Updated: Aug 15
I was recently asked about my practice of self care and I have to say that I always dread this question. Self care is enigmatic, dynamic, and there is never a simple definition as to what it means. It means different things at different times and different things to different people. What restores and revives a friend might be stressful for ourselves and what worked for us ten years ago may now feel stale and routine. Self care is an ever moving target and it can be a struggle to pin down exactly what it is.
While working at Groton School, I grappled with finding balance in my life. A large part of this was the demands of living in a boarding school environment where the year is compressed into nine demanding months. When I shared my struggles with more senior clergy colleagues, the most frequent answer I received was, “you need to practice self care.” This was the most unhelpful thing anyone could have said to me and I wanted to cry out, “Obviously! And if I knew what self care is or how to practice it I wouldn’t be struggling!” I can laugh looking back, but at the time–in those painful moments–it was difficult to not have someone guiding me through figuring out how to live in a balanced way with a healthy practice of self care.
I think the practice of self care can also be complicated by our faith. At the heart of our tradition is love and not just some enlightened, ethereal form of love, but an embodied, self-sacrificing kind of love. Jesus tells us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13)” and in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, he writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).” This kind of love can appear antithetical to self care and it is difficult to live into these two practices simultaneously.
However, these are not the only thoughts on this subject in our tradition. We hear in the gospels time and again how Jesus goes off by himself to rest and pray. We can also think of Jesus asleep in the boat in the middle of a storm while the disciples were panicking around him. This practice of creating time for himself was essential to his ministry and is an example for us to follow. Christian love and caring for oneself are not mutually exclusive, but are, perhaps, dependent on each other. We cannot fully inhabit divine love, unless we are rested and deeply connected to God.
Self care has many facets. To care for the self, we must care for all parts of the self: the physical self, the mental self, the emotional self, and the spiritual self. Self care does involve developing and maintaining an abiding spiritual practice and finding ways to care for our bodies, but here I would like to talk about the other parts of self care. It is these other parts that seem to me more opaque, nebulous, and elusive.
For me, at the heart of these other parts of self care is the question, "what brings me joy?" Paying careful attention to where joy is already in our lives can show us what actions are parts of our lives we need to cultivate to practice self care. At Groton, on the rare occasions I was able to sneak away to share a meal with my friends, I noticed that I was calmer and more centered for about three days afterwards. In recognizing this, I learned that practicing self care for me means spending time with the people I love and the people who love me. I guess this is not really a profound realization–I mean, who doesn't like spending time with friends?–but what was revolutionary was the understanding that self care is making time for friends because that is one thing that brings me joy.
Self care is not something fancy, but making time for the things that bring us joy. It may be spending time in nature, engaging in a craft, cooking or baking, reading a book, or spending time with friends and family. Whatever it is, I believe our ability to carry out the task of love entrusted to us, is dependent on these small actions, on making time for the things that bring us joy. We cannot have moments of self-sacrificial love if there is no self to give up.
In these final days of Lent, I encourage you to pay attention to what already brings you joy and then intentionally make more time for one or two of those things. It may not seem onerous or dour enough for Lent, but if this were our community's Lenten discipline, perhaps we would emerge from these forty days renewed, refreshed, and ready to more fully engage in the kingdom's work.