Three months into lockdown, one thing has become very clear to me: at fifty-one years of age, self-care is still not my greatest strength.
In fact, I still stammer a bit over saying the words. Something about that word “self”, maybe, doesn’t sit right with me… although God knows I’ve made space for self-deprecation and self-loathing.
On the positive side, my spiritual enquiries have more than convinced me that self-transcendence is the key to peace. The individual is only an image, if you will, and identity ultimately gives way to unity. On the negative side, you can’t get there by self-destruction. I know. I have tried.
Depression, anxiety, and bad habits have been my companions on my life journey. They are not exactly loving companions. They quarrel and bicker for my attention. They distract me, and frequently argue to deny me self-love.
That’s the hardest one of all: self-love. The notion has always seemed so indulgent, like the worst trait of the ME generation writ large. Who am I to be worthy of love… even (especially!) my own? (All the while, arguing fiercely for my loved ones to love themselves as much as I love them… such is the paradox.)
Worse still, even having intellectually embraced the idea that one ought to love oneself in order to love others, I realized I was so inept at it that it was yet another reason to consider myself a failure. Enter the spiral: anxiety, depression, bad habits, and around we go again…
Of course I haven’t been passive in all this. I have striven, endeavoured, and practiced in an attempt at self-overcoming for as long as I’ve been self-aware.
In the work I’ve done around being adopted, I encountered the idea that the trauma of that formative first experience is always with me; that it affected my emotional capacity from moment one; that I carry certain predispositions as a result. The statistics on depression, addiction and suicide for adoptees are fearsome. I self-educated–the hard way. By miracles, I survived. I learned that with work, I could ‘rewire’ my faulty hardware, and hack my glitchy software. I could create the conditions for self-acceptance, at least, which would help me to live more lovingly all around.
It was when my first daughter was born, twenty-four years ago, that I began to actively engage with the consequences of lack of self-love in my life. It was a terrible process a lot of the time. The road to self-sufficiency was a rocky path through self-doubt, and the subsequent years of divorce, spiritual seeking and self-discovery were very difficult on every level. But the space in my heart that my love for my daughter had revealed grew bigger, especially as she began to love me back. I began to do the work in earnest, though I walked through a lot of darkness before I felt the first glimmers of steady light. I still walk through darkness, frequently, but I don’t feel like I live there anymore.
My kids, my wife, my friends, my family, and my community have taught me to love. And nature, my first and deepest teacher, has shown me that all beings have their place to grow, and that the sun shines and the rain falls on everyone. I belong here. I’ve had some modest, but significant successes at self-nurturing: catching myself early in ideation of self-harm. Moving out of active addiction to cigarettes. Moderating the worst of my emotional extremes with meditation. Working to manage my relationship with alcohol. Self-monitoring for the side-effects of social media exposure.
I strive to keep physically active. I work to eat healthily. I remind myself to drink enough water. I cajole myself to sleep properly.
Self-care is like caring for anyone else. Actually, for me it’s like caring for a baby, which I’ve also had to learn to do.
“Baby steps”, I remind myself. And babies fall a lot. But I know, now, how to hold a baby, and soothe it, and set it on its feet again.
That’s what I’m doing in this selfie. Self-soothing. Self-healing. Self-care. Self… love.
Self-love is love. To love is a difficult art. I haven’t mastered it yet. But I practice.