Many of us grew up in a spiritual tradition based on the biblical Ten Commandments. Thou shall love the lord your god…Thou shall honor thy father and thy mother…and one of the most often repeated commandments: thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. This implies that we do love ourselves – that we provide for ourselves and go out of our way to do kind things for ourselves.
Is that true?
Unfortunately, in our culture we often deny ourselves what is most important. We pack our life so tightly that we have little time with family and friends. We pollute the air we breathe and add toxic and cancer-causing ingredients to our food in the name of expediency or profit. We over eat, under exercise, ignore dangerous levels of stress, and look to pharmaceuticals with their own set of side effects to calm the symptoms of illness or our unhealthy lifestyle. If I “love” my neighbor as myself, I will probably not be very kind to my neighbor!
As Eric Hoffer wisely remarked: “The remarkable thing is that we really love our neighbor as ourselves: we do unto others as we do unto ourselves. We hate others when we hate ourselves. We are tolerant toward others when we tolerate ourselves. We forgive others when we forgive ourselves. We are prone to sacrifice others when we are ready to sacrifice ourselves.”
Now that is true.
When we take time to nurture our soul – by being in nature, spending time with the people we love, engaging in activities we enjoy, getting enough sleep, we tend to bring our best selves to our work and to our interactions with others. But when we eat unhealthy foods, don’t take time to exercise, and drive ourselves so hard that we forego the people and activities that we love, we bring resentment, fatigue or apathy into our lives. So, if we want to treat others in a kind and loving manner, we need to direct our attentions to ourselves first.
While caring for ourselves at the expense of others might be considered selfish, caring for ourselves so we can continue to bring a loving and caring nature to our interactions with others is what Stephen Covey calls, “sharpening the saw” in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. By providing ourselves with the time and activities we need to be our best, we enhance the quality of our lives and provide a model for others to do the same.
Recently, I met a lovely patient whose life has been spent in service – a kindergarten teacher with seven children, she frequently cooks and cares for members of her community. After discussing her condition and suggesting that she needed a series of treatments that would take time and attention, she exclaimed, “That would be so selfish!” As I considered how I might help her see that caring for herself is not selfish, I recalled a conversation I had many years ago. A fellow woman physician and I were discussing the difficulties of maintaining balance in our lives and we realized that, if we wanted our daughters to have more fun and freedom in their lives than we were allowing ourselves in ours, we needed to model that lifestyle better. So I asked my patient what she would tell her own daughter in a situation like this. True to Eric Hoffer’s remarks, she replied that she would tell her own daughter to stop complaining and ignore her problems.
We each have a choice in our lives – whether we want lives that focus on achievement without giving ourselves the time and attention we need, or whether we want to provide the outlets and activities that are truly loving to ourselves.
So my question is, what kind of life do YOU want? What will you do today to make that kind of life a reality for you?
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