Self-care is different from self-comfort

Most of us have probably heard that self-care is important for our mental health. And it’s true! Self-care is a critical part of our plan for working toward mental wellness.

Mental health has become an everyday, mainstream topic of conversation in recent years. And that’s a good thing. There are now many resources at our disposal to help us think about how to be as healthy and whole as possible.

But the challenge of this conversation becoming mainstream is that certain critically important pieces of our mental wellness can become so diluted as to be almost unrecognizable.

One area in which the wellness industry often misses the mark is self-care. Most of the imagery we see related to self-care essentially equates to pampering, luxury and disconnection: indulgent spa days, expensive trips with friends to Cabo, binge watching TV.

While these things may feel good — and we all deserve to feel good — self-care is much bigger and broader than simply self-soothing or enjoyment, especially for Christians.

Self-care is a multifaceted act of stewardship, which attends to multiple life demands. Self-care entails building a system of practices to support our living the rich and satisfying life that Jesus talks about in John 10:10. It is an evolving process, in conversation with the Holy Spirit, that honors the whole person.

Self-care is, first, recognizing that we are God’s creation, made in God’s image, and thus good and valuable and deserving of care. This means we have a responsibility to get curious about what we need to thrive, recognizing that that is different for each of us and that it changes over time as we grow and evolve.

We live in a world that does not often encourage us to care for ourselves in the ways that count. Our capitalist society can leave us feeling overworked, underpaid, sleep-deprived and going through the motions.

In the light of this reality, self-care might mean saying no to a paid opportunity in order to rest or spend time with your family. Self-care might mean prioritizing your exercise and sleep to support your overall physical health, even if you’re more interested in doing other things. Self-care might mean going to your therapy appointments, even when they are hard and uncomfortable.

Self-care might mean committing to a devotional practice, even when the timing feels inconvenient, because you know you feel and live better when you are spiritually grounded. Self-care might mean committing to a routine that helps you feel more balanced, even when your preference is to be totally spontaneous. Self-care might mean saying no when it’s easier and less scary to say yes.

To be invested in self-care is to wonder, “Is this action or routine getting me closer to where I want to be or further away from it?” Real self-care considers the bigger picture and has the end goal in mind.

The reason that self-soothing is so much more popular than actual self-care is that it addresses an immediate issue. Simply put, manicures and binge watching and emotional eating usually help us feel better in the moment. But it’s important to remember that they are temporary Band-Aids. While self-care can include some of these things, it prioritizes long-term healing.

Self-soothing does not do enough to care for ourselves in holistic ways. Emotions can be powerful motivators, and it’s our natural human tendency to avoid bad feelings and prioritize good ones.

As a mental health professional, I am a firm believer that our emotions are a key part of our experience in the world. It’s important that we attend to them, but we must not be ruled by them. Emotions can be intense, fleeting and ever-changing. They are not the whole story, so they can’t be all the information we use to navigate the world. They are a piece of the larger puzzle.

Other parts of that puzzle include our relationships with others, our physical health and wellness, our spiritual wholeness, our work and vocational responsibilities, and our communal commitments. A self-care plan (key word: plan!) considers the whole of who we are and attends to those internal and external demands.

I’m aware that by now self-care might sound a bit bigger than you bargained for. This is why the encouragement is to invite the Holy Spirit into the process. In Romans, Paul reminds us: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26 NIV).

The truth of the matter is that sometimes our lives get so complicated that it is hard to figure out what we need to do to care for ourselves. But what we do know is that God is invested in the totality of us — mind, body and spirit.

God equips all manner of professionals to help us identify healthy practices, and God sends the Holy Spirit to help us discern which ones we are called to. Take a moment and look at the big picture of your life, with its twists, turns and intricacies. What are the key issues you’re feeling called to attend to right now, and what commitments can you make in that regard? As you discern and then implement, remember that the Spirit is present to help you along the way.

As we enter our third year of the pandemic, COVID-19 may finally be receding. We are seeing a relaxation of mask and distancing mandates nationwide. Many are envisioning a “return to normal,” but I have to question that phraseology.

If “normal” means how things were before COVID (the new B.C.), is that even possible? And if it’s possible, is it what we want? I think not. We are probably better off envisioning a “new normal,” but that’s not an easier task.

By now, most houses of worship that had ceased in-person gathering have resumed in some form. We are living a hybrid lifestyle, with some meetings now in person, some online and many in both modalities — not so normal at all.

Questions abound for decision makers. Do we mandate masks? Do our denominational guidelines match the ethos of this particular congregation? Am I making a political statement with my choices? Who am I? Who are we? What are we doing here?

Congregational leaders have always worked hard, and they’ve worked overtime for the past two years trying to retain, reclaim and re-imagine Christian community. Attending to these tasks calls us to reckon with the long-standing polarity in our country, thrown into even sharper relief by the sociopolitical and economic turmoil that have exploded since March 2020.

What does Christian community look like in a polarized America, when we are still reeling from the collective trauma of a pandemic, nursing the wounds of an unresolved racial reckoning and bearing witness to threats of yet another world conflict? What does it mean to be the hands and feet of God when it’s sometimes hard to even see God?

Some of our theological leanings might warn against our posing questions to God, but I’ll admit I’ve got some big ones. The clergy I’ve spoken with have them, too. We’ve all got them. And there’s no guarantee the answers will come at all, or anytime soon. When we don’t know very much, I hope we can rest on what we believe about who God is and how God calls us to act.

There is no list of right answers; what matters most in this moment is that we make an intentional decision to lean heavily on the being. Ultimately, Christian community is about people being with other people, working to figure out this messy life.

Many of us are familiar with a poem written on a wall in Cologne, Germany, during the Holocaust and the hymn that was later adapted from it:

I believe in the sun

even when it isn’t shining.

I believe in love

even when feeling it not.

I believe in God

even when God is silent.

I believe in the silence.

What does it mean to believe in God when God is silent? How can we, as communities of faith, believe in the silence itself?

First, we can seek to be a repository for questions rather than a dispenser of answers. Much of our religious tradition invites us to be the final authority on life and on righteousness. We act as a conduit for God and tell people what to do and how to do it. But in an era of “alternative facts,” dog whistling and cancel culture, answers are sometimes wrong. At other times, they are only part of the story.

What would it mean if our communities built new iterations of ourselves on struggling with the big questions together while trusting God to meet us in the process? Imagine the gift it would be for leaders and parishioners alike to acknowledge that we don’t know but are in it together. Jesus was not afraid of questions, and we don’t have to be.

Along with making a commitment to big and messy questions, we can acknowledge that the past two years have cost us in all the ways that count. We’re coming up for air, and we’re getting back to the things we love, but we all bear the bruises of this journey.

As we return to in-person community, we must acknowledge that many of us are fundamentally different people than we were in March 2020. While some of us have an internal resilience that has allowed us to make positive changes and even thrive in this time, others in our community have suffered greatly and are continuing to set survival as the goal. That reality is with us whenever we gather.

However, post-traumatic growth, a theory developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, conceives that after struggle, we have the capacity to be better and wiser, more spiritually engaged and more emotionally attuned. This notion is offering statistical evidence of a spiritual promise from the prophet Isaiah: beauty for ashes.

We don’t have to rush there. We still sit with people in their pain, for that too is incredibly holy work. But the gift here is to let the hope coexist with the pain, so that even as we mourn, we hold the truth that God can bring peace and joy to our hearts again.

Asking the big questions, mourning and making space for beauty are the practices that allow us to re-create and realign with who we are and whom God is calling us to be. The opportunity of this challenging season in all our lives has been the chance to identify what’s important and what we can leave behind.

Although God doesn’t change, we do and we have. We must change to make our communities places where all of us can thrive. God is always ready to show us a new way, but we must be ready to see it.

I didn’t set out to watch the video, but I saw it anyway — infinite minutes of agony.

I did not intend to witness yet another brother dying on the pavement. I didn’t seek to hear someone with brown skin like mine struggling for his last breath.

But avoiding it became impossible. Looking at social media or turning on the news meant being accosted by the images.

I grappled with yet another reminder of the violence of racism. I watched as protestors took to the streets, their anguish and anger fueled by the continual losses of people of color, particularly Black folks, whose deaths at the hands of those in power are minimized and disregarded.

I had planned not to watch videos of another person who looks like me dying, because as a psychologist, I knew the cost of repeated vicarious trauma. And as a Black woman, I knew that the only way I would be able to function would be to avoid such horror.

And then, in May, I heard George Floyd cry out for his mother as he died.

The terror of racism is enough, but to have it preserved on an endless loop is to be reminded of how perilous it is to be Black in America. Trauma upon trauma.

It is unnatural to watch a murder on replay.

Simply trying to survive racism is exhausting enough; add to that the repeated, unavoidable witnessing of another human’s death, and the exhaustion escalates and intensifies almost beyond bearing.

Because this happens again and again, we know the drill. A video is released; outrage ensues. Within 24 hours, the villainization of the victim begins and the gaslighting of those who demand justice follows.

We reckon both with the horror of the loss of our family and with the pain of the invalidation that follows. Racial trauma resides in our DNA; it courses through our nervous systems; it exhausts our spirits.

This is the trauma that leads to anxious watchfulness over our children, to fervent, restless prayer for the safe return of our fathers, husbands and brothers when they are late arriving home. This is the trauma that weathers our bodies and our souls, literally shortening the amount of time we are expected to spend on this earth.

This repeated violation leaves us feeling unsafe, unheard and unprotected. It seeds a buzzing hypervigilance in our bodies and in our spirits. The constant miscarriage of justice coats our mouths with the bitter taste of cynicism as we reckon with the fact that the justice system has sided with the status quo against us again and again. Trauma upon trauma.

James Baldwin put it so simply and so truthfully: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time.” We do our best to tame this rage, to go on about our lives and seek joy wherever we can find it.

Sometimes the only way is to cut it out of our awareness and push it down until it bubbles up again. It is this rage that has fueled protests all over the world. It is also this rage that keeps alive flickers of hope despite what history tells us.

With cynicism, rage and wariness, we monitored Derek Chauvin’s trial. I didn’t dare openly expect a guilty verdict, because I could not bear crushing disappointment again. Repeated trauma has a way of eroding our optimism like that; if we manage to hold on to it, we keep it secret and protected, lest someone threaten to snuff it out.

I knew that no matter how many community members wept, how many experts made it plain, or how much video was shown, there were no guarantees. Chauvin’s own former colleagues testified to the excess of his actions. Charles McMillian and Darnella Frazier sat on the stand sobbing as they bore witness to Floyd’s death and their attempts to intervene, forced to relive that horror in an effort to do after his death what they could not do in his life. Trauma upon trauma.

Yet even as this trial played out, another Black man was killed by police mere miles from where Floyd died. Daunte Wright would not go home to his son after what should have been a routine traffic stop. Trauma upon trauma.

We waited and braced ourselves as the jury deliberated. Between the news that a verdict had been reached and its announcement, I willed myself to breathe. I braced for disappointment but hoped for the first steps toward accountability.

The celebrations that followed the guilty verdict were tentative and unsteady. George Floyd is still dead, and nothing can restore him. After the rush of relief immediately came the awareness that this is one “success” in a constellation of letdowns and injustices.

This one verdict will not and cannot change a violent and racist system. The proof of this harsh reality was evident throughout the trial with the deaths of at least 64 people — more than half of them Black or Latino — at the hands of police between March 29, when trial testimony began, and its end. And on the day of the verdict itself, before we could lay our heads down for some semblance of rest, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was slain by law enforcement officers in Ohio after her family said she had called police for help.

This verdict is a short-lived victory in an endless, exhausting struggle to survive.

I call a pastor friend to ask him for a favor, and we’re engaging in pleasantries.

“How are you?” I ask.

He pauses and then says, “I’m good. Well, yeah, I’m good.”

I pause. I have a decision to make. Do I stick with my mission and move on about my day? The truth is, I can’t.

So many times in the past few months, I’ve had this conversation — the pastor calling to ask for a mental health referral for a member, the executive minister calling to schedule a Zoom-based session on mental health during the pandemic, the clergy member arranging a panel on responding to race-based violence in the U.S.

The purpose of the conversation is service to the people we all care about, but when do faith leaders make time to attend to themselves?

“I don’t believe you,” I say to my friend. He just responds, “I know.”

“I’m here,” I say. “You know I’m here.” He replies to my invitation with three simple words: “It’s just everything!”

Immediately, I get it. He doesn’t need to explain. The past six months have been a whirlwind for all of us. In March, the arrival of a pandemic that stopped us in our tracks. What we thought would be a few weeks has turned into a half-year-long saga of reinventing the ministry wheel and responding to emotional, financial and programmatic needs.

In May and the months after, the ubiquitous reminders of the racialized violence that is embedded in the bones of this country, reinforcing how perilous the very concept of “safety” is. Add to that a contentious political battle in which it seems that we are fighting for our very souls. Ministering has never, ever been an easy job, but this year has made it even harder.

Ministry as a profession trains people to orient themselves outward and upward; less often are they encouraged to orient inward. For clergy, this season has been a call to action.

In heroic efforts for which they have not always gotten appropriate credit, clergy have worked to transition churches to online formats, shift their pastoral care strategies, manage financial concerns, and respond to the fears and anxiety of congregations who are wondering what to do in moments like these.

While the buildings have been closed, the phone calls and requests for help have not stopped. In fact, the work has somehow increased! Parishioners have needs, and they call clergy first.

Clergy have had front-row seats to the pain: the COVID-19 deaths, the isolation from family and friends, the despair about how long this period will last, the racial unrest and calls to protest, the mental health consequences that come along with this turmoil. They see and feel and hold it all.

Our trauma is their trauma, on top of their own. The simple definition of trauma I give to clients who have experienced it is this: something happened that shouldn’t have happened, or something didn’t happen that should have happened.

Isn’t that this year in a nutshell?

Secondary trauma is bearing witness to these happenings (and not-happenings) for others. For clergy, it’s bearing witness for lots of others — and in times like these, there is often a sense of hopelessness or powerlessness that simply overwhelms. Clergy are doing what they can, but many simultaneously have the sense that it is not enough.

As this internal and external war rages on, the things that can serve as little reminders that their labor is good and their efforts are appreciated have faded away: no hugs or high fives, fewer smiles from people who can see how hard they are working, no faces in the sanctuary reacting to the sermons, no real-time responses to the proverbial sermonic call.

A funeral, which at one time was a balm for collective grief, suddenly turns into a graveside service with many left watching at home. A wedding or baby dedication to celebrate the cyclical nature of life is either canceled or transformed into something nearly unrecognizable.

The anxiety and angst of this time in our collective history means that people need more. And clergy, being who they are, have responded.

But who takes care of the shepherds? While they have the responsibility of leading churches during these tumultuous times, they are still whole people with their own anxiety about COVID-19, maybe their own financial issues, their own angst about the state of the world. Still, their churches might be needing more and more.

It is a precarious place to be, and the reality is that when people are used to being in the role of caretaker, it can be hard for others to see them (and for them to see themselves) as needing love, care, support and encouragement. The shepherds need this care and support more than ever. Theirs can be a thankless job, and we are in a particularly unforgiving season.

Add to that the uncertainty. When will the church building open back up? When can we return to “normal” life? What’s our responsibility in response to social unrest? Where is God in all of this?

I imagine that some clergy are tackling another uncertainty in addition to this list: How can I go on like this?

I have said over these past few months that I firmly believe we are all doing the best we can. What is the best we can do in this moment? What is the best we can do for the shepherds?

One place we can start is simply giving clergy places to name their struggles. Many of us know the isolation that can come with this profession. What clergy need now, more than ever, is connection — even if that connection is not through the traditional methods. This can be personal and emotional, but it can also be professional.

Clergy can benefit from spaces to share best practices, technology hacks and helpful resources. They also need spaces to cry, scream and lament.

Now is the time for denominations to rethink and rework renewal leaves, sabbaticals and time away.

Now is the time for churches to evaluate their benefits packages to make sure they include comprehensive medical and mental health care, paid leave, and professional funds. For many churches, this means getting creative, collaborating with fellow churches and capitalizing on the strengths of the leaders in each congregation.

The clarion call of rising clergy burnout rates has been ringing for quite some time, and for us to be the church, we must equip the clergy. They have risen to the occasion, and now it’s our turn.

A part of this equipping work ideally happens before a crisis occurs. In most traditional seminary training, there is at least a cursory discussion of self-care as a part of pastoral care or some other foundational class. But what we are learning in this time is that ministry during a crisis requires something different as clergy attempt to care for congregations and to care for themselves.

Seminaries can be a part of the solution by helping seminarians build crisis-specific skills: collaboration, understanding and responding to personal needs, setting appropriate boundaries. The strategies might be similar to those of general self-care, but they are executed differently in times of crisis.

It will take all of us to come together and envision processes for being well and even thriving as these challenges continue.