The care of oneself without medical, professional, or other assistance or oversight.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” -Audre Lorde
Self-care is something that I have had strong feelings about for a good while now. Being involved in progressive politics, it has been a topic that has come up around me from time to time. Every time it has come up, I have discussed my thoughts on the concept with the same general feeling:
I hate it.
My father worked as a nuclear marine machinist at Norfolk Naval Shipyard from 1983 to 1994. Growing up, he worked the night shift. In addition to working the night shift at the Shipyard, he would come home and help me out with homework and help out my grandmother with errands and things that needed cleaning around the house. He has carried that work ethic with him throughout his career, to the point of going 13 years without a proper vacation (that did not fall within the traditional holiday season). My grandmother dropped out of school in the 8th grade, worked in the fields, became a social justice activist during the Civil Rights Movement, and eventually worked at a produce stand until her death at 62. My mother raised my brother while working nearly her entire adult life at many jobs before landing a position as a claims adjuster for a large insurance company, where she has been for over a decade.
And then there’s me. After getting my first taste of volunteering during Mark Warner’s successful gubernatorial run in 2001 at age fifteen, I worked on campaigns in several elections. I actually flunked out of Minneapolis Community and Technical College after skipping classes to run an office for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party during the 2004 elections. Self-care to me was catching a couple of zzzz’s on the floor of a staging area for volunteers on Election Day 2004 (although it was by accident), and doing the same on Election Day 2008 (on purpose in this nice hidden bed that was in our command center). In 2004, I worked on the campaign trail AND worked 20 hours a week at a local grocery store (unionized, of course). I always looked at self-care as a product of white, as well as class, privilege that sought to remove those engaged in social justice work from the lives that the people that they advocate on behalf of. The concept that someone involved in progressive struggles would indulge themselves off the clock, especially if that indulgence had a high price tag on it, was foreign to me.
But then I realized something: both ends of this spectrum were privileged; an article written late last year really put that into relief for me. The whole “movement work as self-care” thing was patently ridiculous to me. For one, in my time doing political work, I have seen WAY too many people that have gotten burned out on because they did not take care of themselves throughout the campaign. Then when November comes around, they gave the campaign, and politics in general, the deuces. And that is from the standpoint of a political campaign, which is relatively short-term; what about GLBTQ+ activists or immigration advocates here in the South? When your self-care becomes The Work, it can make for a pretty arduous existence in a place that has been hostile to progress. But the most galling quote from the article came here:
Maria Poblet of Causa Justa Just Cause once said, “Burnout is not about the amount of hours you work, it is about the amount of political clarity you have.” What that means is that there is no chance of us consistently burning the midnight oil if we don’t at our core believe what we’re working on will get us to a new day and no amount of yoga or therapy or comfort food we supplement our work with will compensate for that. However, if we can see a better world just over the horizon, like a marathon runner nearing a finish line, we can find endless wells to draw upon as we work to usher it in.
Wow. Really? As privileged as I think the concept of self-care can be, that might be the most privileged thing that I have ever read on a putatively progressive website (and I have read Jezebel before, so I have seen plenty to judge this on). The notion that it is impossible to get burned out once you have reached some sort of ideological zen is crazy to me, and many others who have done The Work would likely agree. It seemed that as much as certain indulgent forms of self-care were a product of privilege, so was the notion that nothing else in life mattered but The Work.
I was confronted with all of this within the last week in my own life. I am a doctoral student who has papers and reports due every week. I am also a newlywed who is exploring the beginnings of a life together with the person that will be my partner in love and justice until my last breath. And, staying true to my unending desire to see a more progressive South, I am involved in my county Democratic Party. Coming off attending a recent grassroots training that was put on by the state Democratic Party, I was given an opportunity that to be a local organizer for the state Democratic Party. I immediately accepted; why would I not? Community organizing is obviously in my wheelhouse, and it is something that I love doing. Any other time, I would have immediately set about my work.
But this time was different. I looked at all that I had to do over the course of the semester and this summer, and it is pretty daunting: final papers, studying for comprehensive exams, beginning to write my prospectus for my dissertation, cranking out papers for conferences and journals, spending time with my wife, exercising and losing a substantial amount of weight, and finding the time (somewhere) to enjoy our friends and enjoy life. When that was coupled with the prospect of organizing an entire county from just about scratch, that was, for the first time in my life, a bridge too far. I decided that I was going to do something that I had never done before in my political career; I was going to tell a prospective employer “no”. And that is precisely what I did; I called them yesterday, and stepped down from my state position.
So where do I fall with the concept of self-care? I still believe that many forms of self-care are indulgent; not everyone can afford yoga or a day at the spa. But at the same time, just like The Work needs people who care about equality and a just world, folks that are running on fumes and fervor can only do so much for a movement, and can often be liabilities instead of assets. This is a situation where privilege is not unipolar, and understanding where the middle is can be complicated.
Struggles are meant to be hard, and progressive change, particularly in the South, does not come easy. Whenever we engage in forms of self-care, let us remain mindful of the communities that we serve, and heal ourselves in ways that honor our fight.