“You’re going through a lot. . .remember to take care of yourself!”
Um, yeah. No. It doesn’t work that way.
What this phrase, this admonishment, assumes is that you are a perpetual motion machine. Or God. Same thing.
It takes serious amounts of energy to take care of anyone or anything. You are already significantly drained of energy. Whenceforth comes this supposed ability to haul yourself up by your boot straps?
Take care of yourself, take care of yourself, take care of yourself.
I keep hearing this over and over and over again, and it makes me feel guilty. Yeah, I should. The fact that I’m stretched thin and exhausted is my fault. If I was a responsible person who knew how to take care of herself, I wouldn’t be in this position. I need to learn to be a better person, so I can take care of myself, so people won’t be burdened by how I act when I’m in over my head.
Then I was like, wait. How the heck do you take care of yourself? Nobody could tell me that. Just that I had to do it, or I would burn-out. Just, you know, take care of yourself. Some people tried to take the physical aspect of it: eat, sleep, exercise. This approach had two problems. One: myself is more than my body, and my cares, concerns, and needs cannot be fulfilled by attending to by body alone. And Two: do you realize how much it takes out of you to take care of your body? It’s a freaking chicken-or-the-egg situation. Oh, and Three? What makes you think I have control over any of that?
After a bad bout of anxiety leading to some physical symptoms I didn’t care to repeat, I decided that it was Time To Take Care Of Myself. I worked hard at exercising almost every day, at making sure I was eating more fruits and vegetables, and at going to bed at a Reasonable Time. My body kinda felt a little better, but it wasn’t touching anything else. Spending so much time on Eat, Sleep, Exercise was turning me into an automaton–I had thoughts and feelings and ideas I never got a chance to touch, because I was spending all my free time Eating, Sleeping, and Exercising.
The fall-out was that I started having insomnia. Waking up in the middle of the night, still exhausted and wishing I could be sleeping, just so that my mind could have some time run. I wasn’t anxious. I didn’t know why I was waking up. The things that came to my mind were just idle thoughts, but apparently you have to have time to have idle thoughts.
The insomnia did not get better. The insomnia got worse. Falling asleep became a scary, daring attempt. This girl who used to be able to fall asleep within any 5 consecutive horizontal minutes spent TWO HOURS, too tired to stand straight, with her mind chugging and chugging over “nothingness.” This does bad, bad things to homeostasis. When I get that tired, it starts making me feel nauseous, and the thought of putting anything in my mouth repulsive.
The Eat, Sleep, Exercise thing was totally blown to smithereens, by . . .Eating, Sleeping, and Exercising? I couldn’t put enough in it to keep going. All systems were shutting down. My brain was now demanding (and acquiring de facto by striking) time to sit and not function. And the inside of me was still pretty raw, too.
You know, there are just some things that you just cannot do for yourself. You cannot, for example, give yourself a good hug or snuggle. You cannot engage yourself in a really good conversation that gives you new things to think about or new perspectives. You can’t really comfort yourself.
But somehow, we’re told we should be taking care of ourselves. Maybe that’s just not a thing we can do, unless we are God: Be self-sustaining. Need no one. Got it all under control ourselves. I can take care of myself, you know.
No, you can’t.
You aren’t a perpetual motion machine. You can’t create more energy than you expend. You do not have the functional capability to take care of yourself. No one does. We have different needs and we express it differently, but we all need help. We may be very verbal about needing help, or we may be really bad at expressing it. We may try to go find help at the slightest hint of need, or we might have a really hard time accepting help even when it’s freely offered. But none of us is a self-sustained, self-contained, endless capacity individual.
Even Jesus, after He spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. God didn’t say, “Hey, Jesus, you’ve been through a lot. Take care of yourself, okay?” No, God sent His ministering angels to go take care of Jesus. Humanity it is very finite, and Jesus was embodied in humanity. He needed help.
“I hope you feel better soon,” says that “I know there isn’t anything I can do to help you right now, but I hope you don’t have to keep on suffering.” There’s something different about “take care of yourself.” “Take care of yourself” says, “That’s your job and your responsibility. I don’t need to help you in your need; you need to get your act together.” “Take care of yourself” is offered as though it is an expression of empathy or compassion, but it’s really not. It’s an act of washing one’s hands of the situation. “So-and-so really needs to learn how to take better care of herself,” is not an expression of compassion. It’s an act of carefully crossing the street and passing by on the other side. You’re in an icky situation, and you’re on your own, ’cause I’m not touching that.
Peeps, this isn’t about blaming everyone else for you being miserable, and wallowing in the role of being a victim and having no one there to help you. It’s about recognizing that you have no right to be ashamed for asking for help, and that you have a duty to help where you can. Perhaps Paul said it best in 2 Corinthians 8: 13 For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; 14 but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality. 15 As it is written, “He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.”
You can’t do it on your own. You need to help. And you need to help others. And maybe where they have a need is where you still have something left to give, and where you have a need is what they still have an abundance in.
In the midst of my falling to pieces and being unable to sleep, I could hear the voice of my old Bio teacher in the halls. He sounded discouraged. He sounded like he was up against a lot. I felt like I could barely walk in a straight line, but I could still send him and email, telling him what an impression he made on me as his student. I didn’t have much to give, but I could at least do that. In needing help, there is a recognition that others do, too. This isn’t about the world revolving around you; this is about the world being full of finite, struggling people, of which you are one.
I cannot take care of myself. Truth be told, I do not even yet know how to ask for help, or what kind of help I need. But I have at least figured out this much: it’s silly for me to think that I’m responsible for “taking care of myself,” any more than it is my responsibility to defy gravity, entropy, the laws of conservation, or even my responsibility to deny my own humanity. I am a human, and I cannot do it all, and I’m not supposed to be able to.
You aren’t, either. You have enough going on without feeling needlessly guilty that “you’re going all to pieces” because you “just aren’t strong enough.” We’re in a world that we do not, cannot control. We will never be on top of it all, and we will always be struggling. Sometimes, you won’t be able to go any further without someone reaching down to help, or someone behind you giving you that boost.
And while you search for that next handhold, that next little ledge your toes can find some purchase on–remember the others. Remember to give that little push; remember to call some encouragement to those trying to find their own path. Remember that it’s not your responsibility to do it all yourself and never ask for help–and remember that sometimes, it’s really, really hard to ask for help; so don’t wait until they ask. Reach out.
Don’t tell them to take care of themselves; don’t add to them one more responsibility, one more duty to attend to. Tell them what they’ve already done. Tell them what they’ve already accomplished. Tell them, with words or without, that you aren’t going to ignore them through this hard time, because you’ve already got your own hands full. You might not have much to offer, but that’s okay; a few drops of water are pretty valuable in the middle of the Sahara.
Just don’t be surprised or angry or frustrated or embarrassed to say, yourself, “Hey, a little help here! I could really use some ministering angels!” You’re in good company.