With my chaplaincy students this summer, we paid a lot of attention to the issue of self-care. Taking good care of yourself is important for everyone of course, but it's especially important for people in helping professions where our work with people in need pulls on our hearts and souls. Call it burn-out or compassion fatigue or whatever else you like -- the bottom line is that people like clergy are at high risk for it.
My students had a lot of ideas about what self-care meant for them, but the most common theme was some form of "getting away". For one student that was a physical getting away -- she needed to get physically away from the hospital and be somewhere else. For another student, getting away meant nothing physical. Rather, it meant something that took his mind elsewhere, like reading.
During the 11 weeks of our summer program, I was the one trying to teach others about self-care. But when the program came to an end last week, the rubber hit the road, so to speak, for me -- how was I going to "get away" in a way that would be restorative to me after what was a great, but profoundly exhausting -- especially spiritually exhausting -- summer?
People who know me will not be surprised that I chose bicycle riding -- I went on a three-day bike tour this week (that started with a "century", only the second 100-mile bike ride of my life). But that might give you a false impression about how I understand self-care. You might think that means that I think physical exercise is the essence of self-care. Or you might think that I believe (as so many people do in our body-image obsessed society) that the essence of self-care is maintaining excellent physical condition.
But for people in a spiritual profession, maintaining the body is just not enough. Things that nurture the spirit are much more important.
So, for me, one of the most important things that self-care is about is the same thing my students cited -- getting away. I don't just bike ride; I bike tour. That means putting packs on my bike with my clothing and other gear. It means moving, under the power of my own legs, through physical space away from where I started. This gives that sense of physically getting away that was so valuable to my one student.
But bike touring also means the mental getting away that was so important to my other student, and, for me, this is much more important than the physical getting away. When, for the last hour and a half of my century ride, I unexpectedly found myself riding in heavy rain on a two-lane road with no shoulder as darkness started to fall, very quickly the only thing that mattered anymore for me was the task of riding (and doing everything I could to remain visible to the passing cars and to keep out of their path). All the things that had obsessed me in the closing weeks of the program -- all the painful and touching stories my students had brought me about the struggles in their lives and in their work with patients -- passed away. In those moments, I was able to get away in a profound way. That was real self-care for the caregiver.
I had another student who said that the essence of self-care was something a bit different than getting away -- it was to work to maintain a sense of inner peace and balance throughout everything he did. One of the deepest moments of inner peace I had in recent years came on another dangerous, rainy bike ride in the dark a previous summer. On that ride, I broke through the fear and focus I had on this week's ride to a place of freedom and joy. I was at peace with where I was, with who I am and what I was doing. I did not feel any need to question, only to be. That, in particular, is real self-care for the caregiver.
Even though I did not have such a deep moment of inner peace on this bike tour, there were many moments where I did experience profound peace. I felt free, and aimless.
I've written before about how an aimlessness can nurture our spirits and help restore us. What I wrote about is the potential for Torah study -- especially Torah study done for its own sake, or תורה לשמה/Torah Lishma -- to create this restorative aimlessness for us. It can allow us to get away in a profound way and enter the world -- and minds -- of our ancient Sages, people for whom finding the way of a proper service to The Holy Blessed One was their highest value. In this way, our spirits can be restored and we can find our way back to a new purposefulness in our efforts to best serve in the world in which we live.
May it be the will of The Holy Blessed One that you should find your own path to caring for your spirit and your body. And may that restore you in your efforts to find -- and walk -- your true path of service.
By the way, here is the (approximate) route of my century ride, starting here in Reading and ending up in New Hope via downtown Philly.
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I took two days to get back from New Hope, ovenighting in Kulpsville before taking the final ride back.
Self-care, of course, does not start at the end of an intense program. One needs to work to care for oneself along the way. For me, one of the biggest challenges in this kind of self-care is to pace myself. My pattern throughout my life is to get very excited at the beginning of a new semester or a new job and to ride that excitement to great accomplishments in the early weeks and months. But, as with all 'highs', that excitement eventually fades and then I find it hard to find the energy to just fulfill my basic obligations.
With my awareness of that pattern in mind, I didn't a better job this time of caring for myself through pacing. In the opening weeks of the program, I intentionally worked less in the evenings and on Sundays compared to my usual pattern. Bicycle riding did play a role in this self-care plan and I was able to get out on the bike for an hour or two most evenings in the first half of the program. As the program went on, however, I did experience something of a collapse. This wasn't as bad as in the past and I was able to do a very good job of having enough energy for my students and for my work throughout the program. Bike, riding, however, did fall off the plate and I did not ride nearly as much in the second half of the program.
I was struck in the final minutes of my tour about how there was something of what you might call a parallel process between how my ride went and how the summer program went for me: In the first part of the ride, I had lots of energy and excitement for the task of doing a century (162 kilometers) that first day. I was so excited when I made it to the Philadelphia Art Museum at around 1pm (about 95 kilometers in). [The pic to the right, by the way, is of the "Rocky" statue at the Art Museum; there was an international crowd of tourists taking pics of each other there.] But soon I started to tire and the remaining 80 or so kilometers I did that day were largely a struggle, as were many of the kilometers of the two 'return' days. As I was doing the last 10 kilometers or so back to Reading, I noticed that I was passing some milestones -- like the last bridge over the Schuylkill river I would cross -- that should have been making me feel excited. I should have been able to feel a sense of accomplishment building as I passed each of those milestones. I should have been able to slow down and savor it.
Instead, all I cared about was finishing. I just wanted it to be over and to be able to get off that bike and get my sore muscles (and rear end, especially) into a hot bath. That was a little sad.
The summer program ended for me in kind of a similar way. In the last week or so, I had to do two all-nighters to finish all the written work I owed to students and others on-time. So, at the end, instead of being able to savor what a huge accomplishment the summer was to me and share that joy with my students, I just wanted it to be over. I just wanted to be able to finally stop working.
But, while I have some sadness about that, mostly how things went represents an accomplishment. I was indeed able to get my work done on time (and I never really faced the crippling dread that I would perhaps not be able to make my deadlines, a dread I well know from the past). And I was able to give my students what they needed from me in those final days; I don't think they were cheated in any way by my need to 'sprint' at the end.
This was my first time supervising a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) unit on my own. My supervisor told me I did an excellent job. I agree with that assessment, something that it is not always so easy for me to say. . . . . My efforts at self-care are a lot of what made it possible. I'm thankful to my students for their work and to my supervisor and my peers for their counsel and guidance. I owe them all a lot.