I went for a short hike with all three of my boys recently. We had just come off a couple of weeks of flights, family get-togethers, a wedding, sick kids and the start of another school year. We needed something to replenish rather than simply cope. It felt like a good choice, but difficult at the time to make given the level of exhaustion and swirling stress.
There is just something about what a mountain forest and river does that parks and plastic play structures never do. The best moments were simple: throwing rocks into deep pools, eating lunch on a mattress of moss, puttering behind a hiking 18-month old and launching stick boats into gurgling rapids. Grant, my oldest, was running up ahead on the trail. He stopped and pivoted, bounded back a few yards and yelled, “I just love the smell of the air out here!”
I’ve never heard him say anything like that inside the city limits.
My body felt at play and my heart was closer to rest. There was nothing required. No demands or objectives to be met. Just a call to accept the earth’s whisper to come and play. And so I did, and it became the care I needed for that day.
I sit with a lot of people in desperate need of self-care who rarely prioritize it. I’m in that club, probably the leader of it. Often, the mere suggestion of it triggers an eye roll with a sarcastic inner voice, “Yeah, wouldn’t that be nice?” I find it interesting though that it is Jesus who put my ability to love Him and others in direct tension with my capacity to love myself. (See Matthew 22:39) When I think about that for a moment, then I really have to wonder what I’m rolling my eyes at. What am I really dismissing? In a word: kindness.
What might come of this life I’m living if I am more willing to accept kindness?
Self-care is so much more than healthy eating or exercising to purge the body of stress. These choices are genuine acts of kindness towards ourselves. Even more so though, self-care is a reflection of a very simple and profound truth: the capacity to love ourselves well is a core step in learning to love at all. So few make that connection. I am convinced that self-care, especially when conditions are less than ideal, is imperative for you. Why? It keeps your heart open and curious.
Recently, I was talking with a man contemplating making some major changes in his life. Here’s a few of the things he said:
“I feel this malaise of boredom.”
“I dread Monday mornings.”
“I’m so sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
“To be honest, I’m just afraid of not knowing what’s next and knowing I can’t stay here.”
“My soul feels so exhausted.”
Deep boredom and fear with soul exhaustion. Clearly, not in a pleasant place to be. After he went on for a bit I asked him, “Would you agree that all of the problems and unknowns you’ve just shared aren’t likely going to change much in the next 24 hours?”
“Okay, so, if you were to leave here and go to the grocery store what would you purchase to make for dinner tonight that you’d designate as “comfort food”?”
He rolled his eyes with a look of, Are you freaking kidding me!? You want me to do what!? Were you listening?
“Yes, I’m asking you to consider what you’d do tonight that falls under the category of ‘kindness’.”
Another eye roll began, slightly more exaggerated, but with the crack of a smile on his face. He was willing to play.
“A nice steak.”
Sigh. “Oh, probably a ribeye.”
“Oooo, that’s my favorite cut! How do you like it?”
“Medium rare seasoned with salt and finished in butter.”
“Nice.” A sumptuous pause.
“I’d do a mushroom sauce, too.”
“What else would you put on that plate?”
“With a bit of garlic salt, butter, and rosemary.”
“Mmmm. Any veggies?”
“Ohhh. I love those! I bake mine.”
“Me, too. I lightly oil ‘em with a sprinkle of salt and baked in the oven. Sometimes I add in crispy bacon chunks.”
“Yeah, chunks. I go with the thick bacon cooked to a nice crisp and then I break it up and mix it in with the spouts.”
“Anything you’d drink with this meal?”
“A red wine. I like cabernet sauvignon.”
“This sounds like a meal worth sharing. Anyone you’d want to share this meal with?”
“My wife. We love cooking together.”
“What if you choose to cook that meal tonight? Though you may not see it this way, the circumstances certainly call for it.”
I received an email from him the next morning telling me that after he left our time he called home, told his wife what he was up to and did it. A simple choice, and yet profound. He fought a battle to make the call and again on his way to the market, but he did it. They ended up sharing the entire evening together. They ate and talked late into the night. They learned new things. Covered some old things. Remembered important things. And shared the hopes and fears of the year ahead, together. Despite all signs that day pointing to take-out and numbing-out binge watching on Netflix, he chose something kind and it brought about some surprising results.
When under the strain of something difficult, the real power of self-care is in its ability to keep your heart in the game. Self-care can be an act of defiance for it refuses to accept the legion of things out to kill your hope. And they are legion. Self-care promotes conditions to keep you open and available, curious and vulnerable, honest and in reality.
Brené Brown writes, “Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.” I agree, wholeheartedly, even if I struggle regularly to make the choice for self-care. But I ask God to remind me of these precious moments when the joy I felt inside was reflected back to me on my kid’s faces as we played among the trees by the river.