If I Am Not For Myself

Over the past six months, I’ve lost 42 lbs. My doctor prodded me over the years to lose weight and though I had made countless attempts I never succeeded. I can’t say definitively what enabled me to take off that much weight this time. When people have asked what diet I followed, I’ve answered that I really didn’t follow a prescribed diet at all. Instead, I made an inner decision to eat differently. I made a decision to indulge myself less and to eat the foods that we know promote good health. I have a strong feeling that I have changed my eating habits permanently and that I won’t ever gain back the weight I’ve lost. My next challenge is to complete the transformation of my body by increasing endurance and developing an exercise habit. Now that I’ve lost the weight I needed to lose, I sense that I will finally be able to accomplish that goal. I certainly have more tangible incentive than ever before. I feel as though I have given myself a very important and lasting gift.

It’s fair to say, I think, that life can be viewed as concentric circles. Each of us stands in the center of our series of circles. Next to us are the people closest to us—family and close friends. The circles widen to encompass neighbors, casual friends, distant relatives, acquaintances, co-workers. At the outer reaches of the circles are strangers we encounter who enter our lives as fellow human beings to whom we owe a measure of courtesy and compassion. I find this image relevant and meaningful because we cannot relate meaningfully to those who inhabit the circles around us if we are not attentive to our own needs and desires. We must tend to ourselves first in ways that are both tangible and spiritual. We each must see to our own well-being, our physical and spiritual good health. Doing so sharpens and brightens our outlook on life. Taking care of ourselves first positions us to be attentive to others.

This Jewish month, Elul, the last month of the year, is traditionally devoted to introspection and increasing self-awareness. We are asked to look at how we live our lives, what we value, what commitments we are willing to make and uphold. Our tradition does not advocate a self-centered posture, an attitude of prioritizing ourselves rather than reaching out to others. Rather, we are taught that the prerequisite to approaching others to heal or brighten our relationships is to look inward first and strengthen ourselves.

The great sage Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” He was, intentionally or not, offering worthy advice for the month of Elul. First, look inward. Discover your faults, identify your shortcomings, tend to your spiritual and physical health, and mend what needs to be fixed. Personal renewal will open the door to renewing our relationships with others, and will open our eyes to the innumerable circles that surround us.

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