In the sefer Da Et Atzmecha (Getting to Know Yourself) the author describes something amazing, the movement of the soul:
In physical movement, we are familiar with six directions: the four sides, and up and down. Our teachers have taught that the soul moves in only two directions: expansion and contraction. Every movement must either be a contraction or an expansion.
When a person analyzes himself, he must categorize all movements as either expansion or contraction. Certainly, the degree of expansion and contraction will not be identical in every situation. For example, when a person runs, he may run quickly or slowly. So, too, there are more extreme movements and more measured movements.
In general, the soul moves either to expand or to contract. In the language of Chazal, expansion is referred to as the aspect of chessed, and contraction is referred to as the aspect of din. There are no other kinds of movement.
When a person understands that all his movements are either contraction or expansion, he can begin to understand himself. On a simple level, a person seems happy, and feels that this is an inherent quality in the soul, or he may be sad, and feel that this is the soul’s quality. Or he may feel generous, and believe that such is his soul’s quality. But the truth is that happiness comes from expansion; sadness, from contraction; giving, from expansion; and taking, from contraction. (Section two, chapter two)
What I found amazing, when I first learned this sefer last summer, was how nicely this idea of expansion and contraction fits into Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Desser’s concept of giving and taking. Rav Dessler z”tl, in fact, divided the world into two types of people: Givers and Takers. To quote from Rabbi Aryeh Carmell’s translation of Michtav Me-Eliyahu, “Man has been granted this sublime power of giving, enabling him too be merciful, to bestow happiness, to give of himself.” (Strive For Truth! Volume I, page 119)
When we choose to give to another we are expanding our soul, growing into a better person. I attempted to teach this to my older children (ages 10 and 7) by blowing up a balloon inside a box and showing them how as the balloon expanded it touched more of the box and as air was let out and it contracted the balloon became smaller. The question is, do you want your soul to expand or contract?
I have found this teaching has totally changed the way I look at my actions. Helping someone is no longer just an act of chessed, it allows my soul to move. Making the choice to do something that I want to, at the expense of others in my family (like going to a museum that only I would enjoy) I now see as an action that would be considered a contraction. This way of looking at things has also trickled down to my kids. At my minyan’s kiddush this past Shabbos my 7 yr old daughter proudly told me that she was going to pour some 7-UP for herself, but Mrs. Cohen asked for it, so she gave the bottle to Mrs. Cohen first. My daughter then proudly told me that her neshama expanded.
The sefer Getting to Know Yourself is available for purchase online and at most Jewish bookstores. It is also available for reading online here.