Written by Cyanea Poon and Johanna Depenthal //
“There is a time for self-care,” said Jay, getting up from the pile of blankets on the floor of the student union. “Let’s go.” I checked my phone and looked at Jay questioningly. It was the fall of 2014, a turbulent time in the United States, and going home now would mean leaving the Michael Brown/Black Lives Matter 24 hour prayer vigil without someone present for the last forty or so minutes of the vigil. A few weeks before, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, had been killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, setting off a chain of protests and tense conversations about racial inequality and police brutality across the country, especially on university campuses. “Come on,” Jay said, “I can drive you guys home.” That statement, graciously extended by an African American graduate student to two well-intentioned but fairly clueless white undergraduates during a time when much of the student body was emotionally drained, exhausted, and upset, has stuck with me. – Johanna
Self-care is a complex, controversial, and challenging topic. Complex, because its very existence, interpretation, and practice is rooted in cultural and socio-economic context. Controversial, because it is often (and sometimes rightly) critiqued as an expression of power and privilege. Challenging, because we rarely practice it on a personal level and because our societies in no way value it.
Who has time to prioritize self-care when things need to be done and people are hurting? And yet, to quote Jay, “There is a time for self-care.” We speak here from our perspectives as citizens of the United States and Hong Kong, both highly capitalistic societies. We recognize that many cultures worldwide that still place higher value on quality of life and on relationships may have different forms of and needs for self-care. On a personal level, we speak as single doctoral students, subject to the demands of academic life but without the additional challenges of running an organization, leading staff, or managing homes and families. Even between us, our daily lives and academic disciplines expose us to very different levels of stress and trauma: as a student of clinical psychology, Cy’s training in counseling and responding to crisis exposes her regularly to trauma, while Johanna’s work studying tropical forests is takes place against the background of global climate change, species loss, and deforestation.
Based on our own experiences, we want to highlight the need for self-care in two types of conditions: ordinary conditions and crisis conditions. We then want to talk about two kinds of self-care that can be varyingly employed in those conditions: habitual practices of self-care, and directed practices of self-care. Our writings are only our reflections on the matter: we of course recommend reaching out to experts such as certified counselors, mental health professionals, spiritual leaders, doctors, and others for more specific advice and direction on self-care. And given the pace of our daily lives, perhaps we are hypocrites to write about self-care. But also, perhaps this is the best time to reflect about what self-care means.
Under the influence of capitalism, many societies have become obsessed with what one researcher referred to as “moral value of productivity.” “Workaholic” has somehow become the new golden standard of the era. Workaholism, often fueled by perfectionism, quickly becomes toxic. The emphasis on productivity and activity affects everything we do. It begins when we are in grade school with the counting of extracurricular activities, and it continues on for the rest of our lives as we compare SAT scores, GPAs, occupation, awards, grants, publications, recognitions, promotions, etc. We judge our time, ourselves, and each other by how “productive” we are being. When asked how we are, we reply, “Busy!” a statement that hides a whole range of possible emotional states behind a frosted veil of frenzied activity. Because we are obsessed with productivity, we hide or isolate the least productive members of our society, such as the elderly and people with physical or mental disabilities.
Because we worship productivity, we idolize efficiency. We reduce our language to economic terms: we spend time, we waste time, we lose time. Rarely and with great difficulty do we make time, or enjoy time, or find time. With the development of internet, laptop computers, and cell phones, we almost never have an excuse to be offline, disconnected, and unproductive. Even our downtime has been rebranded “recharging,” in order to make it more justifiable in a productivity-focused world.
When I do “justice work” (if there’s even a terminology for that), this urge to produce never ceases. Sometimes, it is about “how much” I am doing — how many organizations I am involved with, how many people am I influencing. At other times, it is about “how well” I am doing – whether I am giving my best, whether I am keeping up…
Hence, the need to pause.
Last December, I visited Cambodia and was chatting with one of the local staff about my inner tension of doing graduate school versus doing something seemingly “more practical.” She spoke some profound words upon me: “Don’t worry, there is always more to do in the field.” Indeed, work can never be “done,” hence why fall into the trap of productivity and not slowly sow the fruits? As much as we believe otherwise, we bring much of our ordinary “busyness” onto ourselves. We buy into the lies of productivity, believing that if we can only efficiently send this one email, continue finishing this one project in overtime, or outsource more work, we’ll be able to get ahead and to get some rest. – Cy
Changing our habits and practices is necessary in ordinary conditions to prevent burnout and to ensure that we truly do justice to the work that we do by bringing it our best.
Then there are times when life throws a curveball and you’re faced with something you would never have asked for. Things spiral out of control because of violence, sickness, the government, war, politics, the economy, or a natural disaster. Shootings or a protest (or both) happen in your hometown. People you care for and love are in danger. Blatant injustice in your country or on the other side of the world stares you flagrantly in the face. You find yourself unexpectedly physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially, or otherwise devastated. Maybe it affects you uniquely, leaving you feeling isolated. Maybe it affects your entire community, wiping out your support structures as everyone wrestles with their own feelings and grief. Maybe it is a profoundly affecting single event that happens in minutes or hours. Maybe it is a lingering unresolved conflict or crisis. In any cases, it draws your attention again and again like a sore and drains your energy and your ability to care for yourself or others.
Habitual practices of self-care
We need self-care in both ordinary and crisis conditions. But in practical terms, how can we deal with the strain of what life throws at us? We admit that in the face of immense stressors, our first instinct is often to disengage and retreat to cry or eat ice cream, while occasionally reaching out to trusted friends to process and to vent. When we think of self-care, however, we need to move beyond coping mechanisms and consider “practices of flourishing.” What counts as “practices of flourishing”? We consider some main practices of flourishing to be eating, sleeping, bathing, community, sabbath, reflection, lament, and celebration.
Let’s start by going back to the basics: eating, sleeping, and bathing. While simple, these can be remarkably hard to achieve, and these three things can serve as indicators of immense strain even when we are no longer able to diagnose it in ourselves. When was the last time you had a hot, semi-nutritious meal? Sitting down? While not multi-tasking or scrolling through your news feed? At a decent hour of the day? When was the last time you had a decent night’s sleep? (We won’t ask about bathing). While some extreme crisis situations can make even meeting these practices impossible, they form the bedrock of self-care and emotional stability. Putting away social media and news reports of violence are sometimes seen as acts of avoidance, but the space away from livestream of brutality may be necessary for some to regain perspective and energy to face injustice. Much has been written about the value of exercise for self-care, so we will not go into depth here, except to strongly affirm its cathartic value for emotional processing, reducing stress, and calming the mind and body.
Nurturing a care community is also a core practice of flourishing. At our worst moments, we are sometimes unable to take care of ourselves, so as part of our practice of self-care we need to build relationships with people who will reach out to us. Talking to people who are judgmental may put you in a worse place than you started out, so choose your support network wisely. Find people who will ask how you are—how you really are—and who will then bring you a lemon pie when you tell them a family friend died. Give people permission to reach out to you, and ask people to reach out to you with a regular call or text. Ask for help. Having people around us who care is a part of self-care. While retreating from community for rest and reflection can be vital parts of self-care, self-care should not be inherently isolating. Practice flourishing together.
The idea of sabbath, or of taking a dedicated, regular time period that is set aside out of “ordinary time,” is a radical concept in our societies. Sabbath has often been associated simply with an absence of work. However, the act of eliminating something from one’s life simultaneously also signify choosing something else. The act of resting is not a passive one, but an active choice to engage in work that is meaningful and that fills up the soul. For those of us who are religious, it is choosing to appreciate the work of the Creator, recognizing the body, mind and soul all originates from something bigger than that of our own, and that good stewardship and appreciation of ourselves is an act of worship. How does this tie into justice? Sabbaths enable us to stay in touch with the fullness of life that we are fighting for for others. Sabbath is a time to set aside one’s normal work and stressors and throw oneself into something else that is life-giving: naps, long walks, cooking soup, pottery, calling friends or family, listening to or creating music, having friends over. It can also be a dedicated time for reflection and lament, either individually or communally, which are small ways of honoring loss, grief, and victims of injustice. Finally, Sabbaths provide a space for celebration of big or small things, energizing us to keep going.
I have found taking a period of time each week (generally from 6 p.m. Saturday to 6 p.m. Sunday) to have been invaluable throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies. Having a dedicated space where I know that I would not under any circumstances be doing work allows me to host dinner on friends for Saturday night, to clean my apartment (usually in preparation for hosting!), to attend church services on Sunday mornings, and to go out to eat, ride my bike, take long naps, or have in-depth phone calls with family and friends without guilt. Saturday night dinners have built some of the richest and most unexpected communities of my life. Without this Sabbath time, there is no end to the constant pressure to be “doing something,” and I would have missed out on the opportunity to build relationships with some of my closest friends. – Johanna
Don’t get us wrong: just because these practices are “habitual” doesn’t mean they are easy. On the contrary, for many of us they require significant lifestyle changes and are only maintained through conscious effort. But they should be habits, practices structured into the normal patterns of our days, weeks, and lives.
Directed practices of self-care
Finally, we want to recognize one of the hardest practices of self-care: recognizing seasons. Often this involves stepping back and allowing others to step forward. There is value in recognizing one’s unique strengths, placement, and skills, and in recognizing that these may look different in different seasons of life. People, contexts, and communities change, and sometimes remaining in a position no longer does justice to either the person or the people they are trying to serve. Other opportunities may open up that allow for a more direct or impactful use of someone’s skills, or perhaps someone else’s needs take a new and pressing priority in their lives. Learning to say “no” to something is learning to say “yes” to others.
As we both continue in our roles as graduate students, we are also relearning what self-care means to us. For Cy, it means waking up early and biking to school, occasionally saying no to parties, while eating more ice-cream along the way. For Johanna, it means cooking dinner at a decent hour and spending more time in prayer and writing in her journal. We have also both decided to step down from our Streetside Conversation positions: the season where Streetside Conversations was one of our primary outlets for practicing justice has come to a close, and transferring the joy and responsibility of Streetside to its new leadership team allows us to dedicate our full efforts to practicing justice through our chosen fields. We have cherished the privilege of creating Streetside Conversations and seeing it come to life as a community of authors and readers dedicated to practicing justice daily in large and small ways. Thank you for each of your contributions as readers, authors, team members, and supporters. We are excited to watch its continued growth under its new leadership.
A wise professor once told us that the goal is not to move from dependence to independence, but from dependence to independence to interdependence. May we be able to take care of ourselves, so that we can move towards being in a position to give and receive care from others for our own health and for the strengthening of the communities where we live and work.
Cyanea Poon and Johanna Depenthal co-founded Streetside Conversations from opposite sides of the world in the spring of 2017. Since that time, Cyanea has served as the Publishing Coordinator and Johanna has served as the Outreach Coordinator, but Streetside Conversations could not have become what it is today without the dedicated work of our editing team, social media team, and recruiters. We are grateful for their commitment. We are also eternally grateful for the professors and friends around the world, especially in and through the HNGR program, who have taught us by example what it looks like to work for justice daily in our own contexts. Their work, and the work of the many authors who have shared with Streetside Conversations, continues to give us inspiration and hope.