What My Mothers and Mentors Taught Me about Self-Care by Elise M. Edwards


Elise EdwardsDuring another week of killings, war, protests, and debates about whether Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, I’m concerned about the toll it takes on those who are witnessing the violence and fighting for justice.

I’m not on the front lines of these battles, but I can feel my energy draining, nonetheless. Over the past few days, while I’ve stayed informed about the latest tragedies and conflicts, I’ve intentionally limited my exposure to most news and social media outlets. I’ve begun preparing for a contemplative retreat with other women who also care about justice.  For me to continue to participate in any effort of transforming society, culture, or the church, I must nurture my mind, spirit, and body.

Audre Lorde put it like this:

“Caring for myself Is not self-indulgence.  It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Self-care is a radical practice of self-love. It is absolutely necessary when engaged in conflict against those who do not show love to you, or worse, those who seek to destroy you.  Your survival and your flourishing are defiantly brave.  Self-care honors the God who created you, the One who loves you, and the Spirit who sustains you.

My mother was the first woman to teach me this, and I’m grateful to her for that.  She is a loving woman who is generous with her time and energy and resources, and she unapologetically cares for herself, too.  Many years ago when I was trying to navigate the pressures of teen life, she told me how she nearly gave herself an ulcer once and then decided that she would not let it happen again.  Decades later, I cannot remember the details of that conversation.  What has stayed with me, though, is the permission she offered to love and protect myself through difficult circumstances. She and her friends (my other mothers) demonstrated that love of self and love of others can co-exist.

In my Christian tradition, sacrifice for others is lifted up as a noble idea.  Jesus died for the world, sinners and non-sinners alike, so his followers (disciples) are encouraged to be willing to follow his example of self-sacrifice.  Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Mark state, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. “ (8:34, NRSV).  Another series of verses in 1 John 16-18 tells us that love requires sacrifice: “We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

We rightfully honor the martyrs and the moral exemplars who give selflessly at great personal cost, yet we must resist trivializing their sacrifice with clichéd religious language.   The story of Jesus and his followers is not only—or primarily—about suffering.  It is about a powerful love that saves. It is about a community that cares for each other and cares for outcasts.  It is about a teacher/healer/revolutionary who took time from his important work to withdraw and connect with God.  Loving others and ourselves should not stand in tension.

I’m grateful that in my academic life, I’ve had female mentors who are compassionate and generous.  They’ve cared about me enough to encourage me to care for myself. They’ve modelled self-care in their own lives.  In the oft-cited definition of womanist from In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983), Alice Walker defines a womanist by several things she loves:

“Loves music.  Loves dance.  Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness.  Loves struggle. Loves the Folk.  Loves herself. Regardless.

Loving the divine, the world, other people, and the fight for justice must be affirmed alongside an unconditional love of self.  Womanism and today’s multitude of feminisms remind us to love our bodies, our minds, our spiritualities, our voices, and our communities even if they do not conform to dominant standards.  Showing ourselves love means sustaining ourselves physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually.  These are just a few self-care practices for you to consider implementing:

  • Read something that delights you or inspires you.
  • Talk to a person who loves you.
  • Immerse yourself in clean water.
  • Eat a tasty, nutritious meal or snack.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Let unimportant things go or delegate them.
  • Be patient and gentle with yourself.
  • Spend time in silence, prayer, and/or meditation.
  • Ask for help.  Accept it.
  • Seek competent, professional help for persistent physical, mental, or emotional health issues.
  • Do something creative: write, sing, compose, dance.
  • Do something physical: walk, run, jump, clap your hands, stretch, breathe deeply.
  • Drink a glass of water.
  • Spend time in a place that provokes awe.
  • Learn something new.
  • Write your thoughts down in a journal.
  • Unplug from television, computers, and social media for a while.
  • Embrace yourself or share that love with someone close to you.
  • Express gratitude.
  • Confess your shortcomings to yourself, God, or someone you trust and then release them.

Please add more safe-care practices in the comments below.  I’ve seen a few posts on various sites the past few days that encourage self-care in the midst of activism. See Christy Croft’s piece on FAR just a few days ago or Anthonia Akitunde’s post on Mater Mea for more reading on the topic.  The more voices encouraging self-care the better.

However you choose to do it, take care of yourselves as you would the ones the love most dearly.  Love yourselves bravely, defiantly, and fiercely.  Regardless.

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

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Categories: Activism, Bible, Black Feminism, Christianity, Community, Embodiment, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Ethics, Feminist Theology, Foremothers, God, Healing, Justice, Love, Media, Racism, Reform, Relationality, Resistance, Social Justice, survival, Theology, Violence, Women's Suffering

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17 replies

  1. lovely post thank you. To add to your wonderful list, go for a walk, without cell phone.

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  2. Thank you for this post, Elise. It is just what I needed right now as the vortex of a new job in an active church has me in its swirl. I am preaching this Sunday on Mary and Martha (the lectionary text for the week) and realize anew the gift of Jesus’ invitation to sit and listen and be in proximity to him, to enjoy the presence of a loving, merciful, wise One who is so glad you are there to share things with and to receive nurture and care.

    Self-care is really misnamed, it is not just care of the self–it is care of the world. It is a radical act of resistance against the distorted distractions of our frenetic comings and goings. I would add to your list: take deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth and listen to the sounds of life around you–bird songs, movement, stillness, quiet, a dog barking in the distance and be present to them. Notice things without attaching or grasping to them just for a few minutes. It is a great practice of letting go and being present.

    We all need to feel the support of the Divine transcendence knit through our surroundings more than ever.

    Peace to you,
    Marcia

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    • I took a few minutes to do what you suggested, Marcia- deep breaths and listening. Thank you. Your statement about “resistance against the distorted distractions of our frenetic comings and goings” is one reason I try to observe a Sabbath. Many of us are seemingly values by what we do. Taking time to sit and listen, as the text about Mary and Martha encourages us, is so valuable.

      Peace and blessings to you, too.

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  3. Witnessing violence is exhausting, and when I have a choice, I do limit my exposure to it – and that means limiting my exposure to media which I do regularly. Not only can can love of self and love of others exist but I believe self -love is a necessary prerequisite to developing a love for others that is not predicated on need…Marcia is right! -Self Care is a radical act – thanks for this post. It’s too easy sometimes to forget about caring for ourselves.

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    • Thank you! You are so right about self-love being a prerequisite to developing love of others. Unfortunately, we tend to be better at recognizing it’s absence (“That person is lashing out at you for something he doesn’t liek in himself..”) than being proactive in encouraging love of self.

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      • Oh, you are so right – I try to be mindful of this truth whenever dealing with others but it is so hard – especially with one’s children NOT to take words personally.

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  4. Thanks Eiise,
    It depends on your perspective, but to love others, the great joy of that, is sometimes as much or more healing, and more rewarding even than to be loved. And it is not only loving a treasured friend or mate, but also love of nature or love of pets, love of all life in the wild, or even the joy of a beautiful flower garden or watching the sun rise. And in a way that loving of others can be so fulfilling that you yourself are in turn then deeply and truly benefited by it.

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    • I think what we are saying is compatible. You are absolutely right, that it is a great joy to love others, to love nature and pets, and things/beings that do not return that love to us. I think we must take moments to revel in that experience of love, not just for them, but for ourselves. The benefit may come from honoring our place in that chain of being or being removed from our own struggles to find awe and delight beyond ourselves.

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  5. Great post Elise, and I think I’ll print out the ways of self care and post it on my bathroom mirror!

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  6. Amen and thank you! As someone who was taught to consider self-anything selfish and self-indulgent and antithetical to Jesus’s teachings, this post is very clarifying and encouraging. I am lucky to live near mountains and waterfalls. Being in their presence is restorative. So is being with plants–even small houseplants or window boxes could help if you don’t have space for a garden. And animals. If you live where you can’t have a cat or a dog, watch the birds.

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    • “Restorative” is the key word there. I think Jesus sets a model for this with his frequent periods of withdrawal, with his lesson about Mary and Martha, and with his healing mission. If he offers us healing, we should delight in accepting it.

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  7. Thanks for writing on this subject at this time. We must be thinking along the same lines, for I just wrote a piece for one of the Llewellyn annuals that is partly about self-care. It won’t be published until 2018, but wanna bet not much will be changed in two years?

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    • As I mentioned a the end of the post, I saw a few articles about self-care, but considering the preponderance of material in the media that can be draining, traumatic, or anger-inducing, I figured another message about self-care wouldn’t hurt! I know we will need your words in 2018, and frequent calls for care in the interim. Thanks for the work you do, Barbara!

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  8. I am so pleased with your insightful article. I will try your suggestions. They should be as beneficial to me as anyone else. Keep feeling and writing. Your observations are necessary WE, the citizens of the US wrestle with a 400 year old issue.

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  9. Awesome Awesome Article Elise!! I truly believe in self love and self care :) This beautifully poignant, relevant and delightful article just reminded me of what I can do! Here are a couple others:

    Meditate with Crystals
    Prayer time with Angel Therapy Cards
    Write down 3 things you’re Grateful for Everyday

    Warmly,
    Lorene

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