Sunday, April 01, 2007

What is self-care?

I think people often get confused about what self-care is for a chaplain (or rabbi, or social worker, or other helping professional). I remember hearing a fellow chaplain say, recently,

I'm great at self-care. I have a great life [outside of work]. I love my family. I have a great time when I'm not working.
Making sure that you have a personal life outside of work surely is one part of caring for one's self. But it is only one part and may not be the most important part. True self care is not just about looking away from the work; it's also about engaging the work directly, or, at least, about engaging the world in which your work takes place directly.

It's all about passion. Most of us in these kind of professions are in it because we are deeply passionate about the work. We consider ourselves to be called to it. We believe we are doing something incredibly Holy. That's what keeps us going.

But the irony is that the work also drains us, and, if we don't take care to make sure that it remains meaningful to us, we lose our passion. We become empty inside. We need to be refueled.

The most important way to refuel is to allow ourselves to be cared for. When we witness a suffering so powerful that it shakes us to the core -- if, for example, we sit calmly and lovingly with a mother screaming at the sudden loss of her child -- we need to have someone who will allow us to cry in front of them about it when we are done. We need to be reminded that what makes our work truly Holy is that it is about creating a community of caring people -- people who care for us and whom we care for.

But, we can't take these kind of wounds home to our families. If we did, we would destroy the relationships we have there; for our loved ones, we would just be the person who brings tales of hurt and suffering into the home -- a place that is supposed to be a refuge and a place of light, not death. That is why self-care of this type davka has to happen in the workplace, or at least with colleagues. This is what self-care is about -- about finding peers who will care for us, and help us recharge.

For the congregational rabbi, it's a bit different perhaps. It's not necessarily the capacity to care that is drained, as it might be the capacity to teach Torah and to communicate a love of Torah. You surely can't effectively share a love of Torah if you do not feel such a deep love yourself.

Thus, the core of a rabbi's self-care might be allowing oneself to experience love of Torah and finding people with whom to share that love -- as peers, not students! -- and the process of study.

I saw this expressed recently in one of the flyers for the Rabbinical Assembly convention I will be attending in May. In promoting one session, it said, all self-care starts with Torah study.

This is what Torah Lishma -- Torah study for its own sake -- really means. It is a spiritual practice that refuels us davka because it has no purpose other than its self. It is self-care.

As I look forward to the holiday of our liberation that is so close now, I think of how I need to free myself more in the coming months. One of my hopes is to add more self-care -- in the form of Torah study -- to my life. I need it. I hope to use this blog more in the coming months to share it.


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