Self Care and Cross Carrying
Christ tells us that we must carry our crosses and drink from his cup. Living in community with others can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Teachers, nurses, and non-profit workers (among others) are almost always at serious risk of burnout. Taken together in a certain way, these three simple truths can be extremely problematic when it comes to trying to live a Christian life.
If the last two years have taught me anything, it’s that the people who most want to do good in the world are among the very worst at taking care of themselves. It seems to be particularly difficult for Christians. A large part of this problem stems, I think, from a particular interpretation of what it means to carry a cross, to live and love selflessly. This interpretation implies that to carry our crosses entails forswearing absolutely any and all things which might be beneficial for us. It can become so ingrained that we start to feel uncomfortable whenever something good happens to us, even (or indeed especially) if it comes about as a result of the love of others. It can become so ingrained that we find it practically impossible to justify taking time for self-care.
There are reasons for this. After all, an integral part of the Gospel message is that God wills us to put others before ourselves. To take this to the extreme where we feel we can’t ever do things which are first and foremost good for us, however, is to mistake the overall import of the Gospel of which this instruction is an integral part. Specifically, I think it leads us to ignore the parts of the Gospel message which tell us first that we stand in need of redemption, second, that we are redeemed.
Let’s look first at what it means to say that we stand in need of redemption. This is not, in my mind, the clarion call to self-flagellating guilt so typically thought of as part of the doctrine of Original Sin. It is rather the observation that we are finite and fallible creatures, capable of mistakes, easily worn out, and above all incapable of absolute self-sufficiency. This is not, of course, to say that this finitude is what we need to be redeemed from (after all, it is as finite and fallible creatures that we were created and loved): it is to say that we will always need external things to sustain us, whether it be food, the company of others, or the redemptive love of God. This is no cause for shame: it merely implies that when we get home on a Friday night, utterly exhausted, it is a part of our nature to require something beyond our own sense of duty or resilience to help us carry our work on joyfully into the next week.
Insofar as this is the case, the recognition that from time to time we need to take the time for proper self-care is not a denial of the command to put the needs of others before our own: it is rather the recognition of our own finitude. Here we find another meaning in the ‘as thyself’ in the command to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ (one which I’ve lifted from Karl Barth). We cannot love our neighbour as God loves them, for we are not God: we can only love them as we are capable of loving them, as ourselves. Thus to love others as God commands, we must be honest with ourselves about the limits of our own capacities.
There are times, then, when if we are to carry any cross at all, we have to stumble, rest, and allow others to help us along our way. We have to recognise our own limits and so learn to say no to jobs which take us over those limits. We have to learn to accept the loving gifts of others, whatever they may be. (For my part, if anyone were to ever replicate Leslie Nope’s gifts to Ron Swanson in Parks and Rec, specifically the treasure hunts, remote controlled office doors, and a solitary dinner of steak and whiskey, they would be the recipients of my eternal and undying gratitude.)
This brings us to the fact that we are redeemed. What does this have to do with self-care? Well, first off, it tells us that the most fundamental fact of our life as Christians is that we have had something wonderful done for us: that however comfortable or uncomfortable we might feel with being the recipients of gifts from others, our lives are fundamentally conditioned by this gift of redemption. Nor is this just any sort of gift: it is not given to us as part of a two-sided deal. It is given to us solely for our own good: for no other reason than that we might live. To see the Gospel as prohibiting us from ever being comfortable with receiving gifts given solely for our own good may well therefore be to see the Gospel as prohibiting itself, for that is just what the Gospel is; a gift given to us solely for our own good.
This does not, of course, override the fact that we must live our lives for others; after all, it is precisely in living for others that we accept this gift. It does, however, give us license to live joyfully, including taking joy in those gifts which God has given to us that we might sustain ourselves. This means taking joy in treating yourself once in a while; it means taking joy in a lovingly prepared meal; it means taking joy in a solitary walk, or in your favourite TV show, or in your favourite band releasing a new album, all of which is (bizarrely enough) ultimately from the hand of God. It then means taking this joy and carrying it forward as a gift for others, so that we might be a joyful presence in their lives.
All of which suggests to me that self-care is an integral part of Christian living, and that living according to the Gospel requires every now and again taking time for ourselves to remind ourselves both how blessed and how fragile we really are. The Gospel does not ask us to burn ourselves out when it says that those who seek to save their lives shall lose them; it asks us to live as wholly and joyfully as possible for the love of God and neighbour, and so recognise that there are times when we must recharge.
What does this look like in practice? Well, self care for me looks as follows: on my lunch break I find a place with minimal wind to sit and smoke the beautiful pipe my partner gave me as a present. I either read or play chess. I try to have as little contact with the outside world as possible, and I don’t let anything apart from a proper emergency shift me from my position before the tobacco has burnt out. As I’m cleaning out the pipe I pray the Lord’s Prayer. Then I get back to work. All this is of next to no immediate practical benefit to anyone except myself. When I return to work, however, I am almost always energised and lightened by this time spent pointlessly. I’ve done this almost every week day for the past year, and it has transformed the way I go about my life.
This particular example is obviously not the paradigm of self-care. But if you’re reading and often feel close to burning out, often find yourself feeling like you can’t take time for yourself for whatever reason, I hope this helps somewhat. Again, all things told, we are fragile creatures blessed with great love. This is reason to rejoice. It is reason to be gentle with ourselves. Above all, it is reason to be honest with ourselves about our need for self care, so that we might go on to love our God and neighbour as best we can.