The last time I recall writing my monthly column from a spot other than my own house was three years ago when a close friend was in the hospital battling cancer. I was taking a nighttime shift in her house to “be there” while her kids were sleeping and her husband was in the hospital with her. That month I wrote about how we should all remember that life is precious and we should live life to the fullest each and every day, because we never know when our world might be shattered by a cancer diagnosis, a heart attack, a car accident, or something equally horrible. Good health and our relationships with those we love and care about are the only really important things in life, and it doesn’t really matter if we don’t make it through our “to do” list, if we don’t make as much money as we wish we did, or if we don’t clean up the clutter in our homes.
Today I am writing from the library of The Atria Woodbridge, a senior living community in Irvine where my mom resides. She is 86 and has not been doing well the last couple of weeks, struggling with severe weakness, depression, and an inability to eat after having a bout of bronchitis. She seems to eat better when I come over to eat with her in the dining room. While it is difficult to get here every day, I’m doing my best to be here as much as I can. Writing from here reminds me of the importance of our family and friends, but, even more, of how imperative it is that we tell them and show them how much we care.
Those of us who have the responsibility of caring for an aging or sick parent while raising a family at the same time are called the “sandwich generation.” I’ve heard this term before, but didn’t fully realize its meaning until I became faced with these often daunting situations. It’s difficult to be sandwiched in the middle of balancing the needs of both our parents and our children, to try to help and care for our parents as much as possible, while still being involved in our kids’ schools and activities, taking them to their various practices and events, monitoring homework, preparing meals, taking care of the household, handling the never-ending paperwork of a busy family, volunteering and performing community service and, for many, working professionally as well. It takes a lot out of a person trying to do everything for everybody. Yet we do it all because that is just what we do.
But what about ourselves? Where do our own needs fall in all of this? Unfortunately, the answer is usually “by the wayside.” We often just don’t have enough time or energy to do anything for ourselves after we are done caring for everyone else. That is not healthy. As we begin this new Jewish Year with goals, ideas, and resolutions for how we can be better people and make more of a difference in our world, I encourage you to prioritize being a better person to yourself.
On Erev Rosh Hashanah, one of our rabbis quoted Hillel in the Pirke Avot as follows: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now then when?” I was so excited to hear him quote this passage, as I used it as the introductory sentence of my law school applications. It is a phrase that I have found thought-provoking and inspiring my entire adult life. It is very relevant to this topic of balancing your needs with the needs of everyone and everything else.
“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?” If we don’t take the time to care for ourselves, then no one else will realize the importance and necessity for it. While still doing all the other things that we need and want to do for everyone else, we must remember that we have equally important needs. Make sure you are getting enough rest, eating properly, taking time to exercise, and spending leisure time enjoying things that you like to do. We deserve it, and everyone else wants us to be sure to take care of ourselves physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Consider how much better able we will be to take care of everyone else if we have taken care of ourselves first and foremost.
“If I am only for myself, then what am I?” Even though sometimes it would be nice to have more free time and less obligations and responsibilities, life would likely feel empty and lonely after a while. It is what we do for others, including our families, our friends, our jobs, and our communities, that provide the most pleasure and fulfillment. We would not be the people that we are without these other elements in our life, as they help define who we are and make us complete.
“If not now, when?” Many times we put off things until a better time. We may choose not to tell or show someone how much we love them, because we are waiting for a special occasion or a “reason.” We may not get that massage, sit on the beach reading a book, or have lunch with an old friend because we are too busy, and we think that we will be less busy at a later time. But we never know when, or even if, that right time will ever come along… so now is probably a good time to start.
One of the best and most interesting things about interpreting the Pirke Avot and all quotes, texts, and literature is that they mean different things to different people. Everyone has a different perspective and interpretation. Whether you’re part of the sandwich generation or not, I’m sure you have responsibilities and obligations to others that must be balanced with taking care of yourself. I challenge you this New Year to think about the wise words of Hillel and how we can apply them to our daily lives.