A young activist friend of mine sent me an article this week by B. Loewe, entitled “An End To Self-Care”. The article spoke to him, and since my work as a mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher is often seen as an expression of self-care, he was curious what my response might be.
The article begins with a provocative paragraph, and judging from the number of Likes it has generated on Facebook, the author has plenty of company in the sentiments he expresses. “I’m going to say it. I want to see an end to 'self-care.' Can we put a nail in self-care’s coffin and instead birth a newer discussion of community care?"
Loewe's broadside on the self-care industry takes few prisoners. "Self-care stands as an importation of middle-class values of leisure" that have nothing to do with the reality of life in the trenches of work and family. "We must have all of our strength in place to counter the systems which . . . would see us destroyed." And that strength comes from our collective efforts, not from self-care. Efforts to care for the self apart from the "collective" stand as "a replacement for a politics and practice of desire that could actually ignite our hearts with a fuel to work endlessly." Loewe subtitles a section of the article, "THERE'S NO TIME FOR SELF-CARE." He then restates a longstanding tenet of activist culture. "If injustice results in collective wounds, healing comes from collective struggle." Any focus on the inner life of the individual is a distraction from what really matters, which is always experienced communally through the act of shared struggle.
Let's start by taking a peek at the industry that Loewe is railing against. According to Christine Meinecke, writing in Psychology Today, the term “self-care” became popularized in the 1980's, and “it became irresistibly profitable for advertisers to perpetuate the fantasy that self-care can be easy.” Self-care has thus long since been synonymous in the popular imagination with self-indulgence. According to Meinecki, "the self-care marketing blitz" has convinced most of us that "getting pedicures, choosing hand-dipped dark chocolates, and buying 10,000-thread count bed linens equal self-care." If that is what self-care means, then I am completely with Loewe in prescribing that we “put a nail in self-care's coffin”, and the sooner the better.
Most popular culture and New Age spirituality magazines are filled with advertising that presents this kind of silliness masquerading as self-care. For those like Loewe who are inclined to look no further, it is easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Movement work for social justice is “the highest articulation of caring for one’s own self in a world designed to deny your worthiness of care.” He goes on, “I feel most alive, most on fire, most able to go around the clock, when I’m doing political work that feels authentic, feels like it pushes the bounds of authority, and feels like it is directly connected to advancing my individual and our collective liberation.” Further, “there is no chance of us consistently burning the midnight oil if we don’t at our core believe what we’re working on will get us to a new day, and no amount of yoga or therapy or comfort food we supplement our work with will compensate for that. However, if we can see a better world just over the horizon, like a marathon runner nearing a finish line, we can find endless wells to draw upon as we work to usher it in."
Such denigration of the impulse toward self-care has been a staple of activist culture for decades. It is almost always couched in "either/or" terms. Self-care is for people who do not have the requisite commitment to "consistently burn the midnight oil" in service to their activist cause. Solidarity with other change makers who share this commitment offers more than enough self-care to sustain that commitment over time.
There are several problems with this prescription. For starters, the last time I checked, no specie of animal is designed to work "around the clock." Why is that expectation put forward so consistently by activists? I once worked for fifty-six hours straight on a halibut longliner in the Gulf of Alaska, and take my word for it, I was a walking hallucination and good for nobody by the time we got back to port. Humans, like all our fellow creatures, must sleep, must take rest, in order to maintain optimal functioning. All cultivated fields must periodically lie fallow in order to regenerate their productivity. This is not a failure of motivation, or a design flaw of nature. It is simple biology. To defy that biology indefinitely only invites burnout and breakdown in the long run.
Second, this “new day” that is “just over the horizon” is by definition perpetually out of reach. We never get to the finish line. We never finish that marathon. There are, in this vision, no internal sources of personal well-being apart from that “better world” that is forever future oriented. To seek moments of wholeness or presence in the here and now is a betrayal of the marathon ethic. Yet strictly speaking, the moment we inhabit now is the only moment we ever really have to live, to create and to connect. Deferring all sense of meaning and purpose to a future-oriented goal blinds us to the aliveness and beauty that is all around us right now.
Third, such a view postpones the experience of wholeness until we have achieved our desired results in a perfected world of our own making. We can never rest or feel whole until we get the specific results that "fulfill our vision" for such a world. And it is implicitly our fault if we fail to do so. Our well-being is always dependent upon circumstances outside of ourselves, and outside of our current situation. If, instead, we can bring the aliveness of the moment at hand into our awareness as we do our work, resilience emerges from the integrity of the effort itself. Our sense of well-being is no longer shackled to specific results.
Finally, by lumping disciplined practices like "yoga" and "therapy" in the same category as "comfort foods", Loewe dismisses the effort, courage and fierceness that authentic self-care requires. No one who has ever engaged in a serious practice of self-transformation thinks this work is supposed to be easy or casual. Nor can one get far in such a practice without hearing the call to work just as fiercely on behalf of our collective liberation. The courage and tenacity it takes to face into our own greed, hatred and self-delusion is derived from the same inner fire that burns in our efforts to create a more just and sustainable world beyond the personal realm. In my experience it is impossible to accomplish one without the other. It is the same work. The challenge, always, is to weave these strands of "self-care" and "community care" into an integrated life that draws from the power of each, while sustaining the inner fire that animates both.