It has been a hectic two months. Recently my husband and I completed the process of moving my elderly father from across the country to our city and then moving my mother-in-law here also. Both parents have differing needs, and both had to move mostly because they could no longer take care of their houses anymore. We were not in control of the timing for reasons too intricate to explain. Both are now living in communities to suit their needs and abilities, and both are not too far from our home. But just because we have settled them into new living situations does not mean our involvement has lessened. In fact, in some ways it has increased. We have become the guardians of our parents and have joined the ranks of many people around our age who are caring for elderly parents.
In all of this we put our lives on hold a bit or worked our lives around theirs. It has managed to work out, and as I have previously written, much of the process has involved situations and circumstances that clearly demonstrated that God was with us. It is clear that God has been answering my frequent and most eloquent prayer, which goes like this: "Help!" There is much for which to be grateful. And yet, it is easy to feel tired, concerned about this issue or that, and incredibly stressed. But the other day, while praying about all the details (and my stress level) I came to see that it is important to take care of myself, too. But how does one do this?
As Christians, (and in other religions as well), we are taught about the virtue of compassion. We are taught to turn outwards to others in love, mercy, and peace. All of these are great endeavors and are what help us to become holy. But quite often there is one person we forget consistently: our own self. Somehow we think that selflessness means that others come before ourselves and that it is okay to totally neglect ourselves. We think that if we do anything for ourselves we are somehow being entirely selfish and that this is a bad thing. That is not at all true.
St. Catherine of Siena once said that to neglect oneself is to sin. We are stewards of all that which has been entrusted to our care and this includes our own selves. Our bodies and souls are gifts to us, and it is God to whom we belong. As St. Paul says, we are not our own: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body." (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) In other words, we have a responsibility to meet our own needs and not just those of others.
The key to all of it is to keep everything in balance. If the caretaker "goes down," so does the care: if we do not take care of ourselves and run ourselves into the ground in the name of taking care of someone else, then the whole thing comes crashing down. There is no room for making oneself a martyr in the name of responsibility toward others. Somewhere along the line we need to learn the balance of what we need so that we can best be available to our responsibilities toward those in our charge.
Therefore, I am proposing that we all learn to practice some self-compassion. (I am speaking to myself, too, in this exhortation.) Self-compassion means that we need to listen to our own body before it is tells us that we are tired, burning out, or too stressed to think straight. We need to become attentive to what our mind and heart, and also our gut, is telling us. If we are going to make good decisions for others we have to be making them for ourselves, too. This means we need to take periodic breaks from the stress by carving out time when we can do something rejuvenating for ourselves, such as reading a book, listening to music, gardening, or exercising vigorously; most especially we need to pray and meditate. Whether we are introverts who need quiet, alone time, or are extroverts who need to go out to lunch with a friend, (or both!), we need to do it and leave the guilt behind. There is no reason to feel guilty about taking care of ourselves. We need self-care in order to be healthy in mind, body, and spirit.
Practicing self-compassion means living in the present. I have found it tempting to return to the past where resentments, hurts, angers, and fears lurk. Nothing good comes out of that for anyone involved, least of all me. It is also tempting to look to a future which does not yet exist, thinking that if this or that happens then I will feel better. The reality is that it is not what happens around us that determines our happiness. Rather, what determines our happiness comes from within; it comes from how we handle what life throws at us. We can choose our response to that which happens by either choosing to be negative and angry or we can choose a positive attitude. Our response to situations is what determines our happiness, not some outside force.
It is not about being a liar to ourselves, painting on the “game face,” pretending to be happy in the midst of pain. Living a lie is not healthy. Practicing self-compassion means that we embrace the pain in a situation and the pain within ourselves. It means that we acknowledge that which is difficult and beyond our strength and ask for aid from those who can help. Whether it is a family member or friend, we need to realize that we can turn to others. That is what friends are for. And most important, if we turn to God we can do that which we may think is impossible. In our weakness is His strength. (2 Cor. 12:9) I have found this to be true during the journey of these past few months. It is not because I have some sort of hotline to God or because I am holier than anyone else. On the contrary, it is because I am weak and I am struggling on my own path to holiness that I cry out to God with that one, oh so eloquent prayer: "Help!"
Self-compassion means recognizing our limitations and weaknesses and embracing them. It means we acknowledge that we are not God, but that we need the One who is God to help us in our profound brokenness. It means that when we pray and cry out to Him, we are humble enough to accept the help in whatever form it comes. It means we let Him love us through others and that we learn to love ourselves by listening to our own needs, therefore enabling our ability to be there for those who are depending on us. Self-compassion means that we spend time with Jesus, who understands what we are going through because He knows human suffering and struggles.
Lately I have been reflecting on Jesus’ hidden years, the years when He was in obscurity. What I pondered is how He may have felt when Joseph, His earthly father, died and He had to sit with His mother's grief and His own. How did He feel being responsible for His widowed mother? Surely there were times when Mary got sick and Jesus had to tend to her. We know He provided for her when He was dying on the Cross, entrusting her to John's care; that could not have been the first time He took care of the one who watched over Him when He was a boy. Therefore, I know He understands our labors to care for others who have been entrusted to us, too.
Let us practice self-compassion in all areas of our lives. Perhaps we need to allow God to teach it to us. The best way to start is to ask for it as a grace. It is also important to spend time with Jesus, reflecting on His life, His joys and sorrows, and His efforts to take care of His parents during His life on earth. Let us take a little time for ourselves so that we can really listen to our own longings, needs, and desires. Let us talk about our fears and struggles with a trusted friend or spouse, and especially with God who loves us in our very brokenness as we try to attend to the brokenness of our loved ones. Let us strive to do at least one act of self-compassion each day, until we are comfortable with the concept that we are responsible for our own health in order to take care of the needs of others with the love, free of resentment, which we truly desire to give.
May we have the wisdom to seek the grace of self-compassion! May we have the courage to tell the Lord what we need, especially for the strength we need to care for others! Let us have the peace that comes with self-compassion! And may our compassion for ourselves spill out as compassion for others! Let us continue to meet in the Compassionate Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The two photos are mine. The top one is the Pacific Ocean at sunset, taken in Gold Beach, Oregon. The second is of Crater Lake. I added this picture to signify balance and serenity.
The icon is by Fr. William Hart McNichols and is called The Yakrom Mother of God. I chose this because it depicts Jesus as a young child, rather than as an infant. It drew me to reflection upon Jesus' relationship with His mother. In this icon it seems as if they are consoling each other. You can find this icon at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/289-the-yakrom-mother-of-god
Heart Speaks to Heart