One of my mentors often asks me, “Nancy, how are you taking care of yourself?” I’m not sure why the question catches me off guard every time, but it does. A few weeks ago he asked again, and I felt a lump rise in my throat and an ache in the pit of my stomach. I knew I didn’t have an answer, and just hearing the question this time brought strong emotions that I could feel in my body, soul and spirit. After stumbling around for something to say but knowing the emptiness of my words, I resolved to take the question seriously.
I’m not a person inclined toward self-care. Exercise, healthy eating, intentional rest and practicing compassion and kindness to self often get pushed to the side in my heavily scheduled, fast-paced life where the demands of my career are often unpredictable. It is hard for me to say “no.” Not because I think I am indispensable, but because I truly love what I do. I am that person who gets energy from engagement and involvement. Withdrawing and disengaging leave me feeling isolated and disconnected. The discipline of balancing work with rest and engagement with disengagement is not an easy task for me. Yet the wisdom of my elders and my faith nudge me back to this question: How are you taking care of yourself? For many reasons I find myself more receptive to this question than I have been in the past, so I want to share what I have been thinking.
I have thought about the phrases “put on your own oxygen mask first” and “it is hard to help others if you can’t breathe.” I also have a dear friend who says to me, “You’re not going to be able to help too many people if you are dead.” It’s not the most compassionate thing to say to a person struggling with self-care, but it is effective. Thank you, Anne Dahle!
In my search for clues about how I want to better care for myself, the most help has come from turning to my faith and theology. When I think of what it means to be a beloved child of God, I think about the kind of care-giving that I desire for the children in my life. My desire for them is to know places of safety where they are treated with respect, kindness, and where they can be fully themselves without fear of rejection. A place of safety—where you know yourself to be beloved—seems to me to be essential for compassionate living toward self. Our world can be harsh, leaving us feeling that we are neither valued nor safe. Without nurturing spaces and rest, our soul suffers. And so I ask myself, “Are you living in such a way that affirms knowing yourself as God’s beloved?” “Are you spending enough time in places and with people where you feel safe and beloved?”
The concepts of forgiveness and grace are also shaping my new narrative around compassionate living toward self. It is hard to practice self-care when you are always beating up on yourself about what you did or didn’t do. When I was first beginning my ministry, I was in a very difficult time in my life. I remember a wise elder saying to me, “Be gentle with yourself. Life is hard enough. Be kind to you.” There are times—too many times—when my response to something does not convey the person I want to be in this world. In those moments it is so easy to get down on myself. As I practice better self-care, forgiveness and grace are proving to be important allies. Not forgiveness without accountability or a cheap grace; but the kind of forgiveness and grace that affirm a God of second chances.
Finally, and to add some practicality, I am beginning to understand the value of self-soothing skills. Lying in bed reading a good book just little bit longer, searching out those things that I find beautiful and spending more time with them, slowing down when eating a meal, listening to music I enjoy, spending time with those I love. In times of distress and stress, knowing what soothes us is important.
If you were expecting a newsletter article about Christmas, maybe you could view this idea as a Christmas gift you could give yourself. Learning to practice self-care is not just good for our emotional and physical well-being. It is also essential to our life of faith because it reminds us that we are God’s beloved, forgiven and graced with God’s extravagant love. I hope in this season that you will join me in taking seriously the question: How are you taking care of yourself?