With all that’s happening around us, how do we practice self-care without necessarily detaching totally from the daily realities?
I think it’s just timely since a lot of my friends are feeling overwhelmed with the news of death/sickness in their news feed and group chats.
Thank you for your question, which leads us to a conversation so important for these times.
Death and sickness, many of us understand, are a part of life. That does not make them any easier to bear. When Death comes – and don’t we like to write it this way – it is almost always a shock, and for those left behind, life will never be the same again.
There are things we hold on to, to be able to face the tragic fact of our mortality: That no parent buries a child. That one at least gets a warning, or a second chance. That people could die, yes, but not thousands in a day. Barring serious conditions of constitution, most of us can expect to live to our 70s or 80s, our hair grey, our faces wrinkled. And should an illness befall us, we like to think we can fight it out, or at the very least, be able to say goodbye.
But this pandemic was too cruel for any laws. In the past year, many unthinkables have happened: we hear of the disease striking both the strong and the weak, of deaths too quick and undignified. There has been no space and time to mourn – no gatherings for weeping together, no consoling embrace. For some, not even a proper burial.
A heavy cloud of grief hovers above us all, and at the heart of your question is a moral dilemma: is it alright to look away? Is that what it means to care for ourselves at this time?
I think there are two kinds of looking away. In the first, looking away is us taking a break. We do it knowing fully well that our problems won’t disappear, just that we need to renew our strength, to be able to face them again. The act is an acknowledgment of our humanity: that there’s only so much sorrow our hearts can carry at a time.
I think it’s the same kind that helps people gain clarity and perspective. We take a step back and see the situation in context, in light of our past and future, and what everybody else is going through. We look away because sometimes, we forget what does and does not matter. We look away to remember, after so many losses, what remains true, and what’s still there. And then we look again, and closer.
In the other kind, looking away is an attempt to draw up a different reality. It’s about retreating into a cocoon, and reveling in private pleasures. It builds walls over the sight of pain and suffering, and in most cases, depends on the exploitation of others. It’s probably why those who engage in it can’t seem to get enough; the act is so self-absorbed, in discord with our inherently social and generous nature. It’s alright to look away, but not this way.
Self-care, if it is to be meaningful and sustainable, affirms the best parts of being human. It nurtures our inner strength, to do what needs to be done. In the face of adversities, our ancestors did not just watch or wallow in helplessness – they changed course and claimed their desired future.
Too, self-care must restore our deep connection to the world, to other living beings. It urges us to take things slow, and truly pay attention. When was the last time you properly listened to a birdsong?
Relatedly, self-care must be about building communities. I know it sounds strange, but the more I look into self-care, the more I’m convinced that it’s never about the self. Yes, it entails understanding what gives us peace and joy, but very few people pursue these things in solitude. By and large, humans find happiness in shared interests, shared moments, and shared triumphs.
I remember the pointed response of civil rights stalwart Paul Robeson to a panel of American senators who were puzzled that he speaks up on equality when he’d had a good life as a Black man. He said, “I do not see my success in terms of myself.” To many people born in privilege, this is an alien concept. But to the marginalised, who understood what it meant to depend on and trust others to survive, it comes as second nature. We can only be happy and free when everyone is.
When you wrote that letter, I don’t suppose you were asking about specific things to do. People know how to self-soothe; we have an idea of whom to call, what to eat, or where to turn our gaze when we’re sad or angry or confused. But I hope, in the attempt to look after yourself, that you discover a better practice of self-care.
That you learn to delight in the here and now. That you get to build a community of souls chasing after the same things. That whatever you choose to do, that your happiness does not depend on putting your well-being above those of others. That most of all, it allows you to find joy in common dreams, and in fighting for a better collective future.
Here’s to self-care that brings lasting comfort, empowerment, and meaning!