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 is 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. 

Secular Values are Worth Defending

Fresno Bee, May 29, 2015

According to new data from the Pew Research Center only 70% of Americans are Christian. That’s down from 78% in 2007. Non-Christian religions — Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus — grew slightly from 4.7% to 5.9%.

The number of “unaffiliated” people grew more rapidly. More than 22% of Americans do not belong to any religion — up from 16 % in 2007. In California, 27% of us do not claim any religious affiliation. The number is even higher for young people.

Some unaffiliated people are spiritual but not religious: they have turned away from organized religion. But the unaffiliated also includes a growing number of atheists and agnostics, who make up 7% of the population — that’s more than all non-Christian religious believers combined.

These statistics have alarmed conservative pundits such as Pat Buchanan. In a recent column, he cited this data as portending the death of American Christian culture. Buchanan links declining Christianity with moral decay, citing broken families, assisted suicide and abortion. He concluded, “As Christianity dies, individualism, materialism and hedonism replace it.” Buchanan fears a wave of “barbarians” threatening Europe and America “from the south.” He ominously warns that we are committing cultural suicide.

This rhetoric is dangerous. Fears of barbarian hordes and cultural suicide can prompt the need for radical — and possibly violent — reaction. Beneath the fear-mongering, Buchanan fails to see that many come to Europe and America to escape religious fundamentalism in their home countries. They come here because of our secular system.

Even if immoral “barbarians” were really attacking core values, the solution is not reactionary religious intolerance. We can’t make church mandatory, as an Arizona legislator recently proposed. Rather, the solution is better secular education. We defend against “barbarians” by teaching them the virtues of secular democracy.

Modern secular culture is complicated. Science has opened new vistas unimagined by ancient scriptures. Technology creates new ethical challenges. And new voices join our public debates. All of this is difficult. But it is much better than a cramped world of forced conformity.

A secular legal system recognizes religious liberty as a basic human right. This means that some people will choose new religions or will leave religion behind. That sort of diversity is the price of liberty. And it is a great improvement over the stifling orthodoxy of previous centuries.

The worry about religious decline is based upon misplaced nostalgia. It is a myth that there ever was a time of religious harmony and homogeneity. Galileo was threatened by the Inquisition. Columbus left a world where Christians fought Muslims and slaughtered Jews. He discovered a world with completely unknown religious ideas. The world has been fractured by religious controversy for millennia.

Long centuries of violence within Christendom eventually gave way to our secular system, which allows us to live in peace despite deep differences. One result of secularism is that people will question traditional pieties. So what? As long as we treat one another kindly, tell the truth, pay our taxes, and take care of business, it makes little difference whether we are Christian or not.

And yet, Buchanan is right that individualism, materialism and hedonism are problematic. But you don’t have to be a Christian to understand that. The Roman Stoics warned of similar dangers — as did Confucius and the Buddha.

The great moral traditions teach a core of ethical common sense. Love your neighbor. Find something larger than yourself to believe in. And recognize that there is more to life than short-term pleasure.

Critics may argue that without God, morality loses its anchor. But basic moral truths do not rely upon any particular religious story. And secular culture does not require anyone to give up his personal anchor. It merely allows each of us to find our own way forward within common moral limits.

The growth of religious diversity and non-religion is not a sign of cultural suicide. Rather, it reflects the robust health of our secular system. In some parts of the world today non-believers are massacred. But we have found a better way.

Hedonism and materialism are problems. But intolerance and religious violence are worse problems. The only acceptable solution to any of these problems is more freedom, better education, some historical knowledge and a healthy dose of ethical common sense.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. Contact him:

Peace and Love at Christmas

Embrace the Deeper Meaning of Christmas

Fresno Bee, December 12, 2014

The state of Texas recently passed a law making it legal to say “Merry Christmas” in schools. The law grows out of a misguided worry that secular schools should not even mention Christmas. Some even fear that there is a secular war against Christmas.

Peace, Love, Joy, Christmas

The Reverend Franklin Graham, for example, recently wrote: “The war on Christmas is a war on Christ and His followers. It’s the hatred of our culture for the exclusive claims that Christ made.” This dispute is not surprising given the history of religious conflict and ongoing divisions in our diverse culture.

It might help to recall that disputes about Christmas have a deep history. There is no consensus about Christmas, even among Christians. Eastern traditions celebrate Christmas on January 6. The manger scenes we see around Christmas take liberties with the story. Jesus was most likely born in a cave, not in a stable. The animals are also a later addition, not found in the Bible. The Gospels themselves contain different stories.

This is not surprising for people who study religion. Religions and religious stories evolve over time. This helps us gain some perspective on the so-called war on Christmas. Christmas and Christianity itself has never been just one thing.

But the point of Christmas, it seems to me, is to find a way to look beyond our disputes. We celebrate peace, love, hope and joy during the Christmas season. It would be great to focus on those shared valued and leave the divisiveness for the rest of the year.

In our diverse world, not everyone accepts the exclusive theology behind Mr. Graham’s interpretation of Christmas. But we can all benefit from peace and love, joy and hope. Indeed, it is those values that allow us to coexist despite our deep theological differences.

You don’t need to take the nativity story literally to understand values celebrated at Christmas. We can all understand the dramatic moment when Mary and Joseph are turned away from the inn. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand that this story shows us the need for hospitality and that giving birth is momentous joyous and mysterious.

In some sense, Christmas has already become a secular holiday. It is a regular part of our yearly round of holiday closures and vacation scheduling. We all know that “winter break” coincides with Christmas. Charles Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center, made this point in a recent essay discussing the difficulty of managing religious holidays in our multi-religious culture. His solution is to be equitable, hospitable and respectful of our differences.

I corresponded with Mr. Haynes about this. He pointed out that schools should be free to teach about Christmas, while also teaching about other holidays in an academic fashion. Such teaching might include historic debates over the meaning of Christmas among Christians themselves. The colonial Puritans, for example, banned Christmas because they viewed its pagan elements as un-Christian.

While Christmas is inextricably linked to a celebration of the birth of Christ, the holiday is much more than that — it includes Santa and his reindeer, jingle bells and evergreen trees. These later additions have no connection to the Bible story. Christmas has evolved to be a secular — and universally accessible — celebration of joy, peace, love and hope.

The First Amendment guarantees that conservative Christians like Mr. Graham have a right to point out that Christmas originates in stories about the birth of Christ. Atheists also have a right to argue against Christmas and Christianity, if they like. But the Christmas spirit is more inclusive and welcoming than any exclusive religious or anti-religious diatribe. The values of Christmas encourage us to be warmer, gentler, kinder and more friendly. Inclusivity, hospitality, peace and love are important values for all of us.

The deep and universal message of Christmas is the hope that in an inhospitable world, we might find a peace, love and refuge. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand that. Christians layer theology onto the nativity scene, directing hope beyond this world. But the magic of Christmas is found here on earth in the joyous love of mothers and in the peaceful and hopeful faces of children, who have not yet been hardened by the world and its divisions.

Epicurean and Christian views of living well

What is the recipe for living well?

September 20, 2013

The recipe for a long healthy life is deceptively simple: eat well, exercise and learn to relax. The scientific consensus about this is clear. A recent study from University of California, San Francisco showed that diet, exercise and stress management can “extend life,” as one recent headline put it.

While the data are encouraging, this is really old news. Similar ideas can be found in many of the world’s ancient traditions, which emphasize moderation, exercise and self-control. One important source is Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher who taught the wisdom of a quiet life of moderate pleasure.

Our concern with healthy living and longevity is deeply Epicurean. The term “epicurean” is often connected to the idea of gourmet taste. But Epicurus does not advocate fancy dining. Over-indulgence is a problem. The solution is moderation and simple living.

But are we prepared to embrace the rest of the Epicurean philosophy? His ideas are summarized in four basic ideas that provide a formula for tranquility and happiness. Don’t fear the gods. Don’t worry about death. Remember that good is easy to obtain. And believe that suffering can be endured.

Epicurus downplays religion. He maintains that the gods have better things to do than to afflict or reward us. He also thinks that death is the end of consciousness. When you’re dead, you won’t know it. So there is no reason to fear death.

Instead, we should focus on healthy living. The key is to understand the nature of pleasure and our own desires. We should also remember that terrible things usually don’t last forever. That bit of insight can help us avoid anguish and despair.

The Epicureans thought that proper understanding of the world helped to alleviate anxiety. They were among the first to argue that the world is made up of atoms and that the universe was governed by natural causes. They wanted to remedy the pernicious idea that mysterious powers were at work in earthquakes, storms, and disease.

Epicureans reject idealism. They are not interested in radical schemes for changing the world. They don’t speculate about the afterlife or the end of time. Instead they focus on practical experience, which teaches that moderation and self-control create mental and physical health.

For the Epicurean, the best life is a private life, spent philosophizing in the company of good friends. Ethics, for the Epicureans, is focused on intimate relationships of reciprocal obligation and mutual care.

The Epicureans do not see the need to worry about distant horrors — wars and plagues and disasters — that do not affect us directly. And they warn against getting involved in politics. Ambition and struggles for power cause heartbreak and suffering.

Critics argue that Epicureanism is immoral and irreligious. The Epicureans give up eternal goods in exchange for mortal happiness that will vanish with death. Some claim that Epicureans are small-minded egoists who ignore the need to save the world.

For many centuries, the Christians opposed the Epicureans. The Apostle Paul encountered Epicurean philosophers in Athens in the first century. They seem to have mocked his idea of the resurrection of the dead. This set the stage for further Christian antagonism. Augustine — the fourth century theologian — explains that he was almost convinced that Epicurus was right. But Augustine rejected Epicureanism because he believed what Epicurus did not: that after death, the soul continues to live.

This dispute reminds us that our ideas about living well depend upon what we think about the deepest questions. Religious people might argue that while health and longevity are good, they are not the highest good. Some will even argue that our obsession with health, exercise and longevity are a kind of idolatrous worship of the body.

If there is another life, then physical health and longevity are not the most important thing. But if this is the only life we’ve got, then Epicurus is right: live modestly, eat well and enjoy your friends.

The doctors know what we should do to live a long healthy life. But they can’t tell us what counts as living well. It’s the philosophers and theologians who provide food for thought and mental exercises that help us think about the meaning of life.

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