When I was in law school, I brought a bag of chocolates to the last exam of my first semester and before we sat down to our three-hour slog of a Contracts final, I gave everyone in the class a piece of chocolate—either Hershey’s kisses or Reese’s peanut butter cups; I forget. That turned into a minor tradition that I followed every fall exam period. I was gratified to hear my friends tell me that that piece of chocolate would sometimes be the thing that gave them a little boost of energy in the middle of the ordeal.
That habit continued years later when I entered the seminary and when I became a campus minister, one of the things I did during finals was to set up a table in Mary Graydon during the winter finals period and for days on end distribute free chocolate to stressed out college students. “Spiritual Therapy Through Chocolate” we called it. It was a proud tradition that Rev. Joey Heath-Mason and the United Methodists continue to this day.
But there was something curious I began to notice as I tabled throughout the finals period. Students would constantly ask what they had to do to get a piece of chocolate. “Nothing,” I would respond.
“Oh, I’d love some chocolate—but I’m not a Methodist.” “You don’t need to be; it’s free. Take some!”
“Do I need to sign up or anything?” “Nope, just take some.”
I would even practice a studied indifference to the passers-by—greatly facilitated once WiFi was introduced into Mary Graydon—of being busy at work on my laptop while crowds of students walked by. Some would “steal” a piece as they walked by, seemingly not understanding that the chocolate was there to be taken. Beyond the signs that said things like “Free Chocolate: Consider it spiritual therapy during finals” and “Chocolate is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy” (a reworking of Ben Franklin’s quote about beer), I added a sign that said, “Free chocolate: if you had to do anything to get it, it wouldn’t be free.”
But still the questions persisted. I’m sure Joey will tell you that they persist to this day.
And there was something that became apparent—this was an object lesson in grace: how hard it is for people to accept something that is freely given. Something that benefits them even, without assuming that there’s a catch.
II. GIVING AND RECEIVING GRACE
In many ways, we are frequently better at extending mercy, grace, and love to others than we are to ourselves.
For example, I am not a good person. I am a miserable, sinful wretch. The things I have done in my life—the missteps, the faults, the sins—they have left an indelible stain that can never be removed. The tarnish of my wrongness can never be polished away. No matter how much I try, my brokenness can never be made whole.
You,on the other hand, are a good and striving person. In your misery and sin you are nevertheless a child of God. The things that you have done in your life—the missteps, the faults, the sins—cannot define you and the stains and tarnish upon your soul have already been washed clean by the grace of God. All your striving is made unnecessary by the infinite mercy of the God who makes wholeness out of brokenness.
I suspect that while that language may be particular to my own Protestant Christian context and profession, the sentiment is not. We’re all a lot better at dishing out grace and care than receiving it. We’re much better at granting forgiveness than receiving it.
III. SELF-CARE AND SELF-WORTH
So here’s why I think this matters.
We’re here to talk about self-care today. And when I usually do this, I talk about concepts of sabbath and rest. I like to talk about the metaphor of a melody made by notes and defined by the rests. Or of a design of color and defined by the white space where the design is not. I talk about spaces for creativity and the need for stillness to hear the voices that are calling us to our work. In short, I spend a lot of time talking about why self-care and sabbath are good for us.
But you know what? I’ve been preaching some version of that sermon for eighteen years and although it is my most frequently preached sermon, it is also my most commonly ignored sermon. One more appeal to reason and provided benefit is not likely to work.
Because it occurs to me that the obstacle to self-care is not an informational one. It’s not that we don’t know how beneficial it is for us. We know that.
It’s that we don’t think we’re worthy of it.
Oh, sure, it’s great for other people. If we had a colleague who was collapsing under the pressure, or who was stifled creatively, or who was lacking in direction and feeling adrift in what their life’s calling would be, we’d advise them to take some time to reflect, some time apart, some time to hear that still, small voice. But me? Oh, no way. I couldn’t do that. I don’t have the time. I’ve got too much to do. If I were to simplify or take time apart, people might think I’m not working hard enough, because they probably already don’t think I’m that great. I mean, I don’t, so I don’t want to give anyone else the impression that I’m a slacker. At least, any more than I already do. So, sure. Go ahead and please take care of yourself. I’ll manage.
But we are worthy of self-care. Just as much as we are worthy of grace. Of forgiveness. Of love.
IV. SELF AND OTHERS
But if you need more convincing, let me try this. Self-care is an act of social justice.
There are a number of social justice issues that are implicated by self-care. And not just the social justice issue of resisting the clock-tyranny of the modern age in which we are defined only by our productivity and ability to advance the capitalist machine. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann argues as much in his book Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the CULTURE OF NOW.
Indeed, for people who are in danger of being marginalized or erased, whose interests are constantly being sacrificed on the altar of cultural hegemony or oppression, self-care itselfis an act of social justice. As Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
But even for those who are not themselves in positions of marginalization or oppression, self-care is the way in which we can be of the most help to those who are.
Taking care of ourselves is how we take care of others. This is not an obscure truth; this is something that every flight attendant in the world can tell you. “In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will descend from the ceiling. Please place the oxygen mask on yourself before offering assistance to any other passengers.” In short: put your oxygen mask on first because if you pass out, you’re no good to anyone.
But beyond the pragmatics of helping others, there is a deep connection between caring for others and caring for self. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is asked to name the commandment that is “the first of all.” As we heard read earlier, he responds:
“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”Mark 12:29–31 NRSV
It’s a familiar lesson to many in which Jesus ties together two commandments from the Torah, one from Deuteronomy (love of God) and Leviticus (love of neighbor). But what often goes overlooked is the tying together love of neighbor with love of self: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Implicit in this commandment is the expectation that we love ourselves. It was observed in the New Testament epistle of 1 John 4:20 and in the old Shaker hymn More Love: “If ye love not each other in daily communion how can ye love God whom ye have not seen?” We might extend that sentiment to say, “If ye love not yourself how can ye love others in daily communion?”
Now, loving yourself and liking yourself are different things. We all go through times when we don’t like ourselves very much, but we still have to love ourselves and that requires self-care.
If we think back to the example earlier of the ease with which we dispense grace to others but are stingy with ourselves, that raises another justice issue: we are not doing justice to ourselves by withholding compassion from ourselves that we would never withhold from others. And if we cannot be trusted to do justice by our own selves, how can we be trusted to do justice for others?
We live in an anxious time and the responsibilities we have to build a just and compassionate community are greater than ever. But we shall find ourselves inadequate to the task if do not start that justice and compassion within. If we do not take the time, if we do not observe sabbath rest, if we do not exercise self-care, not only do we suffer as individuals, but the larger societal piece suffers as well. Self-care is community care. Self-care is justice.
And so I want to come back to the point I made earlier: we are reluctant to engage in self-care because we often imagine ourselves unworthy of the effort, undeserving of the energy and resources. So let me say this: you are worthy. You are deserving. You are an object of primary value and deserving of care, from yourself most of all.
In the Talmud and in the Qur’an it is said that whoever saves one life, it is as if they have saved the entire world. You are a universe unto yourself, full of dignity and purpose, and worthy of care, no less so than the Universe itself.
So, get busy with the work of justice. Get busy with the work of community. Get busy with the transformation of social structures. Get busy saving the world, and start with yourself.
For in self-care we create the mechanism to care for others. In self-care we find the healing and rest necessary for the long road ahead. And in self-care, we find that we become better at caring for others, because we will have learned the lessons of compassion, of mercy, of grace, and of love deep within us. And in so doing, we will become capable of radiating that compassion, mercy, grace, and love into all the world.