I have an unpopular confession: Secretly…I have writhed against the whole self-care movement, as I am calling it. Unfortunately, I have not heard many convincing, gospel-centered frameworks for self-care. It can become so self-centered, so…self-indulgent. It seems to be more about watching Netflix, bubble baths, or wine and a magazine. I must feel balanced in all my life, safe in all my decisions, and my relationships must be “working for me” or I get out of them. I view these mantras as something not only anti-Gospel, but actually anti-self-care. Let me tell you where I think I have gotten it wrong, and where I think I am on the right track. And hopefully how it can bring us all into a fuller life.
Special note: before I get into parsing this out, there are some serious truths that must be dissected out of those aforementioned mantras. I don’t have space to go into it here, so don’t hear me saying none of that is important. I have sought greater balance in my life at times and, in recent months, have removed myself from a relationship that was not healthy. There are truths in there, but when these mantras are void of nuanced, biblical Wisdom, we miss something so much better than cultural self-care movement can offer.
Where I Think I Have Been Getting it Wrong
So, let’s get gritty. I sat in my therapist’s office about 4 months ago and went on about why I had returned to therapy after so many years. I offered details about my health and how exhausted I was because of all that is involved for me to feel good enough to get out of bed and go through my days; I told her about our surprise pregnancy, the accompanying vertigo and set backs with my chronic illness. I gave peeks into my anger that felt just under the surface all.the.time and how I felt like I couldn’t control it and how unusual and scary that felt for me. I told her about the ways I felt like I had failed in the past 10 years and how sad I was about that. What I am trying to say is I gave her tons of therapist-fodder to dissect and work through…and you know what her response was after my 30+ minute monologue?
“I’d like to talk to you about self-care.”
“Are you kidding me? Yes, let me get a manicure, take a bubble bath, read a magazine and I am sure it will all go away.” (I mentioned the intense anger I was going through, right?) Don’t worry, that’s only what I said inside my head. The less-offensive adult that I would like to be in reality said, “Hmmm, okay. Let’s talk about that, what do you mean?” (If ever I desire to say something obnoxious but would like to refrain, I find asking a question helps me tremendously, and it even can move me toward feeling a slight bit of genuine interest. I think Jesus was on to something with all of his questions. I highly recommend it.).
Since she is a therapist, I wonder if she sensed my inner revolt, but the gracious woman that she was, went on to say something that will stay with me forever, “Self-care, is simply what you need to do to be present to your life. To show up.”
Huh, so it’s less about checking out and more about checking-in? …This split open the self-indulgence and self-care bundle I had inadvertently created. I had not been able to separate these. Honesty, checking out (which I did often) wasn’t getting me to the life I wanted to live. I was aware of my challenges and overwhelmed with my own emotions, but I was not present to my life.
Where I think I might be getting it right
I had grown weary of the buy this or that gadget because “you’re worth it” or have an 8 hour Netflix binge because “you deserve it.” My question becomes: what am I worth? A whole new item? That sweater? Drill? Bottle of wine? That’s actually a fairly low value in my opinion. Is that really all I am worth? And to the second idea: what do I deserve? To check out of life and feel empty after watching people live a life I wish I was living? Certainly, certainly, there is more to self-care.
When I read Scripture, I see Jesus calling us to something much more than a cultural idea of self-care. He calls us to deny ourselves to follow Him. And if I take that call anywhere near serious, I have to make sense of it before I swallow the self-care message whole. I mean, most of his disciples ended up being martyred for their faith…where does this fit into our cultural self-care model? When I read the Scriptures, it doesn’t.
Now, before you click that red x up in the corner of your screen because I am coming across as a fanatical ascetic, I still watch movies and eat chocolate (chronic illness = no wine L ) , but I not longer confuse that with self-care. I just call it fun.
We find ourselves in long line of spiritual seekers who have needed to parse through the accepted ideals of their society in order to remain faithful to God. Thomas Merton writes of the desert fathers in the Wisdom of the Desert,
“Society … was regarded as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life…These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.”
My perceptions about our culture and churches is there are some churches who may still hold this stance of “separate from culture”, but overall we have wanted to become more mainstream and “normal” to the culture. And in some ways, for good reason. Weird for the sake of weird is sort of stupid. But if we really want to differentiate ourselves in an age of self-indulgence as those who follow Christ, one main way to do this is to be present. Let me explain.
One grave, and yet attractive, lure of our times is a life that lacks presence. We hear about and witness it all the time: articles about “screen time” for kids, the ills of social media on our brains, people together in space but separated by smart phones, iDevices, etc. etc. etc. To go deeper into disembodiment and lack of presence, just consider pornography, certain types of gaming and addictions, online shopping, etc. there are so many ways to live without being present to ourselves, to each other, and most significantly, to God.
I suggest we must have a good framework from which to think through the cultural assumptions about how we are told to live and act in the midst of very real felt challenges and exhaustion we all can face. It matters. Our thought framework builds up into ideas, which become choices, which fill our days, and eventually become the life we are living. Simplicity is, in part, about examining that framework in the light of God’s love and living from that center. A Better Framework for a More Present Life
I love when individuals’ lives, especially their spiritual lives, look very different. I believe we must listen to the Holy Spirit in the nuances of our own lives. God is untangling each of our own, individual blocks to receiving and giving His love. My tangled web doesn’t look like yours, and vice versa…so how could my spiritual life and self-care look like yours? It couldn’t. So why would my sanctification, my self-denial in order to follow Christ, look like yours? And what if denying myself means I need to engage in some real self-care? What if my ego-built, self-preserving way of doing life is dependent upon myself and all that I can “make happen”? What if self-care means being perceived as someone who is “less spiritual” because I say no more often? Or maybe because I engage in therapy? Or I speak up about an issue? Or remain silent? Or spend more time alone? Or with people? Or go against whatever my little subculture tells me is the best way to God? What if denying myself is simply going against what I have always perceived as “spiritual” because I sense an invitation from God to care for myself differently? Might this also be denying myself in order to allow the Holy Spirit to nuance my life, that I might submit myself more to Christ?
This is not a post or rant about the church, but I will say I don’t often see this type of spirituality espoused or taught. We, as a church, are not comfortable with the freedom of nuances. We prefer boundaries placed around spiritual growth with more control about what each other lives should look like. But truth be told, we don’t know what someone else is giving up, or how their decisions may actually be denying themselves. Humbling even more, those same people may actually be denying your judgment of them in order to follow Jesus precisely because you have thought spiritual obedience looked so specific. But more on that rabbit trail in a post-to-come 😉
So back to Presence and Self-Care.
As I have heard many a pastor preach, God referred to himself as the great “I AM”, not the “I WAS”, or the “I WILL BE”, though God is in the past and the future. He reminds us he is ultimately the Great Right Now, and the only way we can ever experience God is right now.
Self-care starts with noticing my soul-condition and being willing to move from whatever mode I am in and return present to myself, and then to the Present-God. Self-care is the path I use to return, whatever that means for that particular moment, day, or season.
Do you know your soul’s condition?
You know where I was just 4 months ago, and I can say I am in a very different place now. And what has that journey looked like for me? In this most recent season has looked like all of the following at different times: reading, grieving deep losses, prayer, coloring, venting to God (getting really honest), going to bed earlier some days, receiving kindness, yoga, writing, therapy, painting, being vulnerable/asking for help, taking a bath (that one was humbling), apologizing, reaching out to a friend, getting away from a screen for a day or two, spending time with a mentor, and I could go on. All of these have been paths for me back to Presence.
Self-care is as varied as you and I are in the ways it plays out in our individual lives. It’s as varied as the unique things that keep us checked out of life and the things that bring us back to Life itself. I’ll state it again, God brings us back through the nuances of our life; He untangles the webs we weave toward disembodiment unique to each of us, so that list above is quite possibly endless. But the beauty is in the simplicity of its focus for each of us: what does it take for you to show up and be present to your life? Maybe you have 10 minutes or 3 hours, or perceive a shift that needs to happen permanently in your life. Where would you like to be more present? In what ways would you like to try self-care that helps get you there, rather than helps you check out for those minutes?
Here are 3 basic tips about self-care that I have learned: 1. Trial and error is okay; it’s probably essential. Try various things until you find out what works for you. And that may be different depending on the day. And don’t judge yourself in the process. 2. Opening up vulnerably to God (and maybe others) is a must. It’s really not an option to do spiritual life alone. Humility is the seed of all growth. 3. It’s worth every effort. You may regret “checking out” in some area of life, but you will likely never regret engaging in being present to all life has to offer, even if your life is particularly tough right now.
There is nothing inherently wrong with Netflix, chocolate, wine, or the like. But what almost always matters is the motivation of our hearts. Are we further distancing ourselves, from ourselves? Or are we on a gentle path to lead us back to ourselves, and to God? Through our culture’s narrative of self-care I do believe people are sincerely reaching out for something greater. But when the narrative ends with ourselves, I am afraid we will never get there.
We can take time away from self-indulgence in the midst of the cultural call to self-absorption; we can move toward caring for ourselves and become present to Love. Do you want that? Do you want God’s Love as a deep well within? I know I do. I am fumbling and learning throughout my whole life to live present to it. But that’s okay. Because God doesn’t change. This Love is ever-Present, even, and maybe more so, in the fumbling. And any time I become aware of my movement away from Love, I can get back on the path toward it. …now that, that sounds like self-care.
Self-indulgence ultimately leaves us feeling empty and longing, but true self-care can bring us into the fullness of hope and the joy-of-longing for something way beyond self-indulgence.
My new year blessing for you: May your new year’s hopes go beyond yourself May this year engage the nuances of your life, and what God is inviting you to And may whatever you commit to in this new year be about bringing your whole self closer to the Present God
I would love to hear how you are engaging self-care rather than self-indulgence. How are you becoming present to yourself and present to Love?