When Self Care Is About Other People

In devout circles, it's common to speak of putting oneself third: God comes first, and then we serve anyone who needs us, and finally, we tend to ourselves. It's a good formula, and a much-needed check on the aggressive selfishness of our age. 

At the same time, there's a subtle temptation that comes with putting oneself last. We forget that, as members of the body of Christ, there's not really any such thing as "just me." We are all thoroughly intertwined with each other. It really doesn't do the head any good when the arm is bleeding unchecked. The heart doesn't appreciate it if you ignore an infection in the foot. For better or worse, we're stuck with each other, and we must be sure that putting ourselves last doesn't mean neglecting ourselves altogether -- or giving into pride or imprudence and calling it self-sacrifice.

Sometimes, in our desire to practice sacrificial love, we end up sacrificing each other -- and that's not love at all.

Think of the woman who was raised to believe that we must always care for our own. We never, ever abandon our responsibilities or pass them off on someone else. She readily volunteers to nurse her elderly father, who has dementia other complicated medical problems, because that's what family is for. As the disease progresses, the care of her father consumes more and more of her time, and turns her emotional state into a disaster zone. But she is determined not to shirk her duty, just as her father taught her when he was well. Even though there are other options, and even though she has myriad other responsibilities to other people, she heroically sacrifices her days and her nights, too, to caring for him.  As his needs become more complicated and consuming, the house becomes a dreadful, purgatorial place for everyone in it, and no one in it is being cared for well -- not the ailing father, not the woman, and not the rest of her family. Finally, a friend takes the drastic step of threatening to report her for elder abuse if she doesn't start looking into nursing homes. The friend knows that everyone has the best intentions, but the idol of self-sacrifice and doing one's duty has blotted out reality. Rather than trying to make sure everyone is cared for, the woman is trying to make sure she cares for everyone, even though it's obvious to everyone else that she can't. 

Or how about the woman who is believes in her deepest heart that God should determine their family size, with no input from her. She is besotted with the idea of placing her trust in God and turning her sex life over to Him, and she is fully willing to make whatever personal sacrifice it takes to keep welcoming however many children happen to come along. This plan works well for the first several years of marriage, but then she has to go on bedrest, and they can't afford any in-home help. Right about this time, some of their older children start struggling in school, the teenager is severely depressed and overburdened with picking up the slack, and the three-year-old is setting fires and torturing the cat. And her husband, whom her kids never see because he works sixteen-hour days, grinds his teeth at night in a constant panic over how to pay for the overdue medical bills. But once the baby is born, she is still determined not to be selfish with her fertility. She will not have recourse to any kind of family planning, because her trust is in God. Of course she would like a break and a chance to recover, but she's still ready to put her own health and needs on the back burner. She really is willing to sacrifice herself, out of love! But she doesn't see how many people she's dragging up on that pyre with her. 

Or consider a professor who's legendary for his willingness to give his all for his lifework. He's well-known for his sharp wit, which he uses as a way to disguise his deep, passionate love for his students.  They all know that if they need help, either with their work or even with a personal problem, he will empty himself out for them, and devote whatever it takes to helping them. He's always been somewhat melancholic, but one year, a combination of chemistry, genetics, and circumstances hits him especially hard, and he sinks into a deep depression. His colleagues notice that he never laughs or smiles anymore. All words come to him like a rebuke, and every story in the news seems like more confirmation that the world is evil and foul. He still drives himself to be open with his students, but they come to him less and less because all he has to offer is bitterness. Finally, someone suggests that he take a sabbatical and see a therapist, maybe even look into an anti-depressant. He recoils with disgust from this idea. He's not that kind of person! He's the one who helps, not the one who needs help! He's a man. He would never cheat or take the easy way out. He'll white knuckle his way through this.

Does any of this sound familiar? The devil is especially pleased when we neglect and disregard others and call it a virtue. Remember, love always looks outward -- but part of what it looks to see is how we are relating to other people. Maybe the phrase "self care" has a bit of an odious pop psych stink about it; but it's really just a form of humility, which means treating yourself like you're no more and no less precious to God than anyone else.  That's not only good and just for you, it's good and just for everyone you love.