Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Take Care of Yourself

The last month or so, I have been downloading free ebooks for my Kindle and consuming them quickly. Many authors and booksellers will have temporary promotions where a book is free for 24 hours, and there are several people on Twitter who gather up the free titles for the day and post links (search "free ebooks" on Twitter for a sampling). It has been a great way to try books I would not think to try otherwise.

One of my recent reads was Ann Carbine-Best's memoir In the Mirror: A Memoir of Shattered Secrets, the story of her two unhappy marriages and how they ended. Her second marriage was to a gentle man who was an alcoholic. Ann attended a counseling program for families of alcoholics, and I was caught by the words of the counselor:

"You're dealing with someone who is focused on just one thing, the drug," he said. "They don't know what you're feeling; they don't care what you're feeling. Their addicted brain and body have only one goal: to get that drug. They're anesthetized; you're not. You're the one who's suffering; they're not. You have to pull back. You have to focus on yourself, not them."

The instructor gazed around the room, focusing on each one of us.

"I'm going to tell you something that goes against the Christian ethic that tells us to take care of our neighbor. But it's something you have to do if you don't want to be sicker than your loved one." He paused, making certain that he had our full attention."I'm going to say this again and again and again. Take care of yourself." He repeated, "Take care of yourself."
I was struck by this because one of my spiritual practices this year has been to devote myself more fully to keeping a sabbath. On Sunday I do not try to catch up on the housework that I didn't get done this week. I don't throw a few extra meals in the freezer to save time and money later. On Sundays I nap. I read.  I do nothing.

I rest.

Christianity teaches an ethic of emptying ourselves for the sake of others, in imitation of Christ. It's hard. It is a kind of crucifixion. But the reason we are expected to serve others, even sometimes to the point of death, is not because others are the centers of our lives. It's because Christ is.

Jesus gave himself for us. But he did not do this because he worshiped us. He did this, in the mystery of the Trinity, as an act of submission to his Father who loves us. A life in imitation of Christ is not primarily a life focused on others. It is a life of submission to God.

And God commands us to rest. To take a sabbath. To be wise as serpents. To not throw our pearls before swine. Scripture includes many commands that are about caring for our own selves. Not exclusively, but still. The love God has for all people includes ourselves, and the obedience we owe to God extends to obeying those commands that are for our own benefit. To refuse to care for ourselves when commanded is not servanthood; it's willful disobedience.

Indulging in codependency is, in a way, a renunciation of the gospel. It asserts the opposite of the Easter story; it says I am not worthy of love, but if I take charge of another person's redemption, I will become worthy.

You can't do that job. If you could, we wouldn't need an Easter story.

In parenting, there can be the temptation - sometimes out of weariness - to throw all that is dear and good onto the altar of devotion to children. Our marriage, our other vocations, our sabbaths - heap them up and set them aflame and that will show what a good mother you are. Destroy yourself without complaining, and comfort yourself in your misery with the thought that you, at least, are a good and true mother.

But this is a false martyrdom. The God of the Sabbath demands that you rest (I know - it can be incredibly difficult to arrange that, especially with babies. I am not belittling the difficulty. If it helps you to scream at the screen while you read this post, do it. But then find a friend or church or family member who can watch the kids for a few hours and let you take a bath or have a nap).

God has tied that rest to the worship of himself. "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy." That doesn't mean, as past generations believed, that your Sunday or Saturday should be spent in uncomfortable starched collars in a silent stuffy room with a glaring relative who never liked you much anyway. It means that we honor God by acknowledging how we all need nurture. It means resting from our labor.

Sometimes it means take care of yourself.