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Self-care is different from self-comfort

Most of us have probably heard that self-care is important for our mental health. And it’s true! Self-care is a critical part of our plan for working toward mental wellness.

Mental health has become an everyday, mainstream topic of conversation in recent years. And that’s a good thing. There are now many resources at our disposal to help us think about how to be as healthy and whole as possible.

But the challenge of this conversation becoming mainstream is that certain critically important pieces of our mental wellness can become so diluted as to be almost unrecognizable.

One area in which the wellness industry often misses the mark is self-care. Most of the imagery we see related to self-care essentially equates to pampering, luxury and disconnection: indulgent spa days, expensive trips with friends to Cabo, binge watching TV.

While these things may feel good — and we all deserve to feel good — self-care is much bigger and broader than simply self-soothing or enjoyment, especially for Christians.

Self-care is a multifaceted act of stewardship, which attends to multiple life demands. Self-care entails building a system of practices to support our living the rich and satisfying life that Jesus talks about in John 10:10. It is an evolving process, in conversation with the Holy Spirit, that honors the whole person.

Self-care is, first, recognizing that we are God’s creation, made in God’s image, and thus good and valuable and deserving of care. This means we have a responsibility to get curious about what we need to thrive, recognizing that that is different for each of us and that it changes over time as we grow and evolve.

We live in a world that does not often encourage us to care for ourselves in the ways that count. Our capitalist society can leave us feeling overworked, underpaid, sleep-deprived and going through the motions.

In the light of this reality, self-care might mean saying no to a paid opportunity in order to rest or spend time with your family. Self-care might mean prioritizing your exercise and sleep to support your overall physical health, even if you’re more interested in doing other things. Self-care might mean going to your therapy appointments, even when they are hard and uncomfortable.

Self-care might mean committing to a devotional practice, even when the timing feels inconvenient, because you know you feel and live better when you are spiritually grounded. Self-care might mean committing to a routine that helps you feel more balanced, even when your preference is to be totally spontaneous. Self-care might mean saying no when it’s easier and less scary to say yes.

To be invested in self-care is to wonder, “Is this action or routine getting me closer to where I want to be or further away from it?” Real self-care considers the bigger picture and has the end goal in mind.

The reason that self-soothing is so much more popular than actual self-care is that it addresses an immediate issue. Simply put, manicures and binge watching and emotional eating usually help us feel better in the moment. But it’s important to remember that they are temporary Band-Aids. While self-care can include some of these things, it prioritizes long-term healing.

Self-soothing does not do enough to care for ourselves in holistic ways. Emotions can be powerful motivators, and it’s our natural human tendency to avoid bad feelings and prioritize good ones.

As a mental health professional, I am a firm believer that our emotions are a key part of our experience in the world. It’s important that we attend to them, but we must not be ruled by them. Emotions can be intense, fleeting and ever-changing. They are not the whole story, so they can’t be all the information we use to navigate the world. They are a piece of the larger puzzle.

Other parts of that puzzle include our relationships with others, our physical health and wellness, our spiritual wholeness, our work and vocational responsibilities, and our communal commitments. A self-care plan (key word: plan!) considers the whole of who we are and attends to those internal and external demands.

I’m aware that by now self-care might sound a bit bigger than you bargained for. This is why the encouragement is to invite the Holy Spirit into the process. In Romans, Paul reminds us: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26 NIV).

The truth of the matter is that sometimes our lives get so complicated that it is hard to figure out what we need to do to care for ourselves. But what we do know is that God is invested in the totality of us — mind, body and spirit.

God equips all manner of professionals to help us identify healthy practices, and God sends the Holy Spirit to help us discern which ones we are called to. Take a moment and look at the big picture of your life, with its twists, turns and intricacies. What are the key issues you’re feeling called to attend to right now, and what commitments can you make in that regard? As you discern and then implement, remember that the Spirit is present to help you along the way.

To read Cole Arthur Riley’s “This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation and the Stories That Make Us” is to meet her family and learn how they formed her, in particular her father and grandmother. She tells her story, their story, with beautiful language and lush emotion framed by her contemplative nature and sharp awareness of this moment in time.

Early in “This Here Flesh,” she writes:

My father was born smooth. He glides and sways when he walks, cuts his hands through the air in meaningful arcs when he talks, like he’s in a ballet. I’ve never seen the top of his head because I’ve never seen him look down. He told me from a very young age, Keep your head up, relax those shoulders, look at that skin shine. He told me that Black was beautiful. It seemed to me that he was a man who would never think to apologize for his existence. Some people are born knowing their worth.

At 32, Riley is a New York Times bestselling author, the creator of Black Liturgies, and curator of The Center for Dignity and Contemplation. Her next book — a collection of letters, prayers, liturgies, questions for contemplation and breathing exercises — is in the editing process.

Riley spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne in March after presenting the Jill Raitt Lecture for Duke Divinity School’s Women’s Center. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Could you speak about the importance of the liturgies you’ve written — what those mean to you in the work you’ve done and in the work you continue to do?

Cole Arthur Riley: Liturgy, for me, has been a long journey toward finding spiritual practices that feel authentic to who I am. I wasn’t a very verbal child. I was a very quiet child. I found a lot of comfort in writing from a very early age. I was probably 24 when I first went to a church that had any kind of liturgical, or overtly liturgical, form. And something about the beauty and the writing really connected to me and felt like, if there is a God and if I am going to speak to God, this is how it would happen.

I’m biased, because I’m a liturgist, but I think it’s such a beautiful form for solidarity. What does it mean to stay in words, to stay in a phrase together, even if that phrase doesn’t immediately resonate with you, even if you don’t immediately understand its meaning? To decenter yourself and center the emotions of maybe one or two in the presence of the collective?

I think it’s a beautiful symbol or practice of solidarity and also very restful for me to not always have to manufacture the words on the spot but to just come and accept and receive words without having to try so hard.

F&L: In an interview with Drew Hart, you said that your book is grounded in the Christian tradition you were formed in but your spirituality is more than creed or doctrine. Could you talk about that?

CAR: I’ve definitely known what it is to reduce my spirituality to religion. I’m not one of those “I’m spiritual, not religious” beings. I sometimes feel like my words are misunderstood to be in that camp. I don’t really resonate that much with those words, but what I resonate with is [whether I can] have this larger container for my spiritual life, and religion be one part of that but not to fill the whole cup.

[In the book], I travel into the stories of my father and my grandma. My father is not the least bit religious and would never claim to be Christian or anything like that. My grandma was Christian but endured a lot of abuse that was enabled by the church and so had a really complicated relationship with the Christian church.

As a way to honor their stories and that spirituality, I had to tap into maybe a spirituality that felt more primary in my home growing up. If it wasn’t religion, what form did that spirituality take? I thought a lot about this. I want to put better language to it eventually, but when I was writing the book, I thought about myth.

These are the things, these are the spiritualities of my family — myth, humor, storytelling. Those are the moments where the sacred and the mysterious feel a little more present. So I’ve incorporated myth and story into the book as a form of spirituality.

Now, what could happen if others felt liberated to do likewise? I feel a sense of freedom and not needing to confine my spirituality strictly to doctrines and creeds.

I’m someone who really struggles with belief, and there are people who have a very strong sense of belief. I admire them. I have just never been one of them. It feels authentic to me and my own life to say that I don’t need to be so concerned with answers or this very clear idea of defining my spirituality on this day, but I can just ask questions and allow it to be fluid and drift more into the myth on one day and more into Genesis on another day. I think there’s some degree of freedom in that expansion.

F&L: I’m also mindful in your writing and in your speaking about the toll taken on the bodies of people who live in systems of oppression. I don’t know that people feel very liberated, either in faith spaces or, for people of color, people who are living in poverty, in their bodies.

CAR: If you were raised in a Christian tradition that focuses really heavily on escaping hell someday in the future, it’s very likely, not always, but it’s very likely you are also trained in some level of disembodiment in the present. I think it can train you in a kind of escapism, in escapism from the present with the promise [of the future].

It’s not true hope. I think it’s an illusion of hope, a promise of, “Well, someday you won’t suffer.” And it kind of trains you to forget about the very true physical injustices that you are living and breathing daily. And you just think, “Someday heaven, someday heaven.”

I think it deteriorates our imaginations for good and health and joy and healing in the now. I don’t mean to be so hard on that particular brand of Christianity, but I think it’s a real risk of that kind of theology.

F&L: Another theme is memory and history making. In the Drew Hart interview, you said, “Collective memory is a liberation practice.” We are in this moment where it feels like collective memory is being denied, inverted, perverted, ignored, hidden. Could you talk about the danger in that — when we lose both the personal and the larger version of that?

CAR: I mean, you’re right that this is the moment that we’re in right now. I’m only 32, and I think about this trajectory that we’re on toward trying to limit collective memory and the threat that collective memory is to systems of injustice, systems of oppression in the world. Obviously, if it were not a threat to these systems, they would not care about your AP history classes. Something is happening in those classrooms where collective memory is being curated and preserved.

I think of it as a liberation practice, because I think it’s almost subversive. Because who has gotten the privilege to be the historians up until now, in our country specifically, and in others as well? Whiteness is given the pen and is placed in the role of historian, and we are meant to trust whiteness’s rendering of the past and pass it on in our classrooms.

When we practice collective memory, the role of the historian is shared across a dinner table — between my grandmother and me and her mother and me. This intergenerational, this almost more personal form of memory, I think, can be shaped in resistance to the memory that was delivered to me, these false memories that were delivered to me in my classrooms growing up.

We could subvert the white historian by just electing a few really smart Black historians. I think the resistance is, “No, we’re not going to do history the way you do history. We’re going to practice memory.”

It will contain history, but it’s also going to contain stories and myths and traditions and rituals, and it’s going to be just as meaningful at a dinner table as it is from an academic. There’s meaning in both forms of exchange, not just people who have access to the academy.

There’s a little bit of liberation there as well. I could talk about this for a while, but I think I want to write a book on memory. The role of story in terms of understanding myself — it helps me understand what I’m worth as well, and it reshapes the things that I’m hoping for.

People tend in Q&As to ask me about hope. And the thing that feels most true to me in this season is that my hope is actually found in looking back in memory and kind of bridging that space. Because once I remember rightly, or as rightly as I can with the people that I trust, I feel like my appetite for good and health and well-being in the world is refined.

On Mother’s Day 2020, I was working as a contact tracer for the Florida Department of Health. Our team labored 10 hours a day, seven days a week, reaching out to people who had been exposed to COVID-19. We explained quarantine procedures and educated people about how to protect others.

That Sunday, it was my job to interrupt Mother’s Day brunches across Fort Myers and tell folks that they had been exposed to the virus — in the days before vaccines and effective treatment. People were panicking.

It was a Groundhog Day experience as we contacted hundreds of people with bad news. It was difficult. It was depressing, especially when we’d learn about folks who had died.

I also saw the effects of superspreader events — some of them from churches that had refused to close. Florida at that time was one of the nation’s COVID hot spots and the epicenter of furious debates about masking, quarantine and religious freedom.

I already was interested in public health and theology — 2020 was the summer between finishing my master’s in public health and starting divinity school. For a young public health professional and theologian, this experience highlighted the urgency for collaboration. After all, religious communities and public health agencies seek the same outcome: healthier and more vibrant communities.

In divinity school, I tried to understand why there is such a divide between religious communities and public health practitioners. Now, as I embark on a Ph.D. in population health sciences, I continue to envision ways we can integrate theology and health education in our pews.

This ideal collaboration is far from simple. Experts in public health often lack the theological understanding and context to be culturally aware of the structures and behaviors in religious communities. And religious leaders are often overstretched in their regular clerical responsibilities; to expect them also to be skilled in health education and communication is unfair.

I have spent a large part of recent years focused on this never-ending chicken-or-egg scenario of how to build a bridge between health organizations and religious communities.

Though I think that accountability on both ends of this “bridge” is important, I want to suggest a few first steps for religious leaders.

Know your congregation.

This might sound obvious. However, knowing a bit of the backstories of the people sitting in your pews on Sundays does not mean that you understand their needs and concerns.

Consider the levels of insurance in your church. Are most people on a certain type of health insurance? Are people uninsured or in professions where their insurance level fluctuates? What about the availability of dental and vision services? Can they afford these services?

The intricacies of health insurance coverage could provide a brief peek into the health of those in your community and the gaps that may be chronically unaddressed for a significant portion of your congregation.

Though these question may not be part of the normal “getting-to-know-you” info card, being upfront about your church’s intention to work for health equity and to address potential health needs of your congregants may ease the discussion of these sensitive though vital details.

Of course, even with the most honest intentions and perfectly curated questions, there are other dynamics at play as well.

Recognize the opportunities and limitations of your role as clergy.

It is no secret that clergy are often overworked, with their expected scope of care greatly exceeding their reach. In addition, few pastors have medical or public health expertise.

However, one of the great superpowers of religious leaders is their tendency to be seen as leaders and trustworthy members of the community. Recognizing opportunities to provide guidance to members of your community on health decisions while also recognizing your own limitations may be the perfect combination of your clergy superpower.

One example of this is the way that Black and Hispanic churches served a crucial role during the worst days of the pandemic by sharing health information and offering testing and vaccination sites.

Reach out to your local health experts.

This could be the health department, a health education specialist, medical providers, or other health care workers who have experience and training to offer guidance to your congregation.

Collaborating with these folks might create opportunities for your congregation to understand more about their health concerns from reputable medical sources while you also help them contextualize their health concerns within your faith tradition. Feel free to reach out to people like myself who are deeply rooted in the intersection of health and religion.

Include these topics of concern in your sermons.

If the pandemic has taught us anything about how religion and public health interact, it’s the ways that people are influenced by information from people they trust. As a religious leader, you will likely be asked for your opinions on various health behaviors and decisions.

While honoring your educational gap on the subject matter and knowing your scope, you can still find helpful, engaging ways to include health issues in preaching. One possible place to start is by inviting your congregation to explore and be curious with you as you seek out information to make the best decisions for your own health.

The task of congregational care is a daunting one, especially when pastors venture beyond the spiritual needs of those they’re in community with. However, the ability to improve health behaviors as well as faith practices is a beautiful dynamic.

It is my hope that no one else ever receives a call on Mother’s Day to tell them that they and their families are in danger from a deadly virus. Through the intentional considerations of congregational needs and local resources, clergy can and should collaborate with health partners to help make sure the Groundhog Day summer of 2020 never happens again.

I had an unforgettable conversation with my son when he was little. We had gone to church for Ash Wednesday, and he had been in the toddler room while I attended the service.

On the drive home, after being quiet most of the way, my son piped up from the back seat, “Uhmma, am I gonna go to jail?”

I was startled. “No, of course not! What makes you ask that?”

“Well … the teacher said that Jesus had to die because we’re bad. And bad people go to jail!”

I was horrified.

“Oh no, sweetie! No, you’re not bad. God loves you so much! Don’t worry. That’s not what the teacher meant!”

Surely we can do better than that.

I learned about Jesus in similar ways. My teachers stressed that God loved us despite finding us inherently offensive. The church taught me about God’s grace, but it also drove home the message that God couldn’t tolerate my presence and viewed me with a kind of holy disgust. God was all light and we were all filth. God was on one side of a vast chasm and we were stuck on the other, but for the bridging work of the cross.

For some of us, those kinds of images amplified a sense of punishing distance from God that we already felt too keenly. They reinforced fears that we might be irredeemably lost, too appallingly bad to be reached by any kind of bridge. I never had any trouble believing that I was a wretched worm before God. That came easily. What seemed impossible was that God could ever truly love a worm like me.

My faith has always been riddled with doubt. I tend to feel life intensely, all the way down to my bones. My joys are plentiful and bright, but I struggle often with depression, with chutes into despair.

And because of my inconstant faith, I used to be plagued by fears that I simply wasn’t built to meet the basic conditions for God’s acceptance. Despite my experiences of God’s love, a background hum of existential terror accompanied my hopelessness whenever I got depressed. I worried that Christ’s work notwithstanding, I might be stuck galaxies away from God, beyond the reach of mercy.

Sometimes in depression, I feel that I’m sunk in the darkness of a very deep ocean. It used to be that at those depths, all was muffled except the voices that said God couldn’t stand me for how faithless I was. Voices that told me I was a lost cause and an utter disappointment to God.

I don’t believe that Jesus meant for our stories about him to spur such haunting terror or self-rejection.

While all our metaphors are imperfect and can only clumsily gesture toward divine mysteries, the ones that insist on humanity’s wretchedness and distance from God can inflict lasting wounds. They can cloud our belovedness and the reality of “God with us.”

Some of us need new metaphors that don’t diminish the truth of God’s unrelenting love. I’ve personally had to let go of many old images I grew up with. Now I try to see myself not as originally repulsive and separated from God by a vast gulf but as born of love and held close in God’s mother-heart.

We find images of God’s maternal heart and nearness throughout Scripture. We see the mother-heart of God in how Jesus went out of his way to feed and heal people, and how he welcomed little children.

We see God receive all of Job’s cries — chapter after chapter of complaints against God. And what does Job get for his brazen challenges? He isn’t zapped into oblivion. He’s granted a conversation with the Almighty, albeit a humbling one.

I see God’s mothering presence in the story of Elijah, when he feels so defeated that he wants to die. Elijah doesn’t get a rebuke about how he should have more faith or count his blessings. God comes to him gently in a mama-like angel with freshly baked bread and a pitcher of water.

Isaiah renders God’s love for us as even more doting and steadfast than that of a mother for a baby at her breast. The psalmist speaks of God as so inescapably near that there’s nowhere on earth he could go to get away from God if he tried.

That’s the kind of Savior I need. One driven by love to chase me to the ends of the earth and the far side of the sea.

These days when I find myself in the oceanic depths, I’m less alarmed by the darkness and silence there. It’s a bit quieter than it used to be. I’m less hounded by voices proclaiming God’s rejection. I see glimmers of Christ-light here and there in the abyss.

I feel alone but find that I’m not alone. Impossibly, I find myself breathing underwater. I notice that I’m held somehow — breath by breath, as if nestled in the very womb of God.

Lent is a time when we can contemplate the tender closeness of Christ with us in our “helpless estate,” through every kind of suffering, no matter how wavering our faith, and no matter how dark our darkness.

In this season, we reflect on how God saw us in pain and became “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” for our sakes. Jesus on the cross joins us in our despair of feeling abandoned by God.

Christ doesn’t always calm the storm when we’re at sea on a sinking boat, but our Savior would rather sink into the depths with us than ever leave us alone. Even if we find ourselves living at the bottom of that sea — why, there he is, still with us.

That’s the core truth of the gospel. It begins not with our badness but with God’s unshakable love. The hope of this season is that our God, upon seeing us drowning, came close to be with us through it all.

We find images of God’s maternal heart and nearness throughout Scripture. We see the mother-heart of God in how Jesus went out of his way to feed and heal people, and how he welcomed little children.