I’m going to say it. I want to see an end to “self-care.” Can we put a nail in self-care’s coffin and instead birth a newer discussion of community care?
As I most often hear it, self-care stands as an importation of middle-class values of leisure that’s blind to the dynamics of working class (or even family) life, inherently rejects collective responsibility for each other’s well-being, misses power dynamics in our lives, and attempts to serve as a replacement for a politics and practice of desire that could actually ignite our hearts with a fuel to work endlessly.
Talking about how we sustain ourselves, honor our personal needs, and prioritize our well-being in this brusque and brutal world is a huge advance from movement culture generations before. However, centering that conversation on ‘self-care’ devoid of our place in the collective misses the central point of why we need to care for ourselves. And that is because we must have all of our strength in place to counter the systems which, without our ability to resist and transform, without the self-preservation Audre Lorde describes, would see us destroyed.
Yashna Maya Padamsee, in her article Communities of Care, Organizations of Liberation, writes:
“Talking only about self-care when talking about healing justice is like only talking about recycling and composting when speaking on Environmental Justice. It is a necessary and important individual daily practice- but to truly seek justice for the Environment, or to truly seek Healing for our communities, we need to interrupt and transform systems on a broader level.”
Speaking in Phoenix, Arizona in 2009 at a rally for migrant rights, Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine said in a speech, ‘The racism and hatred we are seeing here inflicts in us a collective wound. The only way to heal from those wounds and address those assaults on our dignity is to resist.’ If injustice results in collective wounds, healing comes from collective struggle.
At the core, and when at it’s best, the conversation of self-care is seeking an answer to the question, “What must be done so that each one of us can maximize our participation in efforts that move us toward a world where we are more free?”
Too often it sounds different. Below I hope to identify some ways ‘self-care’ strays from its path in order to move us further down the road of healthier lives and more vibrant struggles.
There’s No Time for Self-Care
Self-care is often referred to as a task to add to a to-do list that is already overflowing. After several years running an immigrant worker organization together, my co-worker and I went on a yoga retreat to decompress and reflect (readers pause to clap.) The retreat granted us space to re-find ourselves in the grueling work and commit to continuing a practice that would keep us centered upon our return. When we returned, we’d ask each other, “So, you meditate today? You stretch?” I, with professional parents in a city far from mine and an apartment mainly to myself, usually would say yes (and the readers clap). But he returned to a bustling home with the noise of TV and the family responsibilities of caring for his brother and completing family chores. He’d usually say no (and the readers frown disapprovingly).
As long as self-care is discussed as an individual responsibility and additional task, it will be something that middle-class people with leisure time will most easily relate to and will include barriers to the lives of people without time to spare. It becomes one more unchecked box on a to-do list to feel bad about, an unreal expectation, or a far-off dream.
The movement is my self-care not my reason for needing it.
Don Andres awoke every morning at 5:00am to arrive at a street corner to look for work by 6:00am. He’d work a full day of heavy construction and still arrive at the 7:00pm meeting. He’d routinely fall asleep but he was there. Why? Because organizing together to improve conditions, to create alternatives, to band together, was the only option for how care could be anything but alien in his life as a day laborer. Being at the meeting was self-care.
Lack of care is systemic. Therefore resistance to those systems is the highest affirmation of care for oneself and one’s community. Movement work is healing work.
What self-care often misses is the reality that for the majority of people engaged in social justice movements, participation is out of necessity. That a collective effort in the form of social movement is the highest articulation of caring for one’s own self in a world designed to deny your worthiness of care. Too many people discussing self-care overlook the structural barriers that make access to the care they are speaking of impossible without the struggle they often discuss as the cause of their need to ‘take care of themselves.’
Even for someone like myself who has the majority of my materials needs met, I feel most alive, most on fire, most able to go around the clock, when I’m doing political work that feels authentic, feels like it pushes the bounds of authority, and feels like it is directly connected to advancing my individual and our collective liberation.
The truth is that we cannot knit our way to revolution. The issue is not that movements are taxing, because truly they are. It’s called ‘struggle’ for a reason. But they go from strain to overtaxing when we seek to fulfill our political aspirations through vehicles never meant to carry them like in non-political formations or some 501c3s.
The crisis of care is also a crisis of organization. Non-profits are built to do a lot of good, but they have inherent limitations that mean they are rarely built to fulfill our visions of the transformative organizing that would usher in a world where we could feel whole. Most engaged in social movements today are originally driven out of either a concrete material necessity and/or a deep connection to the wrong that accompanies inequality and a drive to make it right. However the majority of organizations available to us today are designed for gentle reforms but not the fundamental transformation our spirits crave. As a result, we try to transform a model unfit to nourish our hearts and then treat that frustration with tonics and diets and stretches instead of placing our efforts in creating a collective space that unleashes our heart’s creative desires.
Maria Poblet of Causa Justa Just Cause once said, “Burnout is not about the amount of hours you work, it is about the amount of political clarity you have.” What that means is that there is no chance of us consistently burning the midnight oil if we don’t at our core believe what we’re working on will get us to a new day and no amount of yoga or therapy or comfort food we supplement our work with will compensate for that. However, if we can see a better world just over the horizon, like a marathon runner nearing a finish line, we can find endless wells to draw upon as we work to usher it in. I have literally gone from being in debilitating pain and only being able to accomplish three hours of work each day to working 18 hour shifts the same week in a completely different context. The difference was not the conditions of my work. It was my connection to my purpose.
The problem with self-care is that there is an underlying assumption that our labor is draining. The deeper question is how do we shape our struggles so that they are life-giving instead of energy-taking processes. When did activities that are aimed to move us closer to freedom stop moving us?
Resilience Builds Resistance
As we move toward answering that question, we also have to look at the lifestyles, both individually and communally, that we live. We can’t address care without also addressing culture. Capital’s vision for our lives is one where we are alienated from our work and from each other. Where non-profit jobs mirror for-profit jobs and both end in take-out and television. Where we mirror the lives of our opposition; long hours of work, eat out, come home drained, watch television, collapse, repeat. Replacing the television in that cycle with yoga or bodywork does not address the alienation at the core of it. The change comes when we begin to build communities of care.
The difference between the strength of a rope and the weakness of a string is that a rope is a hundred strings that have bound together. As Climbing Poetree points out, the trees that are uprooted in a hurricane are those that stand alone while those whose roots have intertwined support each other against the push of storms.
The fact that you’re tired and asking yourself how you’re going to keep going, is not unique to you. The answer to that question isn’t either.
Going back to Yashna’s article, she writes,
“I cannot sit and care for my body without being concerned with what happens to the bodies of my sisters. We are connected… it is our responsibility not as individuals, but as communities to create structures in which self-care changes to community care. In which we are cared-for and able to care for others.
So then don’t ask the single mother if she’s taking care of herself unless you’re also offering to do childcare. Don’t ask the striking teacher how they’re fairing unless you’re also picking up a picket sign.
Hopefully at this point we know that an injury to one is an injury to all but have we also figured out how to making healing for one healing for all and vice versa? What do communities that share responsibility for each others’ well being look like? Where both our movement work and social time outside of it bring us to deeper connection and clearer purpose? There are examples: The Republic of New Africa did physical training in the park every morning before members went off to work. In Arizona, neighbors create ‘defense plans’ to take care of each others’ children in case someone in the network is detained or deported.
But we need more. It’s not just a question we need to answer to figure out how to stay involved but one that, if we answer, will open a world for much more people to get involved. We’re already taught to go it alone and look out for #1. Putting self-care to bed and waking up community care might be what can take us to 100.
B. Loewe has been organizing since age 15 and giving massages since age 8. During that time B.’s been honored to be part of movements for police accountability, food justice, for peace, and for the past ten years, for migrant worker rights. Since 2008 B. has also worked to manage chronic pain that forces constant reflection on B.’s participation in social justice activities. Follow B on twitter @bstandsforb. This article was originally published by BROAD Magazine at Loyola University. It is inspired by the work of Sage Community Health Collective, many others, and especially by conversation with Yashna Maya Padamsee.