My journey to self-care has been long, with twists and turns along the way. It began in 2002. I was on the fast track to tenure and success in my second year as a clinical psychology professor, where I had achieved the rare feat of applying for and receiving a prestigious federally funded grant in my first year. My colleagues marveled at how well I handled the stresses of the job, but beneath the well-dressed, unflappable exterior, I was crumbling. My medical chart was starting to fill up—hypertension, recurrent and inexplicable pain, insomnia, weight gain, fibroids, and infertility. What wasn’t in the chart were the emotional issues—loneliness, anxiety, irritability.
It all came to a head at Thanksgiving. Months earlier, my partner and I had decided to forgo the usual celebration and to spend the holiday in a bed-and- breakfast for some much-needed rest and relaxation. But when my family asked to hold dinner at our new North Carolina home, I couldn’t say no. I didn’t even know it was an option. In addition to being the firstborn child of a single mother, I am the oldest grandchild on both sides of my family. Since I was ten, I’ve been taking care of siblings, cousins, even the children of family friends. “Take care of your mother,” one of my uncles used to tell me every time we said goodbye. “But what about me?” I would wonder silently.
In the midst of my pain, stress, and fatigue, my partner and I spent weeks preparing to host the twenty-something aunts, uncles, and cousins who had said they were coming. On Thanksgiving Day, two people showed up—my father and my youngest brother. I was devastated. Why hadn’t they shown up for me? Why did it seem that no one (except my partner) showed up for me? I was tired of caring for everyone else. Who was going to care for me? Then it hit me: I had to take care of me. And I had to model to others how they should care for me.
So I embarked on a journey to self-care with a few small changes: affirmations, daily prayer and meditation, regular exercise, and breaks during my day. Within weeks, I felt better physically and emotionally. I felt more secure in my own identity and more connected to other people. But there was an unanticipated benefit: I felt more connected to God. It turned out that the more I cared for myself, the more I wanted to serve God in the world.
Self-care may seem to be an odd focus for a Christian devotional. After all, we typically think of spiritual disciplines as well, spiritual. That is, they are focused upon the transcendent—God, the Spirit, Jesus Christ, the afterlife. Self-care, in contrast, is very much grounded in the earthly, in the flesh, in the body, in the here and now. Many of us have learned to think of the human spirit and body in dualistic ways. It is common to hear Christians talk about the spiritual man, as distinct from the natural man. But there is no such distinction. We are not spirits that are simply housed in bodies. We are our bodies. There can be no spiritual life that does not engage the body.
In her book Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson defines the spiritual life in this way: “Scripturally speaking, the spiritual life is simply the increasing vitality and sway of God’s Spirit in us. It is a magnificent choreography of the Holy Spirit in the human spirit, moving us toward communion with both Creator and creation. The spiritual life is thus grounded in relationship. It has to do with God’s way of relating to us and our way of responding to God.” Notice the words that Thompson uses: sway, choreography, moving, grounded, responding. These are kinetic words. They are words about movement, about embodiment. Spirituality is embodied.
Hear this, you who trample on the needy and destroy the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale, make the ephah smaller, enlarge the shekel, and deceive with false balances, in order to buy the needy for silver and the helpless for sandals, and sell garbage as grain?” Amos 8:4–6
Self-care should be the most natural thing in the world. We should be innately inclined to devote a significant part of our time and energy to caring for ourselves—taking the time to prepare, cook, and eat nutritious meals; moving our bodies in ways that challenge and restore us; getting good sleep; spending time with people whom we love and who love us; spending time in prayer and meditation; and experiencing joy and pleasure. Instead, we find ourselves fighting to carve out space and time to sustain our own lives!
This is not an accident. It’s the product of living in a hyper-capitalist society built on a slave economy, which reduced people to commodities to be exploited. The logic of this economy persists today. It teaches all of us that our worth is dependent upon our productivity and our service to others. It teaches us to prioritize our jobs, roles, and responsibilities over ourselves. This might make sense if most of our responsibilities were related to people who love and support us in return. But capitalism devalues that, too, instead teaching us to dedicate ourselves to corporate entities—companies, organizations, universities, and, yes, even churches. It teaches us to disregard or rush through Sabbath rest so that we can quickly return to offering wheat for sale, making the ephah smaller, and enlarging the shekel.
A hyper-capitalist economy is disinterested in the survival and well-being of anyone beyond their utility as workers. Making the commitment to self-care forces a radical shift in our priorities that subverts the logic of capitalism. This is what Audre Lorde realized after cancer had spread through her body. It was then she realized that health and survival were acts of defiance for people who were never meant to survive, especially the survivor-descendants of the transatlantic slave trade and Native American genocide. Lorde wrote: “I had to examine, in my dreams as well as in my immune-function tests, the devastating effects of overextension. Overextending myself is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference. Necessary for me as cutting down on sugar. Crucial. Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Sacred self-care is not an act of indulgence; it is an act of resistance. Much like Sabbath keeping, self-care subverts the beliefs that we must do and be more; that everything must happen now; that our worth is determined by our titles, our achievements, and our productivity; and that we must be the ones who keep the world spinning on its axis.
Excerpted from SACRED SELF-CARE by Chanequa Walker-Barnes and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2023.