“You know, Ilana,” my friend Cat said to me in one of many long-distance conversations, “You’re so kind and loving to everyone but yourself.”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes. How many times have I heard similar remarks from therapists over the years, or the oft repeated reminder to practice self-compassion, advice I would heap onto on my friends with genuine care and the best of intentions, somehow thinking I’m immune to such advice? Everyone is worthy of lovingkindness, of chesed, of course. Except me. Maybe it’s the old anorexic voice in the back of my head rearing her ugly head, maybe a dozen other reasons I could come up with on the spot. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s an unwillingness to embrace the many sides of myself, to shed my own internalized ableism and give myself the care I deserve.
So, when a group of Jewish friends asked me if I wanted to count the Omer with them this year, I said yes without thinking too hard on it. To be frank, I have never counted the Omer before, so I wasn’t entirely certain what to expect, but I trusted this group, and I liked the prompts they were sharing from various Jewish sources. My spiritual house was in need of a deep clean; things had gotten rather dusty over the course of the pandemic.
When I saw the first week focused on the principle of chesed, however, I knew I had my work cut out for me in an unexpected way; those words of friends and loved ones coming to the forefront of my mind. Why was I capable of showing loving kindness to everyone but myself? In not being able to embrace this key part of chesed, was I doing a disservice to both myself and my loved ones?
I am not a fan of the common pop psychology psuedo-”wisdom” that declares that you cannot love or be loved until you love yourself. It goes against my Jewish values and my life experiences: often after difficult life experiences, being loved and accepted in our imperfect, messy selves help us learn how to love and show love to others. We do not have to be worthy of love or earn love. Love and loving kindness are not transactional; they are, in my opinion, one of the purest parts of being human.
In being willing to open up to the possibility of showing more self-compassion and acceptance as a stepping stone to chesed, I became curious: how often do we tell ourselves that others deserve kindness more than we do? Do we hold ourselves to an impossible standard? And, in turn, does that create an inability for us to extend extra grace and compassion for others because of our own expectations? Could this denial of care and chesed towards myself be creating barriers in my relationships as well?
This is, of course, not a process that happens overnight. There is a reason the counting of the Omer is a lengthy period, one of partial mourning and of deep spiritual growth and self-improvement. It’s growing pains, which can have moments of great joy as well as stumbling blocks. As we move through this period and reflect on chesed, I will be approaching with curiosity, and a willingness to view my own imperfect, messy, human side with that spirit of loving kindness, and I hope you are able to do the same.