“Self-care.” You may have heard of this term, which is pretty popular in society today and even promoted within institutions in the Church. So what is “self-care”? Simply put, it is about “taking care of yourself,” but it’s unfortunately often tied to materialistic ideas of getting a “nice cuppa,” a relaxing bath, a vacation to some exotic islands... and the list goes on. Another variant of “self-care” is about treating oneself to (seemingly) innocuous pleasures: reading a book, painting, playing sports, and the like. In other words, healthy pleasures that everyone should be entitled to... right?
Regardless of whether obviously materialistic or “healthy” pleasures are sought, deconstructing the idea of “self-care” quickly reveals that what underlies it is the assumption that “I need to take care of myself first before I can take care of others.”
This maxim is indeed true to the extent that we apply it spiritually: we need to pray constantly and (as far as possible) to receive the Eucharist in order to fill ourselves with the love of God before we can bring His love to those around us. If we don’t care for the health of our soul by going to God, who is the only One who can heal and fill us spiritually, we will find ourselves empty of love to give to others. It’s little wonder the Missionaries of Charity never compromise on spending an hour before the Blessed Sacrament each day, no matter how busy they are in tending to the needs of the poor.
However, when we bring this concept of “self-care” into the other areas of our lives, the lines become blurred and we can very easily fall into mere self-indulgence if we are not vigilant. This is fairly evident from the other names that “self-care” masquerades under: “me-time,” “quality time with myself,” etc. In fact, this kind of “self-care” conflates pleasure with true joy, momentary satisfaction with lasting peace.
To equate “care” with material pleasure is not only mistaken, but manipulative and harmful. Obviously, if you need to indulge yourself materially to be “cared” for, you would also need to have quite a bit of money at your disposal so you can constantly be splurging on little “treats.” After all, how can you stop at just one? After the first cookie—or shopping spree—we end up craving another... and another... and another! It’s no surprise many retail businesses make use of the idea of “self-care” to exploit the wallets of their consumers. (Just think of the last time you heard the message “Treat yourself to ________. You deserve it. / You are worth it.”)
It may not be a sin to eat a slice of your friend’s birthday cake, but if you find it an entitlement—or even a necessity—to have a daily dessert, then it’s time to examine whether this concept of “self-care” has infected your way of thinking about physical pleasures. To this, the Word of God tells us the importance of self-mortification in such pleasures for our salvation: “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified [from the race of life]” (1 Corinthians 9: 27).
As for pleasures that seem innocuous, St. John of the Cross famously said that whether a bird is tied to the earth with a fine string or a heavy chain, it is still unable to fly. In other words, no matter how healthy the pleasure can seem, if we want it because we derive enjoyment and pleasure from it rather than because God wants us to have it, we cannot be united with God. It’s not evil to play tennis with friends—but if our primary motive is for the sake of the pleasure that we get from a good workout, rather than trying to build friendships that will facilitate our apostolate, then we are neither caring for ourselves nor for our friends’ souls. (Nor would it be “self-care” to miss Sunday school for a game of soccer, even if it is a competition!) It can be a great hobby to learn an instrument, but do we play it to give God glory, or to win praise for ourselves? A hike through nature can be lovely, but unless we make the effort to see it through the eyes of faith, we may forget to give thanks to God for His creation. Friends can provide us with wonderful companionship, but if we catch ourselves feeling jealous that they have other friends, then it is an indication that we have turned them into an idol.
While none of these pleasures are inherently evil (our Blessed Mother certainly would have done Her best to prepare delicious meals!), we must not forget that God Himself is the giver of all joys. If we do not indulge in these kinds of “self-care,” it is because He takes care of us in an infinitely better way.
So, how are we supposed to care for ourselves—or let ourselves be cared for? We will leave that for another article.
-Winnie Ng, Singapore