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!