Mussar? What is that? It is a term that I recently discovered in the little book Every Day, Holy Day by Alan Morinis. Mussar, according to Morinis, “is a Jewish spiritual tradition that offers insight and guidance for living by directing us to pay attention to the impact our inner traits have on our lives.” (p. vii).
Now you don’t have to be spiritual to know that traits like stubbornness or kindness have an impact on our lives and the lives of those we meet. It is how we think that determines how we act in most instances. Careful cultivation of traits like empathy, generosity, kindness, joy and patience impact the people and world around us in positive ways. Just as traits like miserliness, impatience, anger, jealousy and stubbornness can create situations that leave a negative impact on the landscape of life.
So as I thought about this word and its meaning I wondered what inner traits drive us to avoid taking care of ourselves. Here are some I came up with:
Guilt – Wouldn’t we be skirting our responsibilities if we were to stop for a while and rest? Wouldn’t we be seen as lazy if we took a nap or only worked an 8 hour day? And what if, God forbid, someone needed us when we were off having a massage or walking in the woods? We are not sure we could live with the guilt of not being available 24/7.
Fear – This is another inner trait that drives our obsessive behavior of always working and being available. And it is not so much the fear of what others will say but a fear of being alone with ourselves. If we keep busy, we don’t have to sit with those nagging thoughts or uncomfortable memories that we have put on the back burner of our minds. It can be physically exhausting to keep busy but it would be emotionally frightening to actually take the time to sort through those old wounds, idea, situations and come to a place of resolution.
Selfishness – Not being seen as selfish is something most of us have had drilled into our heads over and over by our parents, churches, schools and friends. After all isn’t taking time for our self selfish? Aren’t we supposed to put others needs in front of ours? Who do we think we are if we actually have needs to attend to? These old tapes keep us on the hamster wheel of busyness doing for others while we ignore our own health and well-being.
The need for approval – This inner trait is closely related to the selfishness trait. The pats on the back, being appreciated and needed seduce us into thinking that we are the answer to everyone’s problems and needs. This seduction is intoxicating and can become addicting. And like all addictions it can be deadly for your body, mind and spirit if you are only giving to others without taking time to replenish your energy levels. Plus it is a false approval that we are looking for if it has to always comes from outside ourselves.
Superiority Complex – Ah yes, the big SC. This allows us to believe that no one can do these things better than we can so we must keep working to prove it. Problem here is that while we are thinking our abilities are superior to others we deny others the opportunity to grow, learn and develop new skills. Imagine if you spent your entire life spoon-feeding your children because you are better with a spoon than they are? Or, if you constantly do for others what they can learn to do for themselves? That is a recipe for burnout, exhaustion and total dependence.
So the antidote to all these traits is to put on your agenda or learning wheel the opposites so that you develop traits that will have a greater impact on others and the world.
Acceptance: Replace guilt with acceptance that you cannot possibly do everything for everyone. That is far more realistic than feeling guilty about something that is not wrong in the first place – taking time to recoup yourself.
Courage: Replace fear with courage to face the things that have gone unresolved and are most likely driving many of your behaviors. Make friends with yourself. You are going to be together for a long time.
Centeredness: Replace those negative feelings of being selfish with a strong sense of what you need to be centered, productive and available. As I have heard said more than once without caring for yourself there will be no self to care for others.
Gratitude: Replace the need for acceptance with gratitude for all that you are and all that you bring to life. Each of us has unique abilities that the world needs. If we are constantly looking for approval from others, we aren’t using the gifts we have been given when they are needed. Be grateful for your gifts and offer them in a spirit of giving back to the world.
Mentorship: I’m not sure this is a word, but it seems to be the opposite of superiority complex to me. Instead of thinking that you are the only one who can do something right or properly, think of yourself as a mentor or teacher guiding another into a new skill or learning.
If you adopt these antidotes to the old traits, your mussar, your impact, will change not only you but the world as well.