When life gives us lemons: Finding our locus of control

APRIL 27, 2018 // 13 IYYAR 5778

When life gives us lemons, what are we meant to do?
The old saying would have us making lemonade,
and some say lemon squares.

There are also newer sayings too:
When life gives you lemons, throw them back and ask for chocolate.
or when life gives you lemons, slice those suckers up
and grab the tequila and salt!!

Or for the more cynical or angry,
When life gives you lemons, squeeze them in people’s eyes,
or go find an annoying guy with paper cuts.

Some 1800 years ago, Ben Zoma came to his own conclusions
about how to respond when life feels like
it is controlling us rather than when we are in control of life.

Ben Zoma says:
אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, Who is the wise one?
She who learns from all people, as it says,
“I have acquired understanding from all my teachers” (Psalms 119:99).
אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר, Who is the mighty one?
He who conquers his impulse, as it says,
“slowness to anger is better than a mighty person
and the ruler of one’s spirit than the conqueror of a city.” (Proverbs 16:32).
אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, Who is the rich one?
She who is happy with her lot, as it says,
“When you eat [from] the work of your hands, you will be happy,
and it will be well with you” (Psalms 128:2).
“You will be happy” in this world,
and “it will be well with you” in the world to come.
אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד, Who is honoured?
He who honors the created beings, as it says,
“For those who honour Me, I will honour;
and those who despise Me will be held in little esteem” (I Samuel 2:30).
(Pirkei Avot 4:1)

In each of these examples — wise, mighty, rich and honoured —
it is how we respond to life’s challenges
that develops the character of who we are.

These past days, in no small part due to the fact
that our house in now owned and operated
by three young children under the age of eight,
I have been thinking about the locus of control:
When someone — think an angry or tired child — throws us lemons,
how does one respond?
This is, of course, a lesson not only for parents.
We all have to grapple with the question
of when someone throws you lemons, what do you do?
What is within your control?

With a sprinkle of depression and yet, a strong sense of empowerment,
I have to admit that we humans for the most part,
are primarily in control of our inner life,
and how we respond to life’s challenges and blessings
with our words and actions.

In her book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids:
How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting,
Dr. Laura Markham says:
“Ultimately we can’t control our children
or the hand life deals them —
but we can always control our own actions.
Parenting isn’t about what our child does,
but about how we respond.”

When we think of our children
if we are to be wise, we are to learn from them as our greatest teachers,
for only they have the ability to push our most precious buttons
and show us where we need to do the work.

If we are to be mighty,
we need to calm the impulses of anger, frustration or exasperation,
by taking a deep breath, calling on support, or whatever we are able to do,
and calm those forces before they impact our children or others.

If we are to be rich,
we ought to be happy with what we’ve been given.
These are our children, these are our friends and our colleagues,
in all their own richness and complexity.

If we are to be honoured as parents,
one of the principle commandments of our tradition,
we ought to begin by honouring our children,
and modelling what it means to honour others.

Even as we integrate these lessons into our selves,
we, in turn, can teach these same lessons to our children.
We can teach them to be wise by learning from everyone.
Instead of asking them what they did today,
we can ask them who their friends are
and what qualities they like about them;
we can ask them what they learned from their friends and teachers,
we can ask them what was one funny or inspirational thing
that someone said today.
It is not the kid who gets an A that is wise
or the one preparing to go to Yale,
but the one who can take learning to the next level
by incorporating the wisdom of all who they come across.

We can also teach them to be be mighty
by doing what often seems impossible:
to conquer their most difficult emotions.
For some it is anger.
For others, it is a feeling of dejection or being easily frustrated.
When a child is unhappy, fearful, angry, dejected,
it is our ability to stay calm that makes the difference.
Dr. Markham says: “Children get upset often,
because of their inexperience and cognitive immaturity.
It’s our ability to stay calm when they’re upset
that helps them develop the neural pathways to calm themselves.”

Still more, we can teach them what it means to be truly rich.
Rather than buying them yet another toy for their collection,
we can teach our children to learn to be grateful for what they have.

Perhaps most importantly,
let us teach them to honour and respect those who are in their lives.

All of these principles apply whether we are teaching our children,
or mentoring someone, whether adult or child,
whether a partner or friend,
anyone who needs direction in difficult times,
anyone who needs a way of responding even in the most chaotic times.

Ideally, we are to give our children and others
the tools to help them learn how to make decisions for themselves,
to apologize when they inevitably make mistakes,
and to help them feel empowered in their own lives.
Of course, the best way to do all of this is to model this for others.

None of this is easy.
There is a learning curve for all of us.
Yet, we do have a locus of control,
and that is what we do with the lemons we are given.

These recent weeks, we have found ourselves
in the heart of the book of Vayikra/Leviticus,
a book primarily focused on the priestly class.
The priests made order out of chaos.
They recognized that their human world was prone to
mismanagement, mistakes, and experiences beyond people’s control.
What the priests excelled at was their ability to create ordered ritual
so as to ground and centre an otherwise chaotic world,
and to transform the individuals involved
from the feeling of being out of control,
to being engaged and invested in the own workings of their lives.
In this way, those in need could move beyond
their feelings of fear, insecurity and doubt.
This helped order the society as a whole,
as folks had the tools at their disposal
to transform difficult situations into moments of meaning.

Through life’s challenges and busy-ness,
what tools and rituals might we moderns use to make more meaning?
What might make us more wise, more mighty, more rich, more honoured?

Today, we have the tools of prayer and contemplation,
we have the ability to notice the good in each person and in each moment.
We have the capacity to learn from all people.
We can notice our most difficult inner emotions rather than react to them;
and we can find productive ways to deal with them.
We can seek counsel or meditate with a few deep breaths,
even amidst our busy lives.
Sometimes all it takes is a few breaths.
We can take moments each day to be grateful for what we have,
and to honour and show our appreciation for the people in our lives,
the children, the grandchildren, the friends, the parents,
the partners, the siblings, all of the loved ones.

It is not how much or how little we are in control of in life,
but where we can find our own inner locus of control.
It is not the lemons that life brings us,
but what we might do with them,
lemon squares and all.