Take care of yourself first—then you can take better care of others.
I heard this for the zillionth time but for the first time, I wondered if it was true. I have a circus and a farm—many children, lots of animals. Because we like animals and foster children, we keep the door open.
I have a lot of creation to tend to—how can I tend well? How do I love and serve and teach and protect without dissolving into a puddle by day’s end?
The answer I’m told is self-care.
Psychology Today extols the virtue of “me-time,” something we shouldn’t feel guilty for. “Learning how to eat right, reduce stress, exercise regularly and take a time-out when you need it are touchstones of self-care and can help you stay happy, healthy and resilient.” (Self-Care: 12 Ways to Take Better Care of Yourself, December 28, 2018.)
I get that. If I’m incapacitated or dead because I haven’t taken time to eat with wisdom, sleep with peace and manage anxiety—which is just a fancy word for fear—then I’m of little use to my circus-farm.
I’m not sure this is self-care in my books though—seems more like common-sense survival skills. And maybe that’s why I’m pondering this modern gospel because it’s often ambiguous and self-defined.
We all agree that sleep, nutrition and stress management are essential. I have worked in the weight loss and nutrition industry for more than a decade—I believe this. But is that what the self-care gospel is really about? Is it simply reminding me to eat my veggies and go to bed early—or is it something else?
In 2019, prior to COVID, Americans spent 1.1 trillion dollars on travel. Trillion. (In full disclosure, a few of those dollars were mine.)
The average American spends a little more than $3000 per year on restaurant food. A study conducted by OnePoll for Groupon said women spend more than $225,360 over a lifetime on hair and skincare. As one writer for Byrdie put it, “we probably couldn't have guessed that on average, the amount of money we spend on our appearance could pay for four years of college tuition.”
And into this congregation of well-fed, professionally maintained, well-travelled parishioners, culture preaches: You first. You are useless to others unless you keep thinking of yourself.
Wait…does that even make sense?
I can look into the eyes of a Starbucks employee and order a menu-noun with eight adjectives—and be taken seriously. Or I can have faster food on wheels delivered to my doorstep courtesy of Uber Eats. I can book a trip around the world from my phone or order anything I want on Amazon and then—to make my joy complete, post a picture of me and it on social media and bask in the warmth of approval with a cascade of “likes” and the hashtag #selfcare.
Is this really the way? If it is, why aren’t we satisfied yet? Why are there so many people suffering when so many of us (talking to the mirror, here) have focused expertly on self. Shouldn’t I have enough “oxygen” by now so that I can metaphorically put the mask on my suffocating neighbor?
Creation has a creator. So I go to the Word, the Bible for help. Is there a verse where Jesus—or anyone really, teaches me to do this? A Self-Care Sermon on the Mount? A Psalm of Self? A pro-me proverb?
-Jesus, what’s the most important thing for me to do?
Dionne, love the Lord your God, love me, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And when your heart, soul and mind are saturated with the limitless, eternal, cleansing, healing love of Me let it overflow to your neighbor and love them the way you want to be loved. This is the greatest command (Matthew 22:36-40).
-But Lord if I give myself away so completely—what will be left? They said I’ve got to put my oxygen mask on first before I help someone else. Me first—then them.
Dionne—the lives of the travelers in the plane are not dependent on plastic masks but on the competency of the pilot and I have a way with storms. If a tube connected to recycled oxygen is helpful imagine what’s possible when God himself breathes the breath of life into you.
If you put yourself first, you will run empty before long (you know this; you do this!) but there’s another way. Me. Trust in me and I will supply all your needs according to my glorious wealth (Philippians 4:19).
Look at the birds. They’re terrible at self-care. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns and yet your heavenly father feeds them. You are so much more valuable than them! You don’t have to take care of yourself first because I’ll take care of you best (Matthew 6:26).
It’s not you first—but Me first. Seek my kingdom first, my righteousness first and I will share my power so that you will bless and be blessed.
Because it’s not two steps but one.
I will fill you as you fill others.
I will serve you as your serve others.
I am the vine. You are the branch. Abide in me and YOU WILL PRODUCE (John 15:5).
It’s not self-care but trusting God’s care that leads to caring for others well.
There’s more. Those commonsense survival skills—eating veggies and going to bed early, can be elevated from something small like “me-time” to glorious acts of worship—in fact, they’re supposed to be (1 Corinthians 10:31).
I don’t always get this right. Sometimes I’m still a puddle by day’s end. Sometimes I’ve poured it all out and still feel empty. Sometimes I feel that if I don’t hoard or gather or store-up resources for myself, no one else will or worse, I’ll have to take what God provides. And his “gifts” can be bitter at times. They can cut. They can pierce the self I’m trying hard to protect.
They can crucify.
Just days before his flesh would tear, his mouth would run dry and his heart break with grief, Jesus, whose life was marked by others-care more than self-care, preached to his friends.
“It’s time for me to be glorified. Watch and learn. I won’t sit on a gilded throne and require the life of my citizens. As the King of kings I will give my life on a rugged cross for my citizens. This is the truth: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone—but if it dies, if that seed breaks open, it bears much fruit! Whoever lives for self, lives as a renter—paying rent for a lifetime and owning nothing in the end. Whoever lives for me owns spiritual property and will receive a deed to eternity” (John 12:23-26).
This is the Jesus-gospel. Repent of the self-life with its shelf-life in exchange for eternal life who is Christ. (Read that again.)
Maybe Jesus would say to me—to us, what we call “self-care” is an off-brand knock-off that isn’t beneficial to anyone long term. Maybe he would say, it’s a lie that doesn’t deliver what it promises. He would say, we are made for more because we are made for him.
So I tip my Ringmaster’s hat to another day, slide tired feet into farmer’s boots and step forward, cautiously, joyfully. I know Jesus will take better care of me than I could ever take of myself. I’m linked to truth through faith. I crush that piddly, plastic oxygen mask underfoot. I don’t need an emergency dose of canned air, I need the moment-by-moment inhalation of the eternal God who knows my needs before I ask.
And so do you.
"Lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily entangles and run with endurance the race set before you. "