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Simone Biles and Self-Compassion

09/17/2021 11:50:56 AM


One day early in his journey in the wilderness of Sinai with the people of Israel, Moses was visited by his father-in-law, Jethro. When Jethro arrived, he saw a line miles long of the congregation of Israel waiting to meet with Moses to adjudicate cases of civil import. Jethro saw this and said to Moses, “No one person alone can take on all the problems of society.  What you are doing is too much for one person. You are going to burn yourself out.” Jethro suggested a different strategy to Moses.  He told Moses he should appoint magistrates and officers to hear the lower-level cases to ease the burden and workload on Moses. Jethro realized that the tasks Moses had assigned himself were too much for any one man, and he recognized that his son-in-law would burn himself out if he did not take steps to rectify the situation.

There is a fundamental axiom in Judaism that says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, and if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”  Understanding this quote and internalizing it are at the heart of a happy and balanced life. Moses had Jethro to tell him he needed to take care of himself. Otherwise, he was going to be no good to anyone else.  It might not seem like we have a Jethro in our life, but we do.  Right here in the Torah, in this story of Jethro.  We have this story so we might learn from it. There is a time to put others first and there is a time to put ourselves first and to know when to do which.

Over the summer, Simone Biles lived this piece of Torah.  She realized that if she kept going, she was going to burn out. She needed to practice self-care and self-compassion. In the Bible we never hear how the people, the folk, react to Moses delegating some of his responsibilities. However, after seeing the reaction to Simone Biles we can imagine that the reaction to his own self-care was probably a mixed bag of support and defamation. Some probably praised him as they praised Simone Biles. And I’m sure others vilified him as Simone Biles was vilified.

How do we know whether they made the right decision?  Here our Mishna provides us with guidance, “If I am not for myself who will be for me, and if I am only for others what am I? and if not now when?”

But how do we know when to put others first and when to put ourselves first?

One way to know when to put others needs before our own is to recognize when an act of honoring the other will reflect back on us.  If after putting the other first we are able say, “By putting you first the divine in you honors the divine in me” seems to be a good litmus test for when to act for others. 

Another way to know when to put others first is to ask, “Are they able to put themselves first?”  Maimonides uses the Hebrew who were slaves in Egypt as an example of a group unable to put themselves first because they did not know how.  He teaches “It is not in the nature of humans, reared in slavery, in bricks and straw and the like, to wash their hands of their dirt and suddenly rise up and fight with the giants of Canaan. God in God's wisdom contrived that they wander in the wilderness until they had become schooled in courage, since it is well known that physical hardships toughen and the converse produce faintheartedness. A new generation was born which had not been accustomed to slavery and degradation.”  (GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED, SECTION 3, CHAPTER 32)

People not knowing or unable to put themselves first did not end with the Exodus from Egypt.  The disempowered and disenfranchised are all around us today.  Therefore, when we encounter those who are marginalized or lack agency, those who cannot fight for themselves, even if it is inconvenient to us, we must prioritize their needs above our own.

But how do we know when to put ourselves first?

Rambam says we know when to put ourselves first by the following formula:

…whoever abstains from a transgression, or performs a good deed for no selfish reason, such as fear or vanity or personal glory, but only for the sake of the Creator, blessed be he or she.

Rambam means to tell us that if a person does something that would damage their reputation at worst or not benefit their ego at best, but to serve the greater good, then the act of putting themselves first is the correct choice.  Moses did not delegate for selfish reasons, he did it to better serve the people.  Simone Biles was not selfish in not competing.  She did not compete because she selfishly did not want to, but because she emotionally could not.  Yes, emotional stability is a real thing, and prioritizing our mental well-being is not selfish.  A mother whose kids are running around and driving her crazy and tells the child who approaches her to turn around and walk away is not being selfish but is taking care of herself by setting a boundary for everyone’s good.

Avot D Rabbi Natan takes a different approach on our teaching. Citing Ecclesiastes he says, “A living dog is better than a dead Lion.  The living dog refers to a wicked person while they exist in this world;36Because as long as they are alive there is hope that he may repent. Than a dead lion refers to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who sleep in the dust. A righteous person, once dead, cannot add to his merits”.

If either Moses or Simone Biles had kept going, they surely would have perished and would not be able serve the world and add to their merit.  No matter how rich, powerful, successful we are, once we stop caring for ourselves and allow ourselves to become slaves to a system and external demands, we can no longer serve that system.

Religion is concerned with the greater good. Sometimes we need to put ourselves first for the good of society and ourselves, and sometimes we need to be self-sacrificing and put others first for the good of society. In this time of COVID, Simone Biles did not only what was good for her, but in doing what was good for her spiritual health modeled for us how to properly deal with the psychological toll of the quarantine.  The act of putting herself first was for the greater good of humanity.  Had Simone Biles competed in her fragile emotional state, she would have been no help to anyone. She may have even been a detriment to her team and her country. She had already given our nation gold, so she gave our nation a gift -- the gift of prioritizing self-care through an act of self-compassion.

Many will vilify Simone Biles and speak of how tough they would have been.  First, being tough is not pushing through pain.  Being tough is not ignoring our feelings.  Being tough is not putting other’s needs ahead of ourselves.  Being tough is believing in ourselves.  Being tough is trusting your gut while those around you are telling you that you are wrong.  Being tough is having faith that you are a good person, and your decisions and actions are a true reflection of that no matter what others say.

Our inclination is to hunker down, push through. Rather we need to lift up our own the voices so we can tell our stories better.  Consider the story of Elijah and The Cave. The queen of Israel, Jezebel sent her soldiers to kill Elijah because he spoke truth to power, because he was tough. When Elijah heard his life was in danger, he was afraid and ran for his life. Eventually Elijah made it all the way to Mount Sinai and went into a cave and stayed all night. God spoke to Elijah and said why are you here? Elijah answered, “I've always served you as well as I could, but the people of Israel have broken their agreement with you and now they are trying to kill me too!”

The Lord said to Elijah, “Go stand in front of me on the mountain and I will pass by you.” Then a very strong wind blew until it caused the mountains to fall apart in large rocks to break in front of the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. Then Elijah heard the lord as a quiet gentle sound that said to him softly, “Elijah why are you here?” Elijah answered, with his voice trembling this time, and said, “Lord God I have always served you as well as I could but the people of Israel have broken their agreement with you, destroyed your altars, and killed your prophets with swords I am the only prophet left and now they're trying to kill me too!”

 God did not respond with fire or earthquakes or grand gestures. God did not yell or scream at Elijah but rather responded in a soft and kind voice. Self-compassion means we need to fight the urge to yell at ourselves, to be hard on ourselves and listen to the still small voice of God that's telling us to take care of ourselves, to be strong, to be resolute, and to be starwort.

Self-care is about the actions we do to take care of ourselves.  Self-compassion is about how we treat ourselves.  It is about having an attitude of benevolence toward oneself.  It is about loving ourselves, being nurturing and kind to our souls, even though we may feel like being critical of ourselves.  It is not only about looking for the good in our souls but coming to appreciate what makes us truly good people.  

One way to practice self-compassion is with three steps:

The first is that I identify how I feel.

The Second is to simply say, it's okay to feel what I am feeling.  Do not invalidate what you are feeling.  Your feelings have an intelligence that exists outside the realm of logic and reason. Accept the wisdom they are trying to teach you and say it is okay to feel what I am feeling.

Third, be kind to yourself about it.

To review: Name the feeling, validate the feeling and be kind to yourself about it.

Can you picture Simone Biles doing that when she made her decision to not compete?

Now the question is, can you be as tough as her and be compassionate to yourself?

If you can, then you will live one of the greatest pieces of Torah anyone can master: sometimes putting yourself first, sometimes putting others first, and being okay when you decide to do either one is appropriate, but you must always listen to your deep inner voice and conscience.  Let 5782 be the year we master self-compassion.

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782