If I Am Not For Myself, Who Will Be For Me?

by Samantha on December 3, 2009

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

And, if not now, when?”  –Hillel

The meaning and interpretation of these questions, posed by Hillel (rabbi and scholar) many years ago, have long been the subject of discussion and debate.  They are questions that force us to look inward and truly consider the way we are living our lives.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” When it comes down to it, we have to take care of ourselves. We can’t fully depend on others, or let others depend fully on us. There comes a time when we need to be selfish. Go to that doctor’s appointment you’ve been putting off. Take a day off from work and do nothing. Call it a “mental health day.” If there’s a movie you really want to see, but all of your friends laugh when you suggest it, go by yourself. (You won’t have to share the popcorn!) If you’ve got too much on your plate, say no. Stand up for what you believe in. Take a hard look at the people in your life. If you’re giving 110% to a friendship and the other person is only giving 30%, cut your losses. It’ll hurt at first, but you’ll be better for it in the end. Look at yourself in the mirror until you can see your own beauty. Buy yourself that special something you’ve been admiring for months. If you need justification,  call it a holiday present to you, from you. It’s great to be a giver, to be generous and take care of others, but you have to accept things from others sometimes too.

“If I am only for myself, what am I?” Be careful with this one, because the answer could easily be “an asshole.”  Let yourself be selfish sometimes, but not all the time. Put yourself first, but be conscious of the feelings of those around you. Find something that brings you joy and brightens the lives of others, whether it be sending holiday cards to friends and family, or volunteering at a local food bank. It may take time, but find a balance between selfish and selfless. Too much of either will undoubtedly affect your quality of life.

“If not now, when?” Carpe diem, seize the day! The truth is, that we never know what tomorrow will bring. We don’t know how much time we have left on this Earth. So, ask yourself this third question whenever you have doubts about doing something fulfilling.  Don’t wait for a “better time,”  because there may not be one. One of my mantras is “make every moment count,” and it’s all about not taking a single moment of our lives for granted.

This all sounds fine and dandy, but sometimes life gets in the way.  We are faced with crippling challenges and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But, no matter how crappy our lives might be at any given point, we are still so lucky to be alive. Be there for others, but remember to be there for yourself too. It’s okay to be sad for a little while, as long as you pick yourself up afterwards and keep on going. It all comes back to Hillel’s first question: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Sure, we all have amazing people in our lives who love and care for us, but in the end, if we are not for ourselves, then the chances are that no one else will be either.

How would you answer these questions? Do you think they apply to anyone of any age and background? Are they a good moral compass?

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  • sharalynhartwel

    Great post, Sam! I think we all need a reminder of each of these questions at some point. I think the trick to life is finding a balance between one and two. This is applicable to everyone, at all stages of life. Think of working mom or dad, trying to find a balance between doing for their kids, doing for each other and doing for themselves. Think of us, mainly in that building stage of life. If we don't put forth the effort now, when will we. These are great questions to ask ourselves. I know I need to contemplate them more frequently. Thanks for the reminder!

  • http://www.benjamintwilcox.com benjamintwilcox

    This is a great post and also a great thing to remember. I agree that our selfishness shouldn't be taken to the extreme of hurting or neglecting others, but it is important to provide for yourself while working towards your own goals. No one else can tell you what kind of life will make you happy, you need to figure that out for yourself.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    This is so beautiful, Sam. I love this! Too often in life I tell myself, “You should feel this way,” or “Don't act like that,” but why shouldn't I? If not for myself…all I have is myself and if I beat myself up, judge myself, or try to put myself down that gets me nowhere.

    Thanks for writing this :)

  • http://leavesinthespring.blogspot.com/ Bluebelle

    You're spot on with these. I think sometimes saying no and taking time for yourself is one of the hardest things to do. And, we're just at the beginning of our adult lives – how much harder must it be to look after yourself and to seize the day when you have kids?! I guess it's important to learn to do it now, so you're in the habit when you have even more responsibilities. Great post, thanks for the thought-food Sam!

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  • http://25andtrying.com Beth Oppenheim

    It actually took me two read throughs to really get at the heart of this post. I am really familiar with these particular words of Hillel and grew up being taught their importance in life. But the way in which you personally discussed each component was really an added bonus. I love the idea of balancing the selfish with the selfless. I have a hard time balancing these things! (the only child in me versus the nonprofit worker). But I loved these insights and mostly that really 2,000 year philosophy can still have meaning today. Great post!!

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  • http://www.lifeschocolates.com sameve

    Sharalyn: Working parents are a great example. Moms and dads devote all of their time and energy to their kids and don't realize how worn down they're getting. Selfishness has such a negative connotation in our society, but I think it's only truly bad in its most extreme form. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • http://www.lifeschocolates.com sameve

    Thanks Ben! You're spot on. No one else knows what makes us truly happy because no one knows us as well as we know ourselves. Like I said in the post, hopefully we all have friends and family who care about us, but that doesn't mean we don't have to care about ourselves too.

  • http://www.lifeschocolates.com sameve

    Thank you, Grace, for sharing such beautiful insight! Of course, there will be times when we struggle, but we should try not to spend too much time beating ourselves up, especially about things we have no control over. You're right, negativity gets us nowhere.

  • http://www.lifeschocolates.com sameve

    Naomi: You touch on the reason why this post is relevant to Gen Yers. As they say, old habits die hard, so if we can learn these lessons now, hopefully we can find a way to carry them with us throughout every stage of our lives. Thanks for commenting!

  • http://www.lifeschocolates.com sameve

    Beth: I grew up hearing about these words too, and at the time, I probably thought it was some old stuff that was totally irrelevant to me. But, now I see that they are actually very relevant, and it's pretty cool. I can definitely relate to what you said. The selfish/selfless balance is difficult for me too. Like a lot of things, it's a process. Thanks for sharing your perspective :)

  • http://twentyorsomething.com/ Susan Pogorzelski

    “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

    I once saw this quote — or at least, some variation of it — on a piece of mixed media art. It so moved me that I took a picture.

    I love this post, Sam. As you probably know, this whole “me” thing is something I'm desperately trying to work on, but something that, as you well know yourself, is not so easy. When you're used to doing for others, it's hard to put the focus back on yourself, to remember that no one will take care of you like you can take care of yourself, that you are your first priority. What it comes down to is you have one job in this world: to be you. That means taking care of yourself so that you can, in fact, take care of others.

    Finding that perfect balance that you describe between selfishness and selflessness is never easy. In fact, there are times where it's doubtful that the perfect balance even exists. But that's what we work towards. As you say, in the comments, it really is a process of becoming — becoming the best you you can be, the only you there is.

    I love this post, Sam. I love this message and though it's a hard lesson to swallow, I know it's one that has to be learned. Thanks for this, and thanks for that beautiful quote — it's great to be reminded of it.

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  • http://www.lifeschocolates.com sameve

    Susan: I totally hear you, and as usual, you put it so eloquently: You have one job in this world: to be you. And you touch on an important point, if we don't take care of ourselves, we won't be able to take care of others. It is a process to find that balance, and it's okay if we never make it completely even, as long as it's not totally lopsided. Thank you so much for your comments. I always look forward to what you have to say :)

  • http://www.lifeschocolates.com sameve

    Susan: I totally hear you, and as usual, you put it so eloquently: You have one job in this world: to be you. And you touch on an important point, if we don't take care of ourselves, we won't be able to take care of others. It is a process to find that balance, and it's okay if we never make it completely even, as long as it's not totally lopsided. Thank you so much for your comments. I always look forward to what you have to say :)

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  • Loid28

    thanks 4 your wonderful explanation. this quote is indeed life changing!

  • Mike

    I am sorry to tell you this but as with many of the sayings of Jesus this is an ancient Jewish saying attributed to Hillel. In Hebrew it has a great ring – Im ain anili, mi li (If I am not for my self who is)

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  • Doris

    I came apon this quote, and with a google search, came to your blog. Thank you for your insights into these wonderful, meaning filled questions.

  • Yael

    Exactly!

  • Logan Scar

    I’ve lost me years ago,have no clue how to be the same anymore….Im ghost of man,everyday i woke up look myself in the mirror im asking those things How did i change so much?What happend with me?Why can’t act as me and only me.I have no idea how to turn back ,I hurt so much,im suffering ….But im trying not to show this to my surround,When i talk i feel like there’s got to be 2 people on one body.Sometimes i feel everything gonna be fine,even if the never be so…..Anyway my point is i lost the train,Now even i wish to go back unfortunately cant….Im in the middle of the occean….but or i can keep going as im now,or turning back which is impossible to me.I never gonna make it to land ground.

  • Logan Scar

    Im huge lier,im trying to make people happy when i feel unhappy…

  • Logan Scar

    actually this is what people say….

  • millery

    Excellent

  • Davy

    Hello Samantha,

    Tnx for the clear explanation.

    I was wondering if you used any sources for this article, if so which one?
    Or is your own vision on the quote?

    Greetings and tnx in advance.

    Davy

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