What you can tolerate will depend

We have different thresholds for what kind of treatment we can tolerate from others. One person’s tough, challenging, funny wise-ass is another person’s humorless abuser sometimes. It all depends on our personality, our experience, our other relationships and what we feel comfortable with.

To some people periodic displays of intense anger are fine, providing the person quickly calms down and becomes reasonable. It’s not hard to understand or identify with anger, we are all subject to it from time to time. We are able to tolerate different levels, displays and durations of anger, depending on the circumstances and our tolerances.

Pirkey Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, is found in the back of many Jewish prayer books like the ones that are usually at the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs I’ve been forced to sit through over the years. So as the congregation is rising and being seated, (please rise, please be seated, please rise), and praying in unison, I am scanning Ethics of the Fathers, the whole short book is in there, after all of the prayer services. I used to read Pirkey Avot looking for little bits of eternal wisdom from ancient times. There’s one about anger I’ve been greatly influenced by. It describes the four kinds of temperaments with a beautiful, clean logic.

There are four kinds of temperaments when it comes to anger and peace.

One type of person is quick to anger but quick to be pacified. His loss is offset by his gain.

Another type is slow to anger but slow to be pacified. His virtue is offset by his deficit.

Another type is slow to anger and quick to forgive. This is a virtuous person.

The fourth temperament is quick to anger and slow to forgive. This type is evil.

I always thought the Father’s (whoever the hell they were) laid that out profoundly and indisputably. My cousin Eli was quick to anger, and I made him angry many times. But because he loved me he was also very quick to be placated and we would soon move on from the thing he was so angry about a minute before. It was a beautiful thing about our relationship.

My mother had the same kind of relationship with him before I did. She would fight with Eli hour after hour, day after day and when they said goodbye they hugged and kissed and had big smiles on their faces and couldn’t wait to do it all again soon. It was beautiful to see.

If Eli didn’t like you he had no qualms about making a face, turning away and closing a door on you, or, if needed, making a great display of his purple faced anger, which was terrifying to see. As a young man he had no hesitation to punch somebody in the face, if it came to it.

But in spite of his fierceness, his face deadly as a springing jaguar’s, teeth ready to bite, foam on his lips, his face purple, his white hair trembling on top of his head, neither my mother nor later I, ever backed down from his terrifying displays of dominance.

We would say “come on Eli, you have to be honest, if your daughter said that to you you would be pretty pissed off too.” And Eli would rage a bit more, give a few last groans and cries and flashes of teeth, but then he would say “fine, but I have to tell you what happened after that” and he’d continue until the next fight.

After a few fights it was time to go get dinner, take a long time-out, to talk about other things, eat and have coffee in peace and drive back to his place. Only once we were settled comfortably back in our chairs would we resume the fights, which would sometimes go on until late in the night. Every time I left Eli we hugged and kissed and agreed to talk soon and make plans for the next time.

Eli didn’t have that kind of relationship with any of his estranged children or grandchildren. Or really anybody besides my mother, that I knew of. I certainly didn’t have that relationship with my father or mother, I mean we fought all the time but there was none of that hugging and kissing and laughing at the end of it. I guess I was lucky to know somebody like Eli, who could be infuriating, and furious, but was at the same time very easy to get along with.

Strange are the blessings and curses of this life.

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