An End to Self-Care

End to Self-CareI’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.Read More

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.

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3 Responses to An End to Self-Care

  1. Abbey K. says:

    The notion of self-care has never once been brought up or deemed important in any of the movements I’ve been a part of, save for when I volunteered at a rape crisis center. My experience has been intense shaming if you can’t work 12+ hours a day every or nearly every day of the week. When you push back, or people get burnt out, the answer is always, “they weren’t committed enough” or “they just couldn’t hack it”, instead of examining how the institution/movement itself treated its staff, volunteers, members, etc. I guess the notion of community care would address this, but it has been my experience that a lot of organizers/activists care a lot about the “movement” but don’t really give a shit about the people in it. Also, I just want to say that self-care means different things to different people, and what constitutes self-care for you might be different for someone else. Maybe spending a noisy evening at home with the kids IS self-care for some folks. Everyone needs to tag out sometimes, and I agree that we need to develop ways that EVERYONE can, and not just those privileged with time and money.

  2. KF says:

    Reading this makes me feel a bit like I’m just not advanced enough to be fueled by activism 24-7, because I’m guilty of privately confessing how much I need this reprehensible “self-care” in order to simply function. You make salient points, and I agree that when we nurture community to fuel critical, achievable advocacy work, we are fed more meaningfully than when we are disconnected from a greater vision and community and doing a bunch of yoga. But I think there’s danger at either extreme.

    I understand and share contempt for the other end of the “self care” spectrum…the mindset that endorses cutting oneself off from the busyness of the world in order to focus exclusively on one’s own well-being, regardless of the issues that plague the wider community.

    I also think that the sort of “collective space that unleashes our heart’s creative desires” is a grand ideal…truly, those who can create such conditions are AP activists, and I agree that we are touching something revolutionary and compelling when we can create and participate in such a transformative project/community. But the reality is more complicated. Just as we can criticize the whole notion of “self-care” as middle-class, and irrelevant to those for whom their struggle is intrinsic to their livelihood, we can also criticize those who look down upon the many who populate less-than-inspiring institutions where they work hard to serve masses of everyday people. Many public educators, social workers, and non-profit workers shape and transform within their organizations every day to effect change that impacts lives…and they (we) are exhausted and legitimately need to replenish in order to maintain. I agree that being inspired to create systems that can manifest more fundamental transformation is the ultimate call that can nurture the spirit and the world more completely. But I also see a reality in which hoards of good people want to do good work, need jobs, live busy lives, and may not always have the vision, time, and energy to create these radical new systems. They try their best to create positive change within the part of the world they touch, and do it best when they are able to balance their hard work with basic care for their often-neglected body and spirit. I find the implication that instead of taking the time I need to get sleep and cook healthy meals, I should simply work harder, work longer hours, and create more transformative systems wrought with judgment, pressure, and just as classist as the implication that someone should do constant yoga retreats.

    For me, I know I am doing some important advocacy work, but I am also simply unable to function healthfully without certain things, like regular sleep and exercise and healthy food and down time. Criticize if you like, but it’s simply what I need to perform at the level I do, which, compared to some amazing activists, may be regarded as somewhat low. And I guess that’s part of my concern too…the whole competitive undertone of judging one another for who is truly dedicated and who is “doing it wrong”. For as long as I have done any kind of advocacy work, there have always been people who will assert that anyone not spending every waking moment working for a cause are not dedicated enough, alienating those who take time to spend with their families and work their survival jobs with guilt and criticism. In my case, I take some comfort in the knowledge that I’m not relying on rampant consumption to fuel myself…just trying to take the time I need to be a healthy person. And if I lose activist cred for it, I guess I have to suffer those consequences for the fact that I realized long ago that plugging away at constant meetings and endless organizing at the expense of my own “self care” leaves me mentally and physically unhealthy. So maybe lots of us are failing in the eyes of AP activists, but I think it’s important to nurture a culture of activism in which everyone is valued at the level that they can give, and we recognize that for many of us…between our economic stress, our families, our busy lives, our jobs, anything we can do to contribute the well-being of our world and ourselves is positive and transformative within the rat race of our culture.

  3. gardening says:

    I like it when people come together and share opinions.

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