Journalist Anna North excoriated typical white girl self-care notions this week, in her essay Work Is My Self Care. There is obviously nobody better than me to respond since I actually had a real bubble bath this week (not just bath salts, but bubbles) and I am undeniably very white.
There’s a lot I agreed with in what she wrote. First, the term “self-care” increasingly makes me cringe, probably because of the co-optation she rightly calls out from, well, people selling bath products. Second, she is right on about the joy that comes from meaningful work, from being in the “flow” of doing your job well. But I think she sets up self-care against meaningful work, and what is really going on is a search for resilience. (As you might guess from the title of this website, I like the idea of resilience.)
Let me explain.
Even when I was in law school, and even more so when I graduated, I threw myself into law with every fiber of my being. The world was full of people suffering, and now I had a skill to use to mitigate the suffering a tiny bit. How could I rest, when my resting meant someone somewhere was suffering? If you think this sounds arrogant and over-wrought, I assure you that you’re totally right. I represented a detained asylum-seeker after my first year of law school, with minimal supervision, did a pretty good job and still lost. I had a brutal judge, and if you don’t believe me, this article might convince you. I carried that loss with me, though, as a sign that I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t working hard enough, and when I got to do another asylum case for my law school clinic, I was going to prove myself.
Which is when I came down with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Coincidence, maybe. Probably not, since stress is thought to be a trigger for RA. All I knew is I went from healthy to unable to bear the weight of a pen in my hand, almost overnight. Even without holding a pen in my hand, it felt like someone had smashed my hands with a hammer. Walking was slow and painful. Breathing? Yeah, even breathing hurt.
So I slowed down and took bubble baths, right? Wrong. I went and got a job at a place where every single person I worked with was as dedicated as me, and we did amazing things collectively. My own specialty was human trafficking and wage theft. Talk about suffering and meaning! But it was a place where, true story, I found out I had lost my first pregnancy on a Friday morning, kept working through the day despite the news, and on Monday morning got called out for my lack of commitment generally. As a colleague said, it was like we showed up for life toting our own crosses, and asking people to crucify us.
So, meaningful work? Check. Purpose and flow? Check. Impossibly high standards that could not be maintained without sacrificing my actual body? Check, check, check. I blame the organization for none of this–the work ethic there merely mirrored my own sense that I had no right to look out for myself when there was still an injustice that needed to be righted.
Oh look, there it is again: arrogant and over-wrought.
So I learned, and the next place I worked, I experimented in the kind of self-care Ms. North decries. I did domestic violence work (of course I did), and after every trip to the dark, tense halls of D.C. Superior Court, which was thankfully several times a week, I rewarded myself with a lovely cupcake. This was in the early days of the cupcake craze, and I actually think I might have made the craze happen.
Then the recession happened, the non-profit began tanking, and I stumbled into a teaching job with one of the best, most resilient friends and colleagues I have ever had. And for the first time in a while, I began to think and notice things.
At the same time, I was blindly groping for ways to help my students not become me–an almost-burned-out, physically debilitated human being (albeit one whose humor somehow never failed). We generated ideas from exercising to writing with sparkly pens to spending more time making music (for the piano players and singers among them) to playing sports (for those people who enjoy that sort of thing).
This was a great start. Better than cupcakes, but still not connecting the dots. Actually, nothing is better than a really good cupcake, and I will get back to that.
What I was groping toward was the idea of resilience. And the answer became beautifully simple. If you visualize a tree in a storm, the tree sways, sometimes alarmingly so. But a healthy tree, and a tree whose roots run deep, will withstand the wind. Sometimes the storms are too powerful, sure, but the best way to stay standing is to tend the roots.
So now what I work with my students on is identifying the roots. There is some overlap here with “self-care” but while self-care asks what will make me smile right now?, resilience goes to a deeper question: what keeps me strong over the long term? And then demands that we pay attention to and nourish whatever it is that keeps us strong.
It might be family, or music, or prayer. It could be building a circle of colleagues who make you laugh and understand how relentless the work can be. It could be laughing with old girlfriends who help you stay real. It could be training for a race or making home a respite, whether that looks like the cover of Real Simple, or looks like books spilling from every corner. It could be remembering how much you love theater, and going to see it more than you did before. Or remembering that volunteering with animals brings you joy, and going to the shelter more.
Our lives so often require incredible resilience. Tending to the roots helps us build that resilience. And from there we can go forth and keep doing the work.
And maybe celebrate a good day at work with a cupcake, too. I’m not going to judge.