This year it finally hit me. I’ve been going about self-care all wrong. I have been thorough in my pursuit of self-care practices that would chip away at the weight of professional responsibilities that comes with overseeing the needs of between 360 and 2,700 students (depending on my on-call schedule). I’ve added stretch breaks and have worked hard to get my water-to-coffee-intake ratio just right to stay rested and functional in my week. I adapted my boundaries, my sleep schedule, my office environment, my lunch hour, my email habits—if it’s listed in an article on avoiding burnout, the likelihood is that I have given it the old college try. I felt myself getting more functional with a lot of these changes. I found myself growing in productivity at work and at home. But I didn’t feel a difference in what I was hoping to address when I sought to improve care of myself.
Thus, I found myself asking: how does my Christian identity inform my work as a higher education practitioner when it comes to self-care?
For me this required shifting my self-view: my work as a housing professional during a pre-vaccine COVID landscape had become so all-encompassing that I had begun to default to my work identity as a live-on staff member rather than my personal identity as, well, a person. There is a quote attributed to Mark Twain that says, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” The less palatable parts of my job became the frog I was always trying to swallow quickly so that I could get on with my day, but somehow the taste kept ruining my enjoyment of the sweeter indulgences of my work, too. My life and my habits and my thoughts revolved around my work, and my stress about work, and what emails I would receive about work when I returned.
I would take time off and couldn’t resist peeking at my work email to prepare for what awaited me when I returned to the office. I would go out with friends and coworkers and find myself—at great annoyance to even myself—defaulting to talking about work. I would spend my time outside of the office mentally preparing myself to be “on my game” when I got back. I was making big life decisions around how it would affect my work. After years of working in a Christian higher educational setting, it took a personal reckoning to make me realize that I was neglecting my own spiritual wellbeing in the process of fostering an educational environment for my students’ spiritual growth. Despite seeking out a Christian higher educational environment where spiritual development of students and staff is a priority, I still somehow dislocated my spirit quite unintentionally.
Care for my soul and pursuit of my own spiritual well-being was the central piece that had been absent from my self-care practices. I was feeling personally burnt out and was attributing it to the challenging nature of my job (which still was, by the way, quite challenging). My head told me that my worth rested in my identity in Christ. However, my reliance on “self-care” practices to solve deep-seated dissatisfactions in my work left little room for me to consider where Christ would lead me closer to Him in my responsibilities as an educator. I needed to remember that my identity as an employee was not necessarily my primary contribution to God’s plan for my life.
I was retreating and dissociating in the evenings and calling it rest when, in reality, I was letting my spiritual needs go unmet. I was withdrawing from community to “recharge”, but I was missing many interactions within a Christian community that would have grounded me, reminded me of my identity, and would have more importantly reoriented me to God’s identity as being central to my life. In attempting to work selflessly in my job I became too focused on what I was doing to see how it fit into what God wanted for that season of my life spiritually.
Ultimately, this insight led me to believe that what we miss from the conversation of self-care is that we truly cannot care for ourselves apart from seeking God—not fully, anyway. Aside from the professional inconveniences and frustrations one could expect in any industry, many of us are struggling in the front lines with crises of the human condition in our daily work. Our students can be demanding and unreasonable and so can our colleagues; if we are honest in self-assessment, we also see ourselves falling short of Christ’s vision for how we conduct ourselves in the community of our institutions. I will speak for myself that I do not always extend the grace to others that I can justify for myself.
In many ways, Christianity subverts the notion of care of self. Like the many examples our faith offers—a shepherd ruling a nation, a virgin blessed miraculously with motherhood, God Himself taking on the form of an infant—care of self as a Christian is orienting oneself outward. Our ancient Christian forbears were familiar with this notion. Boethius builds the argument in his Consolation of Philosophy that pursuit of anything apart from union with God sacrifices happiness, stating, “Once they have turned their eyes away from the light of truth above to things on a lower and dimmer level, they are soon darkened by the mists of ignorance…and become in a manner prisoners of their own freedom.”1 This hearkens to Augustine’s concept of homo incurvatus in se or “one curved inward on himself” which warns against love of oneself at the expense of the basis of identity in relationship to God.
Reflecting on these concepts set the scene for the revelation that struck me in an evensong service upon a recent visit to my hometown: worship itself is our greatest form of self-care. If what Boethius argues is true—that the greatest happiness is alignment with God (“the mind’s guide and physician”) as the broken parts of our nature fall away—then the greatest and most lasting care we can seek out is regular pursuit of God through worship and Christian community.2 If our souls are at the core of what we call ourselves, why should we not see the great physician as the greatest provider of care?
So what can we do when we find ourselves expecting grace that we struggle to extend? We can invest in and lean into Christian community. And I mean really commit to life together a la Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he writes, “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”3
It is hard to really appreciate how special Christian community is until one is starved from it. Many of us may relate to the disruptions that COVID-19 has posed not only to higher education but also to in-person church involvement. There is a wide range of choices that faithful Christians have made to account for the health and safety of their families in response to the pandemic. With the deepest respect for all individuals and reverence for the choices they have made for themselves and their families, we are faced with the reminder that we suffer when we are apart from our community and from our presence in the church.
We matter to the church, and it suffers from our absence. Those who have made decisions to attend virtually from home are as aware of this as those who have chosen to attend in person. This collective season of separation we have experienced reveals to us that nothing can substitute the communion of the faithful. Whether in the home or in the congregation, in the classroom or a gathering of two believers, communal living is the “roses and lilies” of the Christian life, and it is a distinct privilege to experience.4 Let us never take for granted the blessing God gives those who are able to meet in Christian community, and let us never stop praying for those deprived of this privilege.
By comparison with these spiritual reflections, my little coffee breaks by the Keurig began to look startlingly paltry. But I’m intent not to throw the K-cup out with the proverbial bathwater. As we contemplate the maintenance we previously allowed ourselves to define as self-care, we cannot cease to credit the important ways we maintain our health and wellbeing: these things are still important. We should not stop doing these things when they balance our minds or our bodies. However, we should not sell ourselves short in this area by allowing ourselves to believe that our minds and bodies are the extent of the selves for which we aim to care. What is important is that we cannot expect what we have come to see as self-care practices to fix the issues that we diagnose within the spirit. Let us also not let self-care become an idol that we see as the solution to our deeper wounds to which only God can properly tend.
I know from practice that many challenges lie in Christian community at church and in my work. I remind myself that I cannot simply show up and expect sanctification; the iron must strike many times to sharpen effectively. My church attendance didn’t make my coworker pull their share of the group project, but it did give me the spiritual nourishment to be more charitable when I talked with my coworker about our imbalance of shared responsibilities. Spending my morning in church instead of doing laundry or running errands for the week did not make me a more worthy person, but it did prompt me to have a conversation with a student about how her value is secured not by the bell curve but by her Creator. I have fully come to accept that spending time in Christian community—whether formal worship or a good conversation that explores faith more fully—is more important to my work.
I am reminded that pouring myself into my work as an extension of my faith (and not a cornerstone of my identity) is the greatest antidote to personal and professional burnout that I have experienced. I rest in the validation that I am seen by my Lord and I need only to seek Him in how I apply the gifts He has given me in my life and in my work. I am comforted in the knowledge that He can provide the care I was seeking through all the maintenance I thought had been “self-care.” Suddenly, the sum of my offerings to my students and colleagues is not determined by a public recognition of my efforts. Rather, the very privilege of loving others well is the standard by which I can measure the meaning of my work in this career. The truest self-care stems from an identity firmly rooted in Christ, and the most valuable recognition is our recognition of Him. I firmly believe that no greater care or renown can be known than this.
- Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Translated by V. E Watts (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), 149-150.
- Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, 138.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, Translated by John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 19.
- Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 21.