Self-care vs. selflessness

Mahatma Gandhi.  He’s so famous that autocorrect doesn’t even blink.  It’s used to people botching his name. Gandhi is entrancing in his white robes and skinny bones.  What a disciplined, selfless human.

Also great is Dr. King, whose story and earnest face have won my kids’ hearts.  My first-grader had a homonyms spelling test, including “piece” and “peace.” He’d say, “is it piece like a piece of cake, or is it peace like Martin Luther King, Jr.?”  I suppose the Reverend’s heart would thrill at such an association.  Dr. King gave his life for peaceful reconciliation.

Self-less-ness.  Having no self? Not living for self?  Giving of oneself for others? Its opposite is self-ish-ness, which everybody knows is bad.

What then of self-care?  When is self-care self-ish?  Is it that we all need a bit of selfishness in our lives to survive?  How did grown women of yesteryear survive without adult coloring books?  

The disciplined warrior comes to mind.  A physically powerful man who eats well, refrains from excessive food or drink, trains hard to strengthen his muscles and his skills for battle.  He would use an adult coloring book as toilet paper. But he is a paragon of self-care. What motivates him? Perhaps he’s driven forward by a swirl of reasons:  desire to win, because such men love competition; desire to impress the ladies; desire to go down into history as a great man.  Is his self-care then also selfish? Or are these motivations human and rational and even laudable? Did Dr. King have any such desires?  

I am no Gandhi or MLK, Jr, but I’ve known moments that call for big selflessness.  I thought that cleaning up the floor after my college roommate puked everywhere was godly.  I thought that her hangover the next day was justice. Then I bore infants who routinely puked all over my clothes, and they weren’t even drunk.  Now they’ve grown into elementary kids who puke in the middle of the night every few months, but need me by their side, because puking is hard emotional work.  The next morning, we both need some self-care.

After a long and dangerous march, did Dr. King sleep in and ask his wife to make French toast?  Maybe after so much selflessness, he needed some self-care, so that he could get out there the next night and be a world changer again.  In the Selma movie, he called Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night so she could sing to him.  I’ve heard that detail was based on reality.

A college student might go into “self-care mode” by bingeing a Netflix show and painting their nails. Contrast this with the disciplined warrior.  Perhaps what is lacking in the Netflix and nail polish version is the “care” part of “self-care.”  

Self-care could fuel selflessness.  Regular rest is needed in order to be selfless.  The right kind of self-care can recharge one’s sense of purpose, nourish one’s brain and body, bring one into a fuller sense of clarity about the world and the cause worth championing.  

Calling movie marathons and facial masks “self-care” is like calling pizza “Italian food.”  Pizza is delicious. It should not be banned. But don’t try to sound better than you are by saying you’re going for Italian when it’s really just Domino’s.  If you’re going to veg and watch TV all night, just say so. Don’t call it self-care and make it sound less selfish than it is.

The phrase “self-care” should call us to the caring of ourselves, so we can serve others more selflessly tomorrow.  

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