By Anna Mussmann
In the classic movie The Princess Bride, villainous Prince Humperdinck turns down an invitation to watch his henchman torture his enemy. The prince complains “You know how much I love watching you work, but I’ve got my country’s five hundredth anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it. I’m swamped.”
The henchman is sympathetic. “Get some rest,” he says. “If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” Even villains recognize that human strength is limited.
Rest is good. In the beginning of the world, God created night and day with their natural structure of sleeping and waking. He Himself rested on the seventh day. Yet even though natural rhythms of rest are part of the world’s design, so too are suffering and toil part of the curse of sin. To be human is to face exhaustion and stress.
Twenty-first century America has not managed to change that. Despite two-day weekends, advanced technology, and material prosperity, we too are frequently weary.
In fact, in many ways, rest is a scarcer resource now than it was 50 years ago. Many of the tasks once accomplished by homemakers are juggled in off hours by full-time workers. Many families live far from relatives and must raise children without the help of traditional communities. The proliferation of divorce has further fractured our support systems. In addition, our dependence on screens means that our brains are constantly distracted. Perhaps it is no wonder our physical and mental health are statistically in decline.
What, then, is the solution? Ask almost anyone on the internet, and they will say the answer is “self-care.” The term itself is new, but it went from buzzword to cultural mantra with a speed that demonstrates its general resonance. In an atomized and fractured world, it makes sense to modern Americans that we ought first of all to care for ourselves.
Is self-care a helpful concept for Lutherans? It is a term that is difficult to define. Depending on the speaker, it can describe activities as varied as exercise, learning to meditate, attending therapy, eating cake, going on a shopping spree, or reading the Bible every morning.
One thing, however, is unfortunately clear. The conversation around self-care is often framed in ways that nurture fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of rest and vocation.
Consumption is not the same as care
Advertisers and marketers have latched onto the idea of self-care as a way to sell things. “Buy this trendy mascara — it is your duty to take care of you!” Many consumers embrace the idea. They like feeling good about getting what they want.
There is nothing wrong with liking nice things. Material blessings are gifts from God. However, it is a lie that we need to consume these things in order to care for ourselves. Consumption does not truly refresh and restore us. Instead, it leaves us hungry for our next fix. It teaches us to paper over our actual needs with distractions.
Furthermore, the constant barrage of ads like these can begin to shape our thoughts over time. They can teach us to equate our ability to thrive with our ability to obtain the experiences and possessions we want. Dependence on material prosperity is crippling, because it can teach us to live in fear of losing our prosperity.
The needs of others are not threats to our well-being
The second big problem in discussions of self-care is more subtle. Let us consider an example. Think about the advice so often directed at worn-out, weary moms. Mothers are told we do too much for others: we need to “put ourselves first” and “be selfish sometimes.”
This is bad advice. Mothers do need physical and emotional rest, but life is not a competition for first place. The issue with this advice is deeper than mere semantics. The language of self-care is heavily influenced by atomization.
To “atomize” something is to divide it into tiny and separate units. Modern America encourages each of us to define ourselves by our desires and feelings, and to defend and advocate for these as central to our (individualized) purpose as human beings. The idea is that we know who we are through what we want. This way of seeing ourselves divides us from one another: other human beings threaten our selfhood, because they have needs and desires that may conflict with ours.
In contrast, Christians throughout history have defined ourselves through our relationships with others. We know who we are because of who God is, and because of the vocations He has given us. We do not see our vocations (for example, our duty to our families) as things that, like vampires, drain us of life and energy. Instead our vocations allow us to work together with others for the good of our families and communities. Often we sacrifice for others, but we allow others to care for us as well.
A Christian understanding of our identity actually frees us to exercise prudent responsibility for our own health and well-being. Consider, once again, the example of the frazzled mother. Her vocation is a reason for her to maintain her own health by accepting opportunities to rest. It is good for a mother to sometimes require her children to do the chores while she puts her feet up. She does not need to “be selfish,” because she knows it is her vocational duty to teach her children how to love and serve others.
A focus on self is not the best way to rest
Like Prince Humperdinck, we are human. We possess limited strength. The beautiful thing is that when we focus our attention on other people, we are more likely to care for ourselves in healthy ways. We will be less attracted by empty consumption. We will be less Darwinian in our approach to our families.
Self-care gurus will teach you that in order to take care of yourself, you need regular breaks from whatever in your life is hard or unpleasant. As Lutherans, however, we know that rest is a blessing that helps us joyfully accomplish hard things for the sake of love.
Cover image: “Rest” by Charles Jacque, 1849, from the MET collection.