Suffering is life’s greatest teacher. I don’t know why this is true. But it is. For the last five-plus years, I have been suffering’s reluctant student. I am still inching out of the darkness of a chronic illness, and I haven’t unearthed all the lessons learned. But one lesson presented itself even before the light was visible.
And it’s this: self-care is not selfish.
Not even the slightest bit. Self-care is stewardship of the only gift we bring into this world. We neglect this gift to our own peril and to the peril of others. If the point of the spiritual journey is wholeness – and I believe it is – then we must take care of ourselves. We must listen to our bodies. We must learn what spiritual teachers call the Sacred No.
The first thirty years of my life, I was a poor steward of myself. I treated myself recklessly. I thought I could do it all. Accomplish it all. I thought I could go at the world’s pace, that I had no responsibility to listen to the pangs of my body. My body was in submission to my ego’s desires.
Chronic illness hit me hard. So hard. At first, I continued with the same tired routine. I was convinced I could will myself through this. I prided myself on being a willpower guy. I had more than you, I thought, and everyone else.
In the darkness – be it chronic illness or depression or grief or whatever – willpower is not your friend. Go ahead. Muster up all you got it. Pull together all the forces. And you end up in a worse place than before. Suffering requires you to wait, to be, to – shh! – be quiet. What a yucky feeling, knowing we can’t control or will our way out of something. Tastes like throw up. Some of you know what I mean.
Eventually, I realized even superhuman strength couldn’t pull me out of this one. So, I stop trying. In the months and years that followed, I became sicker. I waxed and waned through periods of depression and anxiety. The pain was unbearable.
Five years of chronic illness illuminates every single character flaw and weakness. Every false or selfish motive, all the evil and negative thoughts. Everything we bury deep in the shadows and pretend isn’t there. The whole thing is humiliating. I know why we expend so much time and energy avoiding, denying, medicating what some call “necessary suffering.”
I realized much of my life, I was enslaved to others’ expectations. I became obsessed with getting things done and defined myself through this lens. I did not know myself, so I gave to everyone, not realizing that some gifts are not mine to give. And it became obvious that if I were to heal, I would need to prioritize self-care. I would need to learn the Sacred No. I would need to examine my own motives and try to understand why I feel compelled to meet every need and say yes to every request.
Self-care begins with accepting our limitations. We have limits, you and me. This is part of what it means to be human. We can’t do it all. We can’t. We can’t be there for every person. We can’t love every person. We can’t alleviate every problem. Not everything is ours to do.
Neglecting our limitations is not only detrimental to our spiritual growth and wholeness, it also damages others, particularly those we love the most. The poet, Rumi, says this, “If you’re here unfaithfully with us, you’re doing terrible damage.” I remember reading that at some point in my journey and drowning in conviction. When we are unfaithful to ourselves, to our true selves and our quest for wholeness, we build our foundation on faulty ground. We make promises we can’t keep. We give expecting something in return. We compare our efforts to those around us.
Living faithfully in this world means understanding who we are, our strengths and weaknesses, liabilities and limitations. This is the foundation of self-care.
The world tries to tell us who we should be and what we should do with our days. Only those who know themselves will recognize the difference between their God-given purpose and external expectations.
Now I want to say a few words about burnout. Burnout is an epidemic in our modern world. It’s almost a badge of honor, an unfortunate by-product of a competitive, win/lose culture built on the foundation of success and efficiency. And I say unfortunate because in a culture like ours we fail to see burnout as a sign that our lives are fractured.
I want to state the obvious and say burnout is NOT a badge of honor. Burnout is a glaring sign that something is wrong. That we are not taking care of ourselves. That we have allowed the expectations of others to define our days. That we are giving what we do not possess – time, energy, gifts. This type of giving is both false and dangerous. It reinforces the ego’s desires (and thus hinders spiritual growth) and fractures relationships.
Parker Palmer says “Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have; it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.”
It makes sense that a culture that considers burnout normal is also a culture that is lost and riddled with loneliness and fractured relationships.
Self-care, I have come to see, is the least selfish thing you can do for yourself and for the world. It is essential, I believe, for spiritual growth. It is essential for healthy relationships. If we desire healthy relationships, if we desire to lead our families and communities well, we must recover this lost practice. We must prioritize self-awareness – knowing ourselves, our motives and desires. We must accept our limitations. We must learn what is ours to do. We must realize that sometimes “No” is the very best gift we can give ourselves and the world.
This way of living is hard. It’s counter-cultural, for sure. This is the narrow road, the one few travel. But it is the road that leads to capital-L life.
I pray you find the courage to walk this road. Pray the same for me.
Grace and peace, friends.