A friend of mine went to look at an apartment in Bondi recently. It is, they say, a good time to buy. He was already inside when the agent told him the building had concrete cancer. Apparently it’s common in places round here, expensive but spalling beneath the surface.
It reminded me of my Instagram search feed. It reminded me of a society that sells us the north-facing living room freshly painted bone white and asks us to ignore the fact it’s crumbling from the inside.
Anyone who knows anything about construction knows strength is foundational. Fail to take care, to fortify your home, and you risk hurting yourself. And others.
I’m about to write to you about self care. So, how does that make you feel?
Perhaps, the feeling is good. Perhaps you feel like I’m about to try and sell you something. I am, in a way.
It’s interesting to think about the origins of our reactions. Like how the notion of ‘self respect’ became classically high minded while self care came to attract the kind of derision otherwise bestowed on reality TV, millennial employees and women’s magazines.
The latter term carries an assumption of femininity. Take from that what you will. Self care was employed by the civil rights and women’s movements in response to prejudicial medical systems – and distilled in perhaps its most-cited modern iteration by self-described “black lesbian feminist warrior mother”, writer and activist Audre Lorde – but is largely co-opted as a marketing term. Take from that what you will, too.
It remains, however, that taking care of oneself has a lot to do with self respect. And self respect is a requirement of true self care.
While the narcissistic shell of our era has obscured much of self care’s sacred ancestry its true value runs far deeper. It’s the kind of thing that can extend a life. And crystallise the nature of existence.
Lorde wrote that much-quoted line in her 1988 essay A Burst of Light – “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” – while facing terminal illness and laying the groundwork for a new world in the process.
“I had to examine, in my dreams as well as in my immune-function tests, the devastating effects of overextension,” she wrote; that it “has forced me to consciously jettison the myth of omnipotence, of believing – or loosely asserting – that I can do anything, along with any dangerous illusion of immortality. Neither of these unscrutinised defenses is a solid base for either political activism or personal struggle. But in their place, another kind of power is growing, tempered and enduring, grounded within the realities of what I am in fact doing. An open-eyed assessment and appreciation of what I can and do accomplish, using who I am and who I most wish myself to be.”
While the mind-body connection has only made its way into the Western medical tradition in the past decade or so, research supports what older knowledge systems, and human intuition, have long understood: while behaviours we associate with our physical body impact our long term health, so do those patterns we would typically view as mental. One of them, of course, is stress.
Some acts we call ‘self care’ today are inherently capitalist. Some are inherently not. Like getting enough sleep, being in nature, taking respite from technology and abiding by one’s inner cycles. Common as self care is in our collective lexicon, the latter kind often require an act of self determination.
Most of us have been on both the giving and receiving end of a kind of hypocrisy: that while we might support self care hypothetically, we’re often uncomfortable with the individuality of its manifestations.
The call to ‘take care’ is popular in theory until it means someone can’t make it to the party, or talk right now, or come in today.
The path to freedom lies in the courage to do it anyway. Because the kind of care tied to respect, or at the very least consideration, begins with you. As Maya Angelou put it, “If I am not good to myself, how can I expect anyone else to be good to me?”
Of course it doesn’t always come intrinsically.
Writer and activist Jace Harr created his You Feel Like Shit guide as a personal resource in aid of an ongoing struggle with self care. “I rounded up a list of all the stuff I wasn’t doing but should (like eating, staying hydrated, or turning on the AC when I was sweating) and then made it into a flow chart,” explains Harr of the guide’s origins. “The flow chart became the app.”
Harr is a transgender man. As a mental health proponent, he also has the perspective of trauma-induced dissociative disorder and relies on external cues to remember to take care of himself. “Physical disabilities are one barrier [to one’s ability to enact self care], but mental illnesses and other psychological disabilities can be another,” Harr explains. “Many people were not taught how to listen to their body’s cues or how to do what’s best for themselves, both short-term and long-term. I am one of those people.”
What struck him most on making the YFLS guide publicly available, he says, was how widely it resonated. “I didn’t expect the reaction it got,” he says. “And had no idea that so many people struggled with the same things.”
Perhaps the guide’s most striking quality is its simplicity. Prompts to drink water, take one’s medication, and get the sleep required to feel well during the day seem obvious. Yet most of us can name several times we haven’t fulfilled these basic needs. Beyond extenuating circumstances – it’s often despite the fact we, intellectually, know what’s good for us.
On reflection, it’s somewhat dystopian to imagine a society in which biologically necessary rest, nutrition and disease prevention could be deemed secondary to keeping up appearances, nominal deadlines and external gratification. But here we are. “Our individualistic and capitalistic society forces people to produce constantly and doesn’t give us much time to pay attention to ourselves,” adds Harr. “Often, when we are encouraged to do self care, it is with the ulterior motive of selling us items that are not getting to the root of the problem.”
“We also lack community care and live largely in isolation, which is a big toll on everyone, regardless of how independent they may feel.”
How, then, can these notions of self care be applied in our interactions with others?
The more ambitious industries interested in self care – of Vedic meditation for example – hope that if enough people adopt practices to achieve inner equilibrium, bliss even, the kind that can open one’s mind and dissolve resistance to progression – then the peace might become societal. That our adverse reactions to life’s seismic shifts – or those within ourselves – can be calmed to the extent that we may no longer harm as we do now. My feeling is that this alone is not enough. That a higher level of consciousness can only provide a foundation to active change. But if we consider that the buzz and exhaustion of stress, not to mention associated illness, can suppress even the most vital call to purpose, perhaps the call to rest and regulate our cortisol could still play a part.
Would we be better people if we gave ourselves the time and space to actualise? To operate outside the caffeine-induced highs and bone-tired lows of our current model?
It isn’t guaranteed. But I can offer the opposite examples of snapping at one’s mother due to unrelated stress; reacting defensively to constructive criticism – with a wave of hormones designed for immediate danger as the brain’s first responders; feeling overwhelmed by new information rather than open to its teachings; and being so burnt out that even the things and the people you love feel like work. One can’t build a good life on that; much less a better world.
Yet our current model of prosperity is intent on another kind of growth altogether. The success of most global economies is measured not in the wellbeing of their inhabitants, nor in sustainability, nor health – not even employment – but on gross domestic product. By this definition in order to progress, year on year, we must simply produce more. In 2020, a year of recession, we have failed to meet that goal. But you might say we were failing long before that.
“I started it for myself first and foremost,” Hersey explains. “It was an experiment that began with me napping all over the campus of my graduate school due to overworking myself physically and emotionally while attending school full time, working two jobs and raising my son. It was survival. As I dug deeper, it became a one-night-only performance art piece that invited folks to nap and rest with me as they engaged with my research on the commodification of Black bodies during slavery, cultural trauma, rest and womanism. The napping that I did to survive in 2013 while in school and the one-woman show in 2017, became The Nap Ministry.”
As a leader in the resistance against what she calls grind culture, Hersey practices what she preaches. When we speak via email, she has recently returned from a three week sabbatical to grieve and process in the midst of uprisings for Black Lives, and in a time when Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in the US, where she lives, are dying at higher rates from COVID-19, as her inbox filled with requests for comment and soothsaying.
Hersey says rest has saved her life – providing fortification on not just a physical, but a spiritual, level. And creating space, she says, “to listen”. It’s this space, it seems, that so many of us are missing. “It has given me the ability to imagine and invent paths to liberation.”
At The Nap Ministry, Hersey emphasises collective and communal care, naming sleep deprivation as a racial and social justice issue.
“Without communal and collective self care,” she explains, “true self care would not be possible.”
“Our main tenet at The Nap Ministry is: rest is a form of resistance because it disrupts and pushes back against white supremacy and capitalism … We are not a wellness organisation. We are a justice organisation, so because of this truth, I emphasise collective and communal care because we will never heal or reach our liberation without a collective shift in consciousness and behaviour. We are intimately tied together in our healing and in our trauma. Our interconnectedness will save us.”
Also, says Hersey, “self care has been deeply co-opted by capitalism, so as we continue to reclaim self care, I illuminate the need to uplift the collective over everything.”
To take care is to let go. Of ‘obligation’ that upholds hierarchy but not humanity. Of what success once meant. Perhaps what you’ve been pushing for as long as you can remember. But you know what’s required when you feel it in your chest, aching to be made real. That space you need could become the place in which you rebuild. And there’s no better time.
Cameron Stephens @ IMG wears TIFFANY & CO. choker.