This post is the third in a series on self-care for care-givers. Physicians, nurses, mommas, pastors, teachers and unsung care-givers of every stripe I hope you find something restorative here. Post 1, Caregiver, Love Thyself, Post 2, Thick Line in the Sand, Part 1, Post 3, Thick Line in the Sand, Part 2.
I'm tempted to drop the mic... er... keyboard, and walk away.
This thinking typifies the unhealthy Other focus that religion can propagate. Your life isn't about you. It's about Others. Burn out for God, for The Lost, for a Dying World. Words like these make too much sense to caregivers. They fit our default position of other-centeredness, and we run with them.
My only religious background is Christianity, so I'll address that perspective. Also, I'm still a Christian. The form of that identity has changed over the years, but essentially, I believe the radical love of Jesus Christ is the greatest model and hope for humans. This post is about spiritual misguidedness and abuse, not a call to end religion.
I experienced mishandled religion perpetuating broken boundaries and broken people in several ways. I learned a poor theology of the person that corroded my ability to see the need to care for myself. I learned to distrust pleasure and rest. I absorbed an ethos of disproportionate focus on others, among other things. I saw basic human limitations labeled as sin and "heart issues."
Poor Theology of the Person
When a person starts out describing people as utterly depraved my eyes roll back in my head. I attended a church for a few loooong months with this view. Entire services were filled with new insults for the human race, Jonathan Edwards style. I got sick of it. I insult myself all the time, and believe this tendency came from the non-gospel that humans, though created, are so terrible God could only think about looking at them if God murdered God's own son in their place.
That incredibly low view runs exactly counter to the emphasis the creation story places on God's pride and pleasure in humans. When your concept of self mirrors something like dirt, you spend little time caring for self.
Christianity also has an ungodly tendency to treat the body as an evil. Why tend to the thing that's just a tin can for your soul until you get to the real (after)life?
We learn to ignore our own voice, desires, and needs because we distrust self so much. We may do the same to our bodies. Eventually, we no longer know who we are. I finally realized I had no concept of my own identity. I described myself as a caregiver -- but that's not my identity. My identity must be centered much more in what internally motivates me to do, not in what I do.
Distrust of Pleasure
Somehow I picked up the idea that pleasure equals sin -- the things you enjoy should be given up for God. I engaged in a system of self-sabotage if I enjoyed something too much. Have a great success? Got sick the next day, or found some reason to be deeply unhappy. I still fight this pattern.
The suspicion, often found in legalistic camps, that fun means sinnin' is happenin', keeps people from playing. We joke about "work hard, play harder," but I don't see it actually happen in caregiver lives. This fuels a frenetic pace of working and living.
To take the place of pleasure we engage in distraction -- temporary pleasures that typically come with high risk or cost. This isn't indulging in something enjoyable, it's over-indulging. Alcohol. Sex. Food. Risky relationships. Caregivers have pretty high statistics relative to non-caregivers when it comes to addiction, substance abuse and suicide. Anecdotally, I see increased risky and abusive relationships and obesity, too.
Or, if religion effectively keeps us from those sorts of over-indulgences (usually it buries them further from the surface), we find others that suck just as much life out of us, but maintain the facade of functionality. Which kind of plays into my next point.
Distrust of Rest
I'm a Doctor Who fan. In the show there are weeping angel statues that come
murderously alive only when you don't look at them. Blink and it's over. Turn
away, they take over the world.
For a religion that believes God founded the day of rest right in the very beginning, we don't rest much. In my tradition, the urgency of saving all the souls built a lot of guilt into resting. I remember sermons (NOT from my dad, thankfully) questioning how we could rest and play while the lost died and went to hell. The association was made in my brain. I stop -- people die in misery. I can never keep up.
Not all caregivers share my legalistic background. But Evangelical Christian culture promotes varying degrees of this theme. The burden is on the energy and strength of the few to save the world. I don't recall ever receiving a message about enjoying the world. And strangely, very few messages emphasizing God's own ability and power to bring God's Kingdom to earth.
(How's that for a clunky section title? I mention I hate titling?)
This thread weaves through all the other sections. Are you the scum of the earth? Focus on others to find a measure of redemption. Are you playing? Others are dying. Are you resting? Still dying!
Other-centeredness seduces us because it relieves us of the burden to fully examine and know ourselves. There. I said it. This isn't all about us the victim of our upbringing -- we encounter us as participants, too. Focus on others can be a great mechanism for seeing and meeting needs, but out of proportion it borders on busy-bodying, or enabling.
Demonizing Human Limitations
You lived your life out for others, never rested, never played, and one day you experienced deep, aching sadness. Diminished will to get out and face another human. Depleted capacity to love. Deep confusion about all of this. Maybe you lost your appetite, or stayed in bed for days, or, depending on the pressure around you, just kept mindlessly, heartlessly putting one foot in front of the other -- or one more human in front of yourself. Maybe you lash out at your kids, or lover. Or withdraw from the community that used to bring you satisfaction.
These symptoms, in varying severity, characterize compassion fatigue, or depression, or exhaustion. But, if you screwed up the courage to tell another believer about them, you heard you have a "heart problem." You've "lost your joy," probably because of some sin in your life.
In reality, you reached the end of your capacity. Possibly you reached it so soon and so encompassingly because no one taught you how to protect your identity, how to rest and replenish and renew. So, instead of reading these symptoms as a God-given sign of our human limitation, we engage in a cycle of guilt that presses us further away from health, and further into the broken behaviors of self-avoidance through constant work.
Back to my sister's meme. I disagree. I shared with her that I believe we are made to enjoy this world and this life. It is my day. It is also the day I have to love other people. Both, And.
The notion that my day is in actuality your day plays into those hyper-permeable boundaries that dissolve my identity in yours. This leads to worn out caregivers, unable to rest, unable to play, unable to see themselves in the forest of humanity. This discussion is religion abused to motivate action through fear. In reality, God intimately and intricately designed each of us for God's pleasure. Pity we don't seek the same experience of ourselves.
Good other care starts with a well-nourished, healthy, centered-in-self (avoiding the negative connotations of self-centered) soul tending to its own garden, and giving and loving out of abundance -- not guilt, pressure, exhaustion, or fear.
If you're reading these things and find them uncomfortably close to what you're experiencing, begin to find ways to listen to your own voice. Look for one instance in the last few weeks where you felt so certain about an opinion, or action, or decision. Pick it apart. What felt so good about that? If it was destructive to another human or self, put it aside for review later. You're looking for a moment when you clearly expressed YOU, the mysterious you-identity that gets lost in the other-identities.
When you find it, and parse it, and learn from it, figure out how to do more of it. Crack that door open a little wider.
And rest. At least twice in the next week, when society, or work, or church, or whatever tell you to keep going -- sit down. Take a 20 minute nap. Read a chapter of a book. Play with your dog, or your daughter. Taste the coffee you usually throw past your taste buds. Savor something.
And play. At least once. Do something imaginative, seemingly meaningless, but enjoyable. Color a page. Tickle your mate. Find a little pleasure in your world. It will still be a broken world that can use your talents, generosity, and love, but you'll be so much better poised to provide those things when you've given them to yourself, first.
Addendum: A funny, eloquent parallel to this conversation/series -- Anne Lamott's Becoming the Person You Were Meant to Be, in O magazine. READ IT.