Caring for self is a must


In some circles, the term “self-care” is so overused as to elicit groans. In other places, the most likely response is, “What’s that?”

In the hospital where I work as a chaplain, we talk with nurses, doctors and other staff about caring for yourself while caring for others. We’ve used the book Trauma Stewardship as a resource; its title describes the particular challenge of careers that bring one in close contact with suffering.

With so many goals for living well, we may find ourselves always one step behind where we want to be.

While self-care sounds warm and fuzzy, the consequences are stark for ignoring our own needs. Stress kills. We often can’t control its sources in our lives, but we can respond in ways that reduce the damage stress causes to our spirits and bodies. We can make time for activities that lift our spirits; we can take a few moments to breathe deeply; we can set boundaries for what we will and won’t do.

Not that any of that is easy. While adding such practices to one’s day can greatly enhance one’s well-being, it can be challenging to find the time and space for them.

And I’ve observed in many Mennonites — including myself — a tendency to make discipleship a competition. We might not admit it out loud, but sometimes we want to outdo others in being good. We may be nonviolent, but we beat ourselves up internally for the times when we fall short.

That tendency can make practicing self-care even more difficult. There’s the expectation to not only work hard in vocations of serving others but also to cook healthy meals and get enough rest and exercise, too. With so many goals for living well, we may find ourselves always one step behind where we want to be.

There are moments that call for being gentle with ourselves. Sometimes at the end of the week, I just want to eat potato chips and watch TV or a movie. (At least potatoes have Vitamin C.)

However we tend to our needs, what’s crucial is recognizing when it’s time to stop working. As I was reminded by one Mennonite colleague recently, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

But realizing that we have nothing left to give also opens us to grace. One pastor addressing the challenge of self-care wrote that sleep “requires a deliberate act of spiritual surrender within me — a concession that the day has ended without every last task completed, a resigned recognition that I am limited in capacity and time, a confession that I am not God.”

Indeed, while we may be part of God’s mission in the world, it is not up to any one of us to complete that work. One of my favorite prayers, by the late Ken Untener of Michigan, includes these lines: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.”

I wrote out the full prayer in a notebook at my first job as a chaplain. My end-of-the-day ritual included reciting the prayer, partly to convince myself not to stay one more hour and see a few more patients. It was not all up to me.

And self-care shouldn’t be all up to individuals, either. We need to cultivate work and church cultures where people can tend to their needs. Many leaders of faith-based organizations encourage employees to care for themselves, but they have to go beyond lip service. This means practices such as providing good health insurance and allowing enough time off both for vacation and health needs, including family medical leave.

When we work together to create time and space for stewardship of our emotional and vocational resources, it enables all of us to flourish.