I once read about a learned man who was shoved into a cattle car by the Nazis. Amidst the unfathomable terror, hysteria and grief, he found himself crushed against a yeshivah student. His first words to the teenager were, “What are you learning in your Talmud studies?”

I will never forget how he maintained his dignity and self-control in the midst of the horror. I call this “Divine Distraction,” the ability to place a separation between our personal feelings and our lofty goals. The more we use this skill, the better able we are to deal with emotional distress.

Divine distraction does not mean being apathetic to what is truly important, such as issues related to danger or morality. What it does mean is we can build our “distraction muscle” by consciously choosing the focus of ourDivine distraction does not mean being apathetic to what is truly important. attention in order to remain faithful, functional and grateful in trying times. We’ve done this since we were children. We went bravely to school despite physical pain or nasty peers. We acted happy to protect our parents from knowing the extent of our pain when we were rejected by a friend or received a poor grade. We adopted a mask of compliance or indifference to hide our fear and rage when we were hurt by a critical parent. These efforts actually built our ability to be resilient in the face of difficulties. We learned not to allow our feelings to dictate our behaviors.

Immature adults cannot create this distance; they are so identified with their bodies and emotions that they go to pieces when faced with deprivation or discomfort. They flare up when a child is rude or a spouse does not meet their expectations. Feeling like helpless victims of addictions and moods, they will claim, “But I couldn’t help screaming; the kids were so obnoxious!” “But I’m so messed up from all the abuse I’ve suffered that I just can’t get out of bed.” “But I have no self-control! I so miserable that I can’t stop eating/smoking/texting, etc.” “I’m so anxious about —— that I can’t stop ——.” “But I can’t bear to live without ——! If I can’t get —— to love me, I can’t go on! But I’m single/unhappily married and so lonely! (Fill in the blanks.) How can I distract myself when I’m drowning in pain? That’s impossible!”

It’s not easy, but you will get better at this skill by noticing when you are able to distract yourself even for a few seconds from non-productive feelings, such as jealousy, bitterness, despair, resentment and self-pity, from non-nurturing people and destructive activities, such as advice-giving, people-pleasing or certainty-seeking. See the effort to adopt even a fake pretense of detachment as a huge spiritual victory! This is what psychiatrists hope to achieve with medication. Yet, when we do this without medication, we build self-worth and self-leadership. To begin the process, keep asking, “Is what I’m stressed about eternal or temporary? Is it in my control or outside of my control?” It helps to imagine three boxes:

My Box

According to Torah, only three things are in our control: thoughts, speech and actions. We can always improve our own character traits, but we cannot force anyone else to do so. We can put forth effort to achieve success in relationships, We can always improve our own character traits, but we cannot force anyone else to do so.health and financial stability, but the results are in G‑d’s hands. We can want certainty and dislike feeling vulnerable, but we all must live with uncertainty and vulnerability.

G‑d’s Box

Everything outside of our character traits is in G‑d’s control. This includes past decisions and future events, marriage, illness, wars, weather, accidents, health, personality traits, financial stability, and when and how we (or anyone else) will die. Even our likes and dislikes, sensitivities and moods are not in our direct control. We cannot avoid feeling bored, anxious, sad or lonely; we can only lessen the discomfort by going to a Torah class, cleaning the house, praying or exercising. We cannot control the fact that some people are mean, irritating or boring, but we can be gracious and respectful toward them, or find ways to be distant. We cannot control the fact that we lack talents in some areas, but we can develop the talents we have.

Other People’s Boxes

Other people’s level of religiosity, how much people love and approve of us, and what interests or bores them. We all think we know what is best for others, but we cannot force them to take our advice. If people resist our “helpful interference,” we must allow them to make their mistakes and cope with the vicissitudes of life on their own. We can avoid eating junk foods ourselves, but we cannot force anyone else to eat in a healthy manner. We can ask a person who has been rude to speak respectfully, but we cannot demand that he like us, or not be upset about the fact that we have disappointed him in some way.

This separation is the goal of the famous serenity prayer, “G‑d, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Just as we must eat kosher, to “think kosher” means focusing on bringing holiness into the world rather than getting angry and frustrated by trying to control what is not in our box. Taking charge of what is in our control is the secret to growth.

When my children were young and in a cranky mood, I would distract them by asking about their next birthday party (even if it was eleven months away). “Do you want red and blue balloons, or just red? What shape do you want the cake to be—a rocket ship or a Torah scroll?” Our “child brain” often gets stuck in in the wrong box! We can gauge our maturity level by how quickly we pull our minds back into My Box and resolutely refuse to get stressed about things not in our control. For example:

  • Release control over others’ opinions. Yes, we all wonder what others think of us, but it is impossible to know, with 100% certainty, what anyone is thinking (or if in fact they even are thinking!). When people criticize My self-worth is independent of human opinion. our weight, religious views, homemaking skills, child-rearing practices, intelligence level, etc., we can firmly tell ourselves, “I want love and approval, but the amount I get is determined by G‑d. My self-worth is independent of human opinion. Approval-seeking keeps me from being authentic. Those who are capable of loving me will love me—if G‑d wants them to. What others think is not my business!”
  • Release the past: If G‑d does not want something to happen, it won’t. You may think you married the wrong person, but G‑d decided that this was the right one for you at that time; otherwise, the ceremony would not have taken place. You also had the “right” parents and the “right” childhood experiences, as painful as they may have been. Ultimately, G‑d chooses the business deals, neighborhoods or teachers. Resentment prevents us from trusting that G‑d was the One who decided what we experienced. Leave the past to Him.
  • Release the future: Thinking about future “what if” scenarios is a recipe for anxiety, unless we can actively do something to prevent a disaster or illness, like using seat belts, keeping extra bottled water in the house, avoiding junk foods, and making sure our insurance is up to date. And we can program ourselves to think, “I will cope with whatever G‑d sends me, and trust that it is perfect for my rectification in life. The future is not my business.”

When we command ourselves to detach from what is not in our control, time and energy is freed up, enabling us to get involved in all kinds of wonderful community projects and other healthy activities. Whenever we are not in My Box, we are giving away our precious power to people and situations, allowing them to determine our behavior. For example:

  • “I’m disappointed that certain family members are immature, grouchy, lazy, wasteful and weird. I wish they would stop being obsessed with trivial pursuits, like sports, fashion and elaborate food, and care about what is really important, like human relationships, charity work and learning Torah. It’s a waste of time to stew in resentment and self-pity, but I can be a model of good character traits, and pray that this will influence them.”
  • “I used to be very anxious, always worried about people rejecting me, and terrified that I might have a mental breakdown, or that some disaster would occur and I would go berserk. But since I’ve been practicing distraction, the inner babbling has lessened greatly.”

Distraction is not an exercise we can do once or twice and be done with! The more pain we are in, the more frequently we must use our mental “delete” button, staying in My Box, and focusing on how we can bring greater joy and stability into our lives. No matter how frightening our feelings may seem or how overwhelming our cravings are, we must be in charge of our behavior. This is how we make sure that “the mind rules the heart.”