This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number 2 (2020). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
The burnout rates of medical professionals over the last few months have turned our attention to the fact that those who care for others must also care for themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally if they wish to continue being effective. Although it is agreed that self-care is important, our cultural understanding of how we view and care for “self” has changed over time. Contemporary American culture assumes that self-care isn’t just a good thing but a human right that is worth pursuing no matter the time or cost involved. The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”; it then goes on to expand this already vast duty into the realm of “wellness,” which they say is “the realization of the fullest potential of an individual physically, psychologically, socially, spiritually and economically.” Such a definition seems perhaps harmless, but the moral and spiritual emphases manifest in our society come disproportionally to the fore, tipping the scales toward a Rousseauian brand of self-love rather than merely a properly balanced lifestyle. In pursuing the embodiment of our idealized selves, we are told to “just do you.” This modern notion of self-care contrasts sharply with the ideal of conforming into Christ’s image, which includes belief in objective truth, self-sacrifice, reliance on God, and putting others’ needs before our own. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve embraced “self-hood” when they chose to care for themselves rather than accept God’s provision. The remedy for a commitment to “self” that ultimately separates the “self” from God forever is to let it go — to die to self — and walk in the way of the cross. This isn’t just any death; therefore, the life offered is no ordinary life. The way of the cross is to embrace and surrender to the death of Jesus, which was an efficacious death that destroyed the very power of death. In terms of wellness, this is the only true holistic cure for the emotional, social, intellectual, physical, and, most importantly, eternal needs of the person.
The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow on Netflix opens with Paltrow seated in her immaculately monochromatic, parchment-hued boardroom, presiding over her staff. “When I started Goop in 2008,” she laughs, her relaxed L.A. accent and the glowing SoCal light both the studied ornamentation for a space that screams wellness, “I was, like, ‘My calling is something else besides, you know, making out with Matt Damon on screen or whatever.’…To me, it’s all like laddering up to one thing, which is the optimization of self.”1
The word self in American culture has come to embody a riot of disordered thinking, a tangled confusion of competing ideologies and philosophies. Wafting over the clamoring voices below, Paltrow, and others like her, preach a beguiling, simple message: you owe it to yourself to “take care” of yourself, you deserve to be “well.” But is that the call of Christ? Is the call to “lose your life” that you may “find it” compatible with the gospel espoused by wellness and self-care evangelists? And what about now, as the world faces a rapidly spreading illness with, as yet, no cure. Isn’t “self-care” the best and only way to cope in a global yet isolated world?
An Etymology of “Self-Care”
Despite the ubiquitous and sweeping nature of the term self-care, the concept is well-suited for its uses in the medical and mental-health communities.2 Encouraging people suffering from various illnesses — psycho-social, mental, physical — to do all that they can on their own behalf, the movement is useful as a check against a monolithic, faceless, technology-driven medical culture. It may be easier for a nurse to pop a pill in the mouth of a patient than to wait for the patient to do it himself, but that doesn’t make it better. Moreover, the burnout rates among medical professionals, particularly in areas of mental health, are astonishing. Now more than ever, encouraging and even training social workers and medical staff to take a day off, to eat properly, to fulfill life’s basic necessities in a healthy manner is an uphill, but necessary battle.
I didn’t fully understand the term “self-care” in its medical sense until my nine-year-old daughter chipped off part of her elbow and had to have it surgically pinned back. The pins poked out of her skin, and wound care briefly took over our lives. I could care for her arm efficiently, but everyone around us wanted her to try to do it herself, if she could. She took off the bandage twice a day, swabbed the incision and pins, dabbed on anti-microbial cream, directed the application of tape, and wrapped it all up again. The point was not that we should not care for her but that her own sense of self could be strengthened even as her arm was. She, despite her injury, was not helpless. She could act and make choices on her own behalf.
Likewise, for people whose job it is to provide care to others — nurses, doctors, social workers, parents of young children, adult children of aging parents — the self part of care is often likened to putting on one’s own oxygen mask before assisting others. The mother who never gets time away from her children, the nurse inhaling her lunch while catching up on paperwork, the strung-out adult child of a parent suffering from dementia, all likewise need care, and must proactively provide it for themselves, lest they both emotionally and physically collapse in their efforts to care for others.
That is the case in normal circumstances, but recent months have been anything but. Vox reports, “The survey-based study examines the mental health outcomes of 1,257 health care workers attending to COVID-19 patients in 34 hospitals in China. The results are not comforting. A large proportion of them report experiencing symptoms of depression (50 percent), anxiety (45 percent), insomnia (34 percent), and psychological distress (71.5 percent).”3 Without being able to seek face-to-face counseling, the age of the pandemic has brought about the ascent of “e-health.” These are online platforms, like Skype, Zoom, or Facetime, and apps, like BetterHelp and TalkSpace, where individuals can connect with a counselor, or, for more money, a trained therapist. A monthly subscription for TalkSpace begins at $260.4 When you are physically separated from those upon whom you normally rely, reaching out for help is all the more important, especially for those on the front lines.
Putting the “Self” in Self-Care
Contemporary understandings of self-care, however, show it to have grown into an unassailable right — and obligation — long since untethered from medicine. With roots in the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements, self-care encompasses everything from dieting to psychic-readings. Aisha Harris, writing for Slate, traces the current trend to the last election cycle. From a fairly niche world, she observed, “in 2016, self-care officially crossed over into the mainstream.”5 Question the word, let alone the concept, and the response is generally astonishment. Should I not care for myself? What are you suggesting?
Most scholars attribute the modern conception of the self to various Enlightenment thinkers — Locke and Descartes, Kant and Kierkegaard, and of course, Freud and Foucault. Some have laid the blame for modern consciousness at the feet of Martin Luther, and others have found traces of it in the Confessions of St. Augustine. While the question of origins is always a fascinating one, it is the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that resonates with the twenty-first century wellness expert’s idiomatic uses of the word “self,” and more particularly “self-love,” which is the starting point of the prevailing articulations of “self-care.” Laurence Cooper explains: “Even while condemning vanity and rank selfishness, Rousseau insisted that natural or original self-love is utterly benign and in fact is the very source of compassion. Perhaps more than anyone else, it was Rousseau who prompted the reformulation of the basic moral polarity from the traditional conception, that is, love of others (good) versus love of self (bad), to the contemporary one, that is, good self-love versus bad self-love.”6
Rousseau particularly valued “sincerity,” the precursor of what is today promoted as “authenticity.” Being “true to oneself” is a noble aspiration. And yet, as Irving Howe points out, a touch sardonically, Rousseau was anything but:
Yes, he will be sincere, he will reveal the truth about his inner being, he will strip everything away to reach an essential self that the world has only glimpsed. It is unique, this self, he declares with a pride that to a Christian must seem appalling (as it did to Kierkegaard who in his Journal remarks that Rousseau “lacks…the ideal, the Christian ideal, to humble him…and to sustain his efforts by preventing him from falling into the reverie and sloth of the poet. Here is an example that shows how hard it is for a man to die to the world” — something that a writer with one thing more to write will rarely do).7
Rousseau, of course, wasn’t a Christian, though he relied heavily on Christian categories, even copying, and then sublimating, the Christian practice of “confession.” Comparing Rousseau’s Confessions to St. Augustine’s, Howe writes:
Saint Augustine confessed to God; Rousseau to a packed house, sometimes filled with enemies, sometimes with merely his own shifting selves. Saint Augustine hoped to make confession into a discipline; for it would be an affirmation, at once humbling and flaunting. Saint Augustine sought to bend himself to Christ, Rousseau to justify the contortions of self to anyone who might listen. Saint Augustine sought truth, Rousseau sincerity. Seeking truth, Augustine found, at the least, sincerity; seeking sincerity, Rousseau unleashed a memorable persona with a lively touch of scandal.8
If Goop’s “wellness” psychic could really “cross-over” and chat with Rousseau, he would be gratified by his success. To quote twelve-year-old drag kid Desmond, of Desmond Is Amazing, “People should be able to dance, sing, or dress in any way. You can express yourself however you want. It doesn’t matter if you like jazz or rap, ballet or ballroom, dresses or suits. You can just do you.”9 The highest good of the day is to discover who you are and then live fully into that discovery. But that is a daunting task, and there are an increasing number of places where you can, for a price, get help. The first step is to consider the scope and dimensions of wellness.
Wellness: The Loving Acceptance of Ourselves
Self-care is a subset of wellness,10 and one of the many, and perhaps best, ways to achieve that end. The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) provides a “History of Wellness” on its website, where it claims the origins of wellness are as ancient as Hinduism. The GWI explains the etymology of the word this way: “The use of the word ‘wellness’ in the English language — meaning the opposite of ‘illness’ or the ‘state of being well or in good health’ — dates to the 1650s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest published reference is from the 1654 diary entry of Sir Archibald Johnston: ‘I…blessed God…for my daughter’s wealnesse.’”11
Through many centuries of evolution, wellness came to international importance with the first annual Global Wellness Day in 2018. The National Wellness Institute delineates six dimensions of wellness — emotional, occupational, physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual.12 And while the World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,”13 it then goes on to expand this already vast duty into the realm of “wellness,” which they say is “the realisation of the fullest potential of an individual physically, psychologically, socially, spiritually and economically, and the fulfilment of one’s role expectations in the family, community, place of worship, workplace and other settings” (emphasis added).14 Such a definition seems perhaps harmless, but the moral and spiritual emphases come disproportionally to the fore, tipping the scales toward a Rousseauian brand of self-love rather than merely a properly balanced lifestyle. Many college websites cast the obligation to wellness this way:
The loving acceptance of ourselves today and the exciting free search for who we choose to become tomorrow. Choice living; a compilation of the daily decisions we make that lead us to that person we choose to become. Wellness is the framework that you can use to organize, understand, and balance your own growth and development. Everything you do, every decision you make, every thought you think, and every attitude and belief you hold fits into this framework. (Emphasis added.)15
In episode four of The Goop Lab, Paltrow huddles perishing on her opaline couch. She is on a “starvation-mimicking” diet. For five days, she has eaten progressively smaller amounts of food, tricking her body into burning calories, eradicating toxins, and, most crucially, lowering her “biological age.” Heretofore, her staff has investigated the healing properties of tea brewed from psychedelic mushrooms, breath and cold-endurance training as a remedy for anxiety, and the benefits of sex and body acceptance.16 In subsequent episodes, Paltrow’s team explores psychic communication and something called Energy Field Therapy. Each half-hour program includes two or three mini-salvation testimonies. In this new era of social isolation, after watching an episode, the distrait and bored may wander over to the Goop website to purchase Uma Pure Calm Wellness Oil for $85 or read Goop’s roundup of research findings on COVID-19.17
Paltrow inhabits a long, lucrative tradition. Emmeline Clein chronicles the success of one woman in 1897, a Madam Yale, “the nation’s most beguiling female entrepreneur, a 45-year-old former homemaker whose talent for personal branding would rival that of any Instagram celebrity today.”18 Madam Yale monetized the cultural assumptions, still fiercely held today, that beauty reflects health and that balance and control signify moral purity. Practically channeling Paltrow, Madam Yale said of one of her own inventions that “when she imbibed Fruitcura regularly after ‘discovering’ it at age 38, she ‘emerged from a life of despair into an existence of sunshine and renewed sensations of youth.’ In Yale’s account, sharing Fruitcura with her ‘sisters in misery’ (that is, selling it to them) was now her almost sacred purpose.”19
Sacred purpose or not, Clein writes that both Paltrow and Madam Yale “embodied their brands, presenting themselves as the best possible evidence of their efficacy.”20 Like many religious propositions, at issue is whether something “works.” In the world of wellness, the ever fragmenting, kaleidoscopic nature of choice foists each individual back upon herself. The most pressing question is, does it work for me? It is a matter of life or death. Peruse a lengthy interview that begins, “This column has a singular purpose: to talk to women about navigating a world where they are their own savior.”21 Or read actress Michelle Williams’s 2020 Golden Globe’s acceptance speech for Best Performance by an Actress in a Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television where she pleads with women to vote “in your own self-interest.”22 Or scroll through essence.com.23
Or, I would entreat the Christian to go all the way back to a yet more ancient moment — the true cultural and philosophical origin of self-care and wellness. In the third chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve embraced “self-hood” in its first and most virulent form, choosing to “care” for themselves, though God had already provided for their every need.
He Cares for You
When the world began to rapidly shut down in the face of the new coronavirus disease, Michael Kruger noticed a tragic irony for an age catechized on the gospel of self-care, a “you do you” culture. He writes, “We can only stop the virus by doing what is best for others not just for ourselves. The virus will be curbed when people embody a spirit of self-sacrifice. A posture of self-denial. We must limit our travel, limit our social contact, even limit our ‘fun’ so that the virus won’t spread.”24 This kind of self-sacrifice, once at the heart of Western culture, can be recovered only by turning entirely away from the self and toward Jesus.
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”25 All four Gospels record versions of this pithy choice that Jesus puts before His disciples on at least three separate occasions. Each time, it is attached contextually to the proclamation that He Himself is going to the cross, and the invitation for those following Him, trying to understand what He is talking about, to join Him. We know the disciples did not, at the time, grasp His meaning, because at least Peter — though I imagine all of them were utterly repulsed — tried to contradict Him. “You’re not going to die,” Peter explains. And Jesus says, “Oh yes, I am.”
The human attachment to the self, forged in that ancient moment in the garden, is so primary, so inexorable, that offered the good and life-saving opportunity to let go of the “self,” humanity collectively cannot comprehend the words. But that is the offer. The remedy for a commitment to “self” that ultimately separates the “self” from God forever is to let it go, to stand up and walk in the way of the cross. This isn’t just any death; therefore, the life offered is no ordinary life. The way of the cross is to embrace and surrender to the death of Jesus, which was an efficacious death that destroyed the very power of death. In terms of wellness, however it is defined, this is the only true holistic cure for the emotional, social, intellectual, physical, and, most importantly, eternal needs of the person.
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God,” admonishes Peter, “so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:6–7). Peter is writing to a congregation that would by no means meet the wellness standards of today. Poor, persecuted, anxious about the future, beset, and shame-faced, it would have been easy for Peter to tell them to pick themselves up, concentrate on their own happiness, and do whatever it takes to be “well.” Instead, he implores them to throw themselves on the mercy of Christ.
He does this because the remedy for the confusion of the self is not more “self” care, but the care that only God can provide — the unsparing succor offered first to Adam and Eve, and culminating at the cross where He sacrificed Himself for the nourishment and healing of everyone who takes refuge in Him. This care fulfills the six areas delineated by both the World Health Organization and the National Wellness Institute, all of which slip through the fingers when they are grasped without the caring mercy of God. Exercises in self-discovery only make the problem worse. Rather, the Christian begs God for a “godly and sober life,” the kind of life Jesus offers to those who forsake themselves and turn to Him, who is Life (John 14:6). The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, in the spirit of Augustine, invites Christians to take the first step in solving the problem of the self, which is admitting that “there is no health in us,” and then to hear the astonishing declaration that “at the last, we may come to his eternal joy,”26 which is a more abundant, complete health than any of us could possibly imagine.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry and Worn-Out People and blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventingrace.com on Patheos.
- The Goop Lab, season 1, episode 1, “The Healing Trip,” on Netflix, January 24, 2020, https://www.netflix.com/watch/80244757.
- “What Is Self-Care?,” International Self-Care Foundation, https://isfglobal.org/what-isself-care/.
- Sigal Samuel, “Doctors and Nurses Are Risking Their Mental Health for Us,” Vox, March 26, 2020, https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/3/26/21193122/coronavirus-mentalhealth-doctors-nurses-covid-19.
- Rebecca Heilweil, “Feeling Anxious about Coronavirus? There’s an App for That,” Vox, March 20, 2020, https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/3/20/21185351/mental-health-appscoronavirus-pandemic-anxiety.
- Aisha Harris, “A History of Self-Care: From Its Radical Roots to Its Yuppie-driven Middle Age to Its Election-inspired Resurgence,” Slate, April 5, 2017, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2017/04/the_history_of_self_care.html.
- Laurence Cooper, “Rousseau on Self-Love: What We’ve Learned, What We Might Have Learned,” The Review of Politics 60, no. 4 (Autumn 1998): 661–62. Cooper’s work is a helpful corrective for those who want to blame Rousseau for everything.
- Irving Howe, “The Self in Literature,” Salmagundi 90–91 (Spring–Summer 1991), 64.
- Howe, “The Self in Literature,” 64.
- Desmond Napoles, Desmond Is Amazing, https://desmondisamazing.com/.
- Advice to students at Wright State University is a good example of the way the relationship between wellness and self-care is expressed: “It is important to maintain both the physical and mental components of self-care in order to achieve an overall state of wellness.” “Self-Care,” Wright State University, https://www.wright.edu/studentaffairs/health-and-wellness/counseling-and-wellness/workshops-and-self-help/self-care.
- “History of Wellness,” Global Wellness Institute, https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/industry-research/history-of-wellness/.
- “The Six Dimensions of Wellness,” National Wellness Institute, https://www.nationalwellness.org/page/Six_Dimensions.
- “Constitution of the World Health Organization (1948, 2005),” in Basic Documents, 47th edition (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2009), 1, http://whqlibdoc.who.int/hist/official_records/constitution.pdf.
- Health Promotion Glossary Update, World Health Organization, n.d., https://www.who.int/healthpromotion/about/HPR%20Glossary_New%20Terms.pdf.
- “Self Care and Wellness: Taking Care of Yourself So You Can Be Your Best,” Ferris State University, https://www.ferris.edu/RSS/eccc/tools/wellness.htm.
- The Goop Lab, season 1, episode 4, “The Health Span Plan,” on Netflix, January 24, 2020, https://www.netflix.com/watch/80244757. I didn’t watch the episode, and I don’t recommend the series for its uses of strong language and unquestioned assumptions about what constitutes a “well-lived” life.
- Be careful in searching around Goop.com as many of the items are sexually oriented.
- Emmeline Clein, “Madam Yale Made a Fortune with the 19th Century’s Version of Goop,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/madame-yale-fortune-19th-century-goop-180974153/.
- Clein, “Madam Yale,” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/madame-yale-fortune-19th-century-goop-180974153/.
- Clein, “Madam Yale.”
- Fariha Roisin and Sara McCulloch, “Self-Care, in Theory and Practice,” The Hairpin, November 11, 2014, https://www.thehairpin.com/2014/11/self-care-in-theory-and-practice/.
- Abbey Gardner, “Michelle Williams Delivers Powerful Golden Globes Speech About a Woman’s Right to Choose,” Glamour, January 6, 2020, https://www.glamour.com/story/michelle-williams-speech-2020-golden-globes.
- E.g., Kristen West Savali, “The Afiya Center, Organization Behind ‘Abortion Is Self-Care’ Billboard: ‘We Said It, We Meant It,’” Essence, September 13, 2018, https://www.essence.com/news/afiya-center-billboard-abortion-is-self-care/.
- Michael J. Kruger, “How a ‘You do You’ Culture Has Made Us Vulnerable to the Coronavirus,” Canon Fodder, March 19, 2020, https://www.michaeljkruger.com/how-ayou-do-you-culture-has-made-us-vulnerable-to-the-coronavirus/.
- Matthew 16:25–26. All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
- The Book of Common Prayer (1662) is available at Society of Archbishop Justus, http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1662/mp.pdf.