Diagnosing the Problem

Nov 26, 2014

Methods for Changing Character

Despite all the effort we put into self-improvement, we sometimes find ourselves stuck with the same character problems. Rav Kalonymous Kalman of Piasetzna zt”l in his Bnei Machshava Tova (“Direction and Principles” #8, p. 51) suggests that the reason for our failure to change might be not properly diagnosing our problem.

Rav Kalonymous Kalman talks about character problems using imagery of both medicine and warfare.

At first he speaks of character improvement like fighting a carefully planned war. Strategy must be developed based on honest and thorough research. See what is really holding back improvement and then overcome the barrier. If one tactic does not work, try another and yet another. Persistence and hard work — never deserting the battlefield — will, with G-d’s help, certainly bring success.

His examples of researching the source of character problems also sound very much (though he does not actually say it) like a medical diagnosis. [The analogy between physical and moral sickness is a common theme in ethical literature.] Improper diagnosis can lead us to unproductive character work.

A given character problem can be traced to a number of different sources. How to change depends on what the real source of the problem is. Rav Kalonymous gives two illustrations:

A. A person is angry. There are a number of possibilities for the source of his anger. He might be hotheaded. But, says Rav Kalonymous Kalman, his anger might actually stem from his arrogance. Because he looks down on others, he thinks nothing of his harsh words for them. Even people who are not prone to negative expressions of anger against people will sometimes hit or scream at an animal to get it moving. So if the arrogant-angry person wants to change, opens up a mussar book, and takes a piece of advice about how not to be hotheaded, he will not succeed in dealing with his problem. His source problem is arrogance; it is only manifesting itself in anger.

B. Two people might both be arrogant, but the source of their arrogance might be totally different. The first has a bloated image of himself, while the second simply has not had contact with people that are greater than he. The solution to the second person’s problem is much simpler than that of the first. If he meets great tzaddikim or lamdanim he will see himself in perspective; if he reads of the high standards that appear in sifrei mussar or in the biographies of gedolei Torah, he will realize that he is mistaken. The same phenomenon, but very different sources and very different methods of change.

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