Beyond Self-Care: Cultivating an Active and Engaged Self

Self-care is a common theme for 2021.  One wellness website said: “focus on yourself this New Year’s Eve” and “indulge in these self-care strategies as you enter 2021.”  The article recommended “allowing yourself to indulge in a night of luxurious me-time.”

This is not a bad idea.  A little self-care is fine from time to time.  But self-indulgence is occasional.  It is not a way of life.  We need something larger and less transitory.  Self-care should become self-cultivation. 

The self is not an infant we care for or a set of appetites to be indulged.  The self is a dynamic system that seeks fruitful activity.  The adult self is a growing and changing, goal-oriented being.  The self thrives when it is challenged; it prospers when it produces lasting goods such as love, art, science, virtue, and wisdom.

The pampering indulgence of self-care is aimed at stressed out people.  Self-care is an antidote to the rat race and a response to the tragedies and suffering of 2020.  But “me-time” should not climax in onanistic withdrawal.  2021 will require the active intelligence of an engaged self.

There is some wisdom in self-care.  The self-care movement often affirms modesty and mindfulness.  This affirmation of simple pleasure is useful for those who are wound up tight by our cranky, competitive culture.  It is OK to unwind on occasion.  Drink some wine.  Soak in a tub.  Take it easy.

Sometimes the self-care movement offers clichéd common sense about hygiene and mindfulness.  Yes, we should drink more water, be present, and take walks in nature.  But this often becomes sappy, self-indulgent pampering—an apology for sleeping late or over-eating.  And self-care is often merely a marketing ploy for spas, lotions, and chocolate. 

The self-care movement is quite broad. On the one hand, it includes the discipline of yoga.  As one yoga website puts it, “Yoga is a great form of self-care.”  On the other hand, self-care is about… well, something else you do with your hand.  An article in The Oprah Magazine celebrates masturbation as part of a “self-care routine.”  The author reports that some evenings she even cares for herself twice!

There is nothing wrong with pleasure.  But moderation is essential.  And pleasure is not an end in itself.  Happiness and morality often require us to forego pleasure.  Work, discipline, and focus are essential for the self to thrive.  Stress and anxiety are essential parts of a creative and ambitious life.  When other people are suffering, self-care is selfish.  Justice and compassion impel us beyond self-care toward care for others.

This discussion can be traced back to the conflict between Epicureans, Stoics, and Christians.  Epicurus suggested we should live modestly, avoid controversy, and enjoy simple pleasures.  The Stoics rejected this.  They emphasized strenuous duty, while claiming that pleasure makes us soft.  Christians also rejected Epicureanism, focused as they were on suffering, death, and resurrection.  Epicurean self-care is too sensual for Stoics and too secular for Christians. 

Ideally, we would weave these ideas together by connecting self-care with self-cultivation.

Care rooted in a kind of worry.  A care-free person has no worries.  When we care for something, we worry about it.  The problem of self-care is that it is a kind of worrying about the self.  It can be onanistic and self-absorbed. 

Cultivation is much more affirmative and dynamic.  When we cultivate something, we grow it.  Cultivation is related to “culture.”  Culture is a dynamic process that is the result of labor, interaction, and imagination. 

Human beings are not only focused on pleasure and relaxation.  We are also concerned with love, justice, courage, compassion, knowledge, art, and wisdom.  When we are absorbed in fulfilling activities, the self fades away.  The self-oriented path of indulgence is limited in comparison with the self-less activity of inspiration, insight, and interconnection. 

So here is what I propose for the new year.  Instead of retreating to the bathtub, let’s put our hands to work.  Learn.  Teach.  Create.  Make music.  Do science.  Love your neighbor.  Fight for justice.  Pursue wisdom.  These are the goods of a fully human life.  The challenge of 2021—and of life in general—is to cultivate a self that loses itself in inspired and engaged activity. 

This is Not the Worst Year Ever

Time magazine declared 2020 “the worst year ever.”  That’s obviously not true.  In the 1850’s, millions were held in slavery.  In the 1860’s, over 600,000 Americans died in the war that freed those slaves.  One hundred years ago, the Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans, while women struggled to gain the right to vote.  Our current troubles are minor in comparison.   

Time magazine’s hyperbolic headline can be forgiven as a ploy to sell magazines.  But people succumb to hyperbole.  We tend to magnify present suffering.  And that can impede critical thinking.   

History is not one story, it is many.  When historians look back on 2020, they will see failure that caused unnecessary suffering.  But they will also witness ingenuity that mitigated harm.  We should learn from our successes—and from our failures. 

Some of what we suffered in 2020 was the result of human greed, ignorance, and pride.  The Covid-19 death toll was made worse by selfishness, ignorance, and lack of leadership.  The fires in California were the terrifying result of human-caused climate change.  The social divisions and racial tensions of 2020 are the result of systematic stupidity and political polarization. 

But human intelligence prevented things from being even worse.  Health care systems evolved.  A vaccine was developed.  There were government bailouts.  School teachers invented online learning.  Firefighters demonstrated heroism.  And Americans educated themselves about racism and the American Constitution. 

Life includes both tragedy and triumph.  We fail.  We suffer.  We learn.  And we grow.

Resilience is a process of growth and development.  Resilient people generally avoid absolutism and hyperbole, which cause despair.  Defeatism undermines the spirit of invention, discovery, and growth. 

Consider a recent essay by Chris Hedges on cultural despair.  Hedges warns that despair can fuel the wish for magical solutions that can turn into fascism.  I’m sympathetic to his critique.  But Hedges’ assessment is itself dispiriting.  Hedges gives voice to despair.  And this leads him to conclude that reform is impossible.  He concludes that we are faced with a choice between tyranny and revolution. 

Hedges’ dilemma is typical of despair.  We tend to dwell on the darkness without noticing the light.  But history is more complicated than a stark choice between tyranny and revolution.  And there is no such thing as “the worst year ever.” 

Evaluation is relative and evolving.  Some people fell in love in 2020.  Others died.  Some families had children.  Some experienced divorce.  Some people began new careers.  Others lost jobs.  Art was created and scientific discoveries were made.  But businesses failed and crimes were committee.  For some people, 2020 was a great year.  For others, it was miserable. 

And yes, there was Donald Trump.  But there were also movements of social protest.  The Constitution was tested.  But the system worked.  Polarization increased.  But decent people sought common ground.

We must resist oversimplifying when we judge.  These are not the best of times.  Nor are they the worst of times.

Some new age advocates of mindfulness celebrate “non-judgmental awareness.”  There is value in this.  But non-judgmental presence is only a tool and a mood.  We need to judge things.  Judging helps us learn, invent, and improve.  But we need to be judicious in judging—moderate and prudent. 

We can learn a lot from acceptance and gratitude.  The mind can be sharpened by quietness and presence.  Thinking and learning require judgment and discrimination.  If we practice pure acceptance, we will never learn anything. 

If we are overly judgmental and hyperbolic in our judgments, we will also fail to learn.  We have to see what works—and what doesn’t.  We must also remain open to the new and the different.  We must be creative and inventive in our response to the world.

To say that this was the worst year ever is a kind of cop out.  It is a shoulder shrug and a sigh.  Shrugs and sighs are OK—for a moment.  Then it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get back to work.  Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, let’s learn from our mistakes.  We can also learn from our successes.  And with some luck and a lot of labor, the next year may be better than the last.