The Line Between Self-Care and Self-ish

There’s no question that the life of a friar or other religious is difficult and stressful at times. Given unparalleled access into the lives of complex and broken people, we are often asked to be all things for all people, providing spiritual, emotional, financial, and ethical support, all while admitting our own brokenness in a life of penance. Unlike most other professions, our life is our work, and sometimes, without the luxuries of long vacations, time off, or many creature comforts, the two can become so intertwined that we forget to take care of ourselves, eventually leading to burnout.

Time and time again we are reminded as formation students that we need to exercise “self-care.” Take a day off each week without question. Take a vacation every year. Find a hobby. Learn how to say no. Never forget to care for yourself otherwise you won’t be able to care for others.

It’s important business.

And yet, I can’t help but be troubled by it at the same time. As much as our lives can be stressful and lead to burnout, and as much as one’s day off and the desire for adequate self-care is important, there’s a fine line between between exercising self-care and being self-ish.

When I look at the lives of my friends and family, I don’t necessarily see people getting by with a life much easier than my own. Quite the contrary. I look at my peers and see them trying to make it in the marketplace, being asked to work extremely long hours while being barely compensated for their work. I see young parents “on the clock” 24 hours a day with the unending needs of little ones. I sense the unease of those in middle age who have not achieved the comfort of life that they expected, continuing to scrape by with limited savings, poor healthcare, and little room for mistakes. These are difficult and stressful lives as well.

And while, yes, in each of these cases there might be the freedom to enjoy greater vacations, a clearer disconnect from work, more flexibility in hobbies, and the possibility for more creature comforts, the overall idea of allowing “self-care” to trump work bears no weight in their regular lives. If there is work to be done, whether at home or work, it needs to be done. I’m sure my friends would love to go to their bosses and set their own hours so as to strike a comfortable work/leisure balance that is healthy and sustainable. But they can’t. They don’t have the flexibility and comfort that we do. I’m sure young parents would love to take a full self-care day a week in which they weren’t responsible for anything or anyone outside of themselves. But they can’t. As the popular Dayquil commercial say, “Moms don’t take sick days.” They don’t have the independence that we do. I’m sure people in their middle age would love to take an extended break from work to reflect, recollect themselves, and replenish their vigor for work once again. But they can’t. They don’t always have the opportunities for sabbaticals and leaves like we do.

For a moment not even taking into account the poorest that we serve—those who have no possibility of self-care in the ways I describe—I can’t help but feel a level of comfort and privilege compared to the average person even in being able to have this discussion. Maybe the idea of self-care is more of a luxury than we’ve been led to believe.

If so, where does this leave us friars and religious? Do we give up our days off in order to be selfless 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

Maybe we do. I can’t recall Mother Theresa ever taking a day at the spa or telling her sisters to beware of burnout! Maybe we go to the opposite extreme, never worrying about our health or wellness because others have it so much worse. There are times when my day off comes and I should just keep going; sure, I’d like to relax, but I don’t need it as much as others need me to work.

Or maybe we don’t. Just because others have it worse off than we do doesn’t make what they’re doing ideal or healthy, and if we have the opportunity, why not be the best we can be for people? We’re not talking about posh lifestyles, we’re talking about turning off our phones and going to the movies or golf course for a day to get away from it all. While I may not think I need a day off right at the moment, the collective weight of repeatedly working without leisure may leave me unable to serve in the future.

Naturally, I can’t give a universal answer. Depending on the person and their own conception of self, self-care could be a cross to bear, a discipline that one must follow to keep them from hurting themselves, or it could be an opportunity for ungenerous entitlement thinking, an unquestioned and inflexible privilege that one feels they deserve and will never surrender for others.  Maybe its best to give up even our self-care time on occasion. Maybe it’s actually selfish and unhealthy to never care for ourselves. I don’t know.

What I do know, though, is that I didn’t join this life for the time off. I am always acutely aware that my purpose in this life is to serve others and to give of myself. #MissionStatement. Because of this, I’m also aware that, while self-care and time off are important things, there is a danger that those things can become an idol or desire in themselves, affecting or diminishing my ability to serve in the most complete way possible. I don’t deserve a vacation. I’m not entitled to a day off. I deserve to give of myself and I am entitled to love freely. Period. To the extent that I am afforded things that will help me to love and serve in a more effective way, I am thankful. What that looks like or how I will navigate the gray fuzzy line between self-care and being self-ish is all a part of discernment and my life in God. May we all be shown the way!

6 Comments on “The Line Between Self-Care and Self-ish

  1. Br. Casey, I have never commented on your blog before, but this post inspires me to do so. I have been a parishioner for nearly 40 years at a Catholic Church that was run by the Franciscan Friars of the St. Barbara Province until the middle of last year when they announced they were leaving because they could no longer staff it. They simply had no new Franciscan pastor to send to us. We are now a Diocesan parish with one priest only. He has no help from religious (no associate, deacon, etc.), though of course he has lay staff. Our past two Franciscan pastors had health problems due to overwork – one experienced a mini-stroke while he was in his 50’s (fortunately he recovered fully) and the other left work with us partly because of high blood pressure issues. I worry about our current pastor who is taking on so much responsibility with us. He was the celebrant at ALL of our Christmas liturgies this past year – 5 Masses in 2 days. And he is older, too.

    You ABSOLUTELY need to do self-care and take a day off. Your job is different from the others you describe who are not in religious life. Priests and brothers (and sisters, too!) bear the weight of the world on their shoulders all the time, with people coming to them for answers to impossible moral and ethical questions, dealing with death and its aftereffects on a family on a regular basis, and simply performing ministerial acts day after day. There has to be respite for that or the result is total burnout. Give yourself permission to take that time you need. Those folks working long hours or caring for young children are doing valuable work but they only have to worry about themselves and their families, not the larger family of a parish or, indeed, of God.

  2. Friar Casey, that is a really good reflection about self-care vs. selfish. I am facing a similar set of reflections with my imminent retirement in December this year. The costs of “senior living” places which will take care of me when I am old and gray and feeble are enormous ($200K – 350K entrance fee plus ~$2500/mo, and that does not include the actual healthcare costs!). A side of me feels I could do so much with that money (give it away!), and a side of me, being single, worries about who is going to take care of me when I am old and gray and feeble 🙂 Pray for my discernment, please!

    I have an unrelated question!

    I have begun to go to early morning daily Mass since the Fall, and find that it is making me more conscious of looking for the Lord’s presence in the whole day afterward, plus it actually allows me about 45 minutes of prayer time before Mass.

    Some folks on my parish’s liturgy committee have told me that daily Mass is a “devotion”, which makes me think it goes on a similar level to saying the rosary or lighting a candle before Mary’s statue. Somehow, that doesn’t seem quite right. I fully realize that Sunday Mass is THE most important communal act which we do… but daily Mass isn’t right up there too?

    Any insight you can provide would be awesome! and, regardless, I am still going to go to daily Mass when I can 🙂

    Mary Ann Wilmington DE

    On Mon, Jan 30, 2017 at 3:04 PM, Breaking In The Habit wrote:

    > friarcasey posted: “There’s no question that the life of a friar or other > religious is difficult and stressful at times. Given unparalleled access > into the lives of complex and broken people, we are often asked to be all > things for all people, providing spiritual, emotional,” >

    • Hi Mary,

      I will definitely pray for you in your discernment. What you bring up about mass being a “devotion” is an interesting topic. In one sense it is a devotion in that it not a required act of the faithful but rather a pious act of someone who is able and chooses it. That being said, it is definitely more than a private devotion such as a rosary or lighting a candle. It is still a sacrament, even if, as you correctly say, it derives its meaning from the Sunday liturgy and therefore is particularly “lesser” in relation to it. Hope that helps!

      Br. Casey

  3. This is well written and I really agree with what you are saying. Pope Francis has said that priests need to be with the people and not on the golf course. My take on this is that we need to take time for prayer and that will be our source of energy. My novice mistress once said(years ago) “It is better to wear out than rust out.”

  4. I was nursing for 16 years, I did take holidays but I hadn’t seen the stress and anxiety creep up on me. I started having heart problems, weight gain, due to eating on the run. I couldn’t sleep properly adding to the stress. Today I have had to stop nursing, I have blood pressure, weight problems, arthritis and joint pain, back problems. Don’t get me wrong I loved my job, but the incessant demands nearly killed me, so at 44 years old I have to find something else to do, it’s not easy! Please listen to the advice, enjoy your work, make time to lead a balanced life, eat well, have time off to relax, Persue a hobby, I am trying but find it hard to switch off in life, even driving the car is stressful, it’s so busy! The real answer is a deep 1:1 relationship with the Lord. I am working on that one to! Keeping the sabbath is God’s way of telling us to back off a bit! Thanks Casey for your comments, thoughts and words, be blessed my friend. Pete

  5. Very late response here, but I felt compelled so post a message. I’m sorry that the messages you’ve received about self-care are that it must come in the form of an entire day off, a vacation, or disregarding work that needs to be done. While I am a huge fan of doing these things (if possible), that is not what real self-care looks like.

    Self-care is fully honoring your mind, body and soul in whatever ways you can. It means choosing foods that nourish you instead of making you feel sluggish. It means staying hydrated and getting adequate sleep. It means taking *small* breaks throughout the day – even if it’s just 5 minutes to meditate, walk around the block or watch a silly video – to reset. It means stepping away from social media or the news when it’s too upsetting, overwhelming, or just plain negative. It means setting boundaries and saying no more (to things and people that are toxic and hurtful in your life, not actual obligations or family responsibilities.) It means finding a movement practice that you love and that feels good. It means allowing yourself to feel and move through your emotions instead of stuffing them. Self-care is a practice in getting to know, love and trust yourself, and check in with your needs. Sometimes that need MIGHT be a day off. Sometimes it might be to cry. Sometimes it might just be a glass of water.

    None of these things are selfish, and as far as privilege goes, while some of this may come in the form of green juice and yoga and vacations for some people, I’d argue that most of what *true* self-care is, is accessible to everyone, and in fact is most imperative for people who are underprivileged. I hope this made some sense.

    Blessings to you

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