her, “bad” and “good” had nothing to do with what happened to you. All that really matters is what issues from you.
Until that moment, a “good day” for me had meant a day when I got an unexpected (and big) check in the mail, or someone praised me, or, driving late to an appointment, I hit all green lights. A “bad day,” on the other hand, was a day when my washing machine broke down, or someone insulted me, or I missed an important appointment because I was stuck in a traffic jam.
By Rebbetzin Chaya Sara’s definition, however, “bad” and “good” applied only to one’s own actions or reactions. I left her shack envisioning a spiritual plumbing system with two pipes attached to me. One was the “outflow pipe,” the thoughts, words, and actions issuing from me. The other was the “inflow pipe,” whatever happened to me, including other people’s offensive words or careless actions, the rain that ruined the picnic, the big check – or the big bill – that arrived in the mail, winning a contest or losing it, and even catching a cold or spraining my ankle.
From that day, my focus shifted from the constant evaluation of the “inflow pipe” to a careful scrutiny of the “outflow pipe.” When someone spoke rudely to me, instead of focusing on his outrageous behavior, I focused on my own reaction. Should I cut him down with my sharp tongue? Should I unleash a barrage of critical comments to put him in his place? Should I try to understand where he’s coming from? Should I let it ruin my day, or let it go? I was no longer the victim of harsh circumstances or human culprits. I could choose my reaction. From a spiritual perspective, the outflow pipe, not the inflow pipe, was what really mattered.
What Most Wives Really Want
Fast-forward two and a half decades. I started giving my women’s Marriage Workshop for Aish Webinars/Jewish Workshops. Participants were asked to submit their “most important marriage questions.”
Fully half of the questions were some version of, “How do I change my husband?” For example:
- How do I get my husband to stop overeating and lose weight?
- How can I get my husband, who is addicted to his computer, to turn it off and go to sleep at a reasonable hour?
- How can I get my husband to pay more attention to the children?
- How do I get my husband to listen to me when I speak?
- How can I get my husband to be less sloppy?
During the introductory session, at the risk of losing all my potential students, I had to tell them the truth. The cardinal principle behind my workshop is: The only person you can change is yourself. (But if you change yourself, you change your marriage.)
I explained to them the concept of the “inflow pipe” and the “outflow pipe.” “The outflow pipe is your own thoughts, words, and actions. The inflow pipe in everything else.”
You have 100% control over your thoughts, words, and actions. You have 0% control over everything else.
Then I sprung on them this life-changing truth: You have 100% control over the outflow pipe – your own thoughts, words, and actions. You have 0% control over everything else.
No wonder, as wives complain to me, they’ve been trying to get their husbands to diet for 30 years – with no success! No wonder the wives who have been harping about underwear left on the floor are still, decades later, nagging their husbands about it! You can’t control your husband, is my message. So stop trying.
How Much Control Do You Have?
It’s not just wives and husbands, of course. Ultimately, how much control do you have over your friends, co-workers, employees, neighbors, the meter maid, or the IRS?
The disheartening reality is that you have 0% control over the inflow pipe. But the empowering reality is that you have 100% control over the outflow pipe. You may not be able to convince the meter maid not to give you that parking ticket, but you can control whether you’ll let loose a nasty string of expletives or give her a resigned smile and admit, “Well, I guess I was eight minutes over.”
You can’t control whether your brother will loan you money (that you sorely need and he has in abundance), but you can control whether you’ll carry a grudge against him and institute a family feud that will last for generations. And you can’t control your spouse, but you can decide to focus on his or her good attributes and be happily married.
Once you stop trying to control what you can’t control, you free up a lot of energy that you can use to control what indeed is within your control – your own thoughts, words, and actions. Instead of wasting energy in frustration and anger at the boss who didn’t give you a well-deserved raise, you can choose to be grateful that you have a job at all.
The key word here is “choose.” The most pernicious oxymoron is the phrase, “He (or she) made me angry.” Another person cannot make you angry any more than another person can make you fat. Anger is the reaction you choose (usually unconsciously) to the other person’s action. You could also choose acceptance or disregard or transcendence or even compassion for the miscreant’s difficult personality. (You have to be with him only sometimes; he has to be with himself all the time.) And if you do choose a lofty response, you transform yourself from the victim into the victor.
You can transform all difficulties into challenges. You are never backed up against the wall with ogres of illness, financial crunches, or various villains leaving you trapped with no escape route. Whatever is surging through the inflow pipe, your outflow pipe is always open to your free choice.
If the plumbing system in your house is reversed, instead of getting clean tap water, you’ll get sewage. If your spiritual plumbing system is reversed, you will labor in vain to keep difficult experiences from flowing in, and you won’t even notice the toxic reactions that are flowing out of you.
So be your own spiritual plumber. Stop trying to clog your inflow pipe and keep a vigilant eye on your outflow pipe.
Having a good day is totally in your hands.