Healthy Self-Care: The Key to Chesed
“You taught that giving leads to love, so why is it that the more I give, the more exhausted and resentful I feel?”
In Sara Yocheved Rigler’s class on the Torah pathway to successful relationships, she shared that Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, in his sefer Michtav Me’Eliyahu taught “ahava”, love, comes from the root of the Hebrew word “hav” which means to give.
Therefore, he taught, it is giving that leads to love. Mrs Rigler expounded that the more you give, the more you love.
While this seemed like a clear equation to Mrs Rigler, it didn’t reflect the practical experiences of a lot of her audience. For years, she was plagued by women coming up to her after class and asking: “If I am giving to my family, why am I feeling exhausted and resentful, instead of loving as I yearn to be?”
So many of us have struggled with this issue, so when I heard this question in a a class on Torah Anytime called: “The Harried Jewish Housewife,” my curiosity was peaked.
After a lot of searching, Mrs Rigler eventually found a solution based on an idea she learned in the book, Stages of Spiritual Growth, by Mrs. Batya Gallant, that changed her definition of chesed, kindness.
Chesed is usually contrasted with gevurah, restraint, and is explained as “pouring forth and giving to another”. Mrs. Gallant, on the other hand, translated chesed as “the characteristic of giving nurture and care”; she took the words “to another” out of the definition.
The first level of chesed: the ability to care for oneself
Mrs. Gallant explained that the first level of middas hachesed requires the ability to nurture and care for oneself. The person who does not love herself enough to treat her weaknesses and needs with respect, will not respect other’s needs and weaknesses. She who disdains her own invulnerabilities, will inevitably project a feeling of disdain when it comes to other people’s vulnerabilities, too
Healthy self-care is an attitude of treating all of our needs with compassion and respect. This does not mean giving yourself everything you feel you need or desire. Instead, it indicates respecting all your feelings, and treating all your needs with compassion and respect- so you can then also do that for others, too.
This paradigm shift really hit home for me. I can see how my judgement of other people’s needs and desires will be based on how I see my own.
If I have compassion and respect for myself, then I will for others as well. And, the opposite is also true. If I don’t respect my needs, I will give to the other only grudgingly, with scorn or disapproval.
As an example of the importance of this principle, Mrs. Rigler shared a story told by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski in one of his many books. Bonnie was in a 12 step program and had been sober for a year. One day she called her friend, Rachel.
“I am so happy the boiler in her apartment is finally fixed and I have heat again,” Bonnie commented.
“How long was your boiler broken for?” Rachel wondered.
“Three days,” Bonnie explained
“Its freezing outside! You stayed in the frigid apartment for three days? Why didn’t you call me ?” her friend protested.
“I didn’t want to impose,” Bonnie sheepishly replied.
If you can’t accept help, you can’t give help
Rachel shared this story with Rabbi Twerski. He called Bonnie and told her,
“I was going to ask you be a sponsor (mentor) for someone, but if you cannot accept help, you can’t give help. This is a basic principle.”
Mrs. Sara Chana Radcliffe added a similar idea: It’s hard to be patient, or even pleasant, when you’re overworked and overwhelmed. You don’t intend to hurt your loved ones when you’re in that state, but you can’t help it. Out of compassion for yourself and love for your family, take at least one small step to restore and replenish your energies – whether that means taking a task off your plate, taking a short nap or doing something else that can help heal your frayed nerves. Irritability is a signal – a clear call for you to take care of yourself right now.
These ideas are powerful and I have been working to integrate them. Recently, a young two year old child, Nachshon Meir, was in surgery to remove a brain tumor. We were all waiting breathlessly to hear, hopefully beH good news. A What’s App group was set up for people to say Tehillim. Anxiously, I sat saying Tehillim with the community, taking new perakim as others were completed. The tension escalated as time passed. We finished tehillim many times waiting, yet no news was forthcoming.
At some point though, what seemed like a very mundane thought buzzed into my head,
“I am hungry”.
My initial reaction was: How can I worry about lunch when his life is on the line? I ignored it, and continued saying my tehillim. Shortly thereafter, though, it came again.
“But, I need to eat!”
I had the clear sense that my body wanted nourishment.
Suddenly, I remembered what I had been learning, and my perspective totally shifted. By making myself lunch, I am doing a chesed for someone- me! I realized it was especially important for me to nurture my children’s mother, so I can be calmer and happier with them when they come home. I made myself a healthy lunch. I said a short tefillah that Hashem would count this eating as a zechus for this young child. I ate and felt nourished.
Baruch Hashem, Nachshon handled his surgery well, yet still needs continued tefillos. May our efforts to lovingly care for ourselves and others bring a refuah sheleima to Nachshon Meir ben Temima Chaya Sara Shlomit and to all the cholim of Klal Yisroel.