Self-care, an idea that has migrated out of the realm of health care and into the popular discourse of the over-taxed middle class woman, doesn’t elicit the same eyeroll I reserve for the self-help industry. I wish I could claim “no judgement zone” on the endless blogs and books about becoming better, happier, stronger after a succession of guided steps, but I have my doubts.
I’m more inclined to admit the virtues of #selfcare because it doesn’t depend on gurus but instead asks that we each assess the particulars of what ails us. Laying out the facts of what I’m doing in life that causes stress, I can then reason out ways to ease off the pressure. It’s not about radical transformation in the short term — Be your best self! It’s not about shifting or sacrificing priorities — Take time off! It’s about maintenance and incremental change, which is really all that I can afford in time or money at this point.
The project of self-care is broad. I workout at home. I brew tea and drink it deliberately. I find time to read everyday. The things I do are meant to alleviate anxiety and depression. But I have learned that self-care isn’t only about palliatives. In times of extreme stress you may need to be your own nurse, but day to day what you really need is to be your own champion. In the past I’ve excelled at the former and struggled with the latter.
While I was busy swaddling myself — at times this was all I could do — I neglected to take care that I was on track with my goals. I was getting the mood boost and taking meditative respite behind a cup of jasmine green tea, but I wasn’t taking steps to improve the dismal situation that left me gasping for relief in the first place.
This protracted oversight became stark when I recently saw a local theater production. I don’t know a lot about theater. I read a few plays in high school and have seen a few Broadway blockbusters. Fortunately, it doesn’t require expert status to be affected by art. Actually as someone whose graduate study of art history lead to disaffection for the discipline, details can sometimes dampen emotions.
The play, about a shipwreck in the English channel in 1899, was performed in an intimately small and sparsely dressed set with a low ceiling. The audience sat around the perimeter of the room. The actors were at arm’s length the whole time. The story unfolded in vignettes and impressions. It was stunning.
As I left the theater, slightly destabilized by the portrayal of the horrors of drowning at sea — conjuring in my mind the headlines and video clips of Syrian refugees — my mother and boyfriend, who were there as well, joked about how the play should have been shorter. It was a fair criticism. One act in particular was overlong and performed in languages other than English. Just the same, I felt like I was being laughed at.
I was in tears before I realized that the play wasn’t perfect and that I was actually responding to the ambition and bravery of the playwright and the actors, to have dreamed the narrative and shared it with other people.
Maybe I need a self-care strategy that not only makes me more comfortable in the world but prompts me to participate as well. Like a lot of people, I don’t necessarily feel inspired by my job(s). But even though it feels like it, it doesn’t actually take up all of my time. Instead of treating my free time as a recovery period, the self-care champion in me suggests it should be when they real work happens. It’s still about maintenance. I still need to be able to function in my job, but it’s probably the only way that will be able to move beyond it.