In the small part of the world I inhabit it’s rare that a week goes by during which I don’t talk with someone about self-care. The church I serve has more than its fair share of teachers, social-workers, therapists, and grad students. These are people who are moved by their neighbors’ pain and have given much of their lives to work of mercy and justice. The work they’ve chosen is demanding and the obstacles they face are entrenched and seemingly endless. I ask them, Are you taking care of yourself? Are you getting rest? We talk, in other words, about self-care and whether or not they are prioritizing it in the midst of difficult vocations.
But it’s not enough.
Which isn’t to say that self-care isn’t important. It is. The concept reminds the individual that her life matters- all of it, not just the bits that are affirmed for their efficiency or productivity. Self-care is also empowering as the individual claims the responsibility and right of ensuring that she is not marginalized, taken advantage of, or made invisible. There continue to be many places where self-care is a radical act, where a person’s value and agency are not foregone conclusions.
The way we talk about self-care is a relatively recent development, a fact that hints at why I don’t think the concept can bear the weight we’ve placed upon it. As best I can tell, prior to the late 1980’s, when the literature uses “self-care” it is describing populations of people who weren’t considered capable of caring for themselves. From a cursory search, it seems that people talked about self-care as something to be taught to less-capable others- children, the poor, and the mentally handicapped to give a few examples I found. The care in these examples related to the basic functions of life and was a obviously different from the way we think about self-care today.
Beginning in the 1990’s – again, as best I can tell – the meaning began to shift to include medical concepts and was then applied to those working in the social services. This is the beginning of how we think about self-care today, where an individual takes responsibility and control of his own mental and emotional health.
One of my favorite people to follow on Twitter is author Anne Lamott and a regular theme for her is self-care. Because she’s Anne Lamott it’s radical self-care. Here’s one from this past September: “Maybe I have 20 years left. I plan to love God, help His or Her children, radical self-care; try to save the earth: march, & register voters.”
Lamott, I think, captures how we feel about self-care, that it is necessary for sustaining our call to good work and that it is a responsibility we alone can bear. But is self-care as important as we’ve made it to be? And are we capable enough to take responsibility for our own mental and emotional health?
Sabbath, in contrast to self-care, has a much longer history, though it’s one even Christians forget. (I won’t pretend to speak for Jewish people here, whose relation to the Sabbath is much longer and more intentional than it is for Christians.) Within an individual-centered society it’s probably not surprising that caring for one’s self eclipses the practice of a corporate pace of rest and care. Yet it’s actually for the ways that Sabbath challenges our individualism that I think it offers a more life-giving, humanizing path for us, especially those called to the helping professions.
To begin with, Sabbath is grounded in the physicality of specific practices. There is nothing theoretical about sabbath-keeping; it happens when we stop our work and, as Eugene Peterson has written, start our play. For most of us, Sabbath will be marked weekly by ceasing our productivity and joining with others in our congregation as we worship and serve one another. It will be normal for us to rest and feast with the knowledge that others are doing – or not doing – the same thing. In the Sabbath we have a day, a full twenty-four hours, that is God’s gift to us. We are not meant to grasp for moments to care for ourselves. No, each week is meant to begin with a day during which, through specific practices and routines, we experience God’s care for us. In his essential book about the Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel repeatedly points out the way this day functions as God’s gift to us: “The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere.” Our abstaining and feasting practices, experienced weekly, are the doorway to this palace in time where are free from time’s tyranny.
I hinted at it in the preceding paragraph, but another attribute favoring the Sabbath deserves to be called out: Sabbath is for the community and with the community. Of course, as is hopefully already clear, the day benefits the individual but, unlike self-care whose very name limits it to the individual, Sabbath is meant for the good of a people. This is more important than might be immediately obvious. After all, one of the attractions of self-care is that I get to decide what will be refreshing for me. Nothing wrong with that; I do it all the time when the kids are in bed and Maggie is at work when I sit contentedly in a quiet home with a book or a movie. But if I’m relying solely on myself for the care of myself I’m guaranteed to let myself down. I will too regularly choose to overwork or I will choose entertainment that sounds appealing but leaves me emotionally fatigued rather than rejuvenated.
But because Sabbath is practiced with a community, my rest will be characterized by acts and habits that I wouldn’t choose for myself but which, over the centuries, have proven rejuvenating for our humanity. Self-care involves choosing something that, though I may overlook or neglect it, will feel good to me. Sabbath, in contrast, involves submitting to a day with others that many times I don’t think will feel good to me. I couldn’t tell you how many times I, a pastor, have been told by someone after a worship service, I didn’t want to come today but I’m sure glad I did. That’s Sabbath. We choose to trust that this very old way of being together is the best thing possible for us, and for me.
Sabbath is harder than self-care, mostly, in my experience, because its practice requires my submission to God’s idea of what is best for me. But it’s harder in the way we need it to be. After all, there are good reasons and hard experiences that make it necessary that we are cared for. We need something with a bit more backbone, a bit more history, and much more fruitfulness over the generations if we mean to continue our work with joy. I’m not strong enough to care for me. Thankfully, there is One who is, and the Sabbath is where I’m reminded of this simple and necessary truth every single week.