Joy and Self-Care

Since I started thinking more deeply about religion and faith, words whose definitions I thought I knew have started to take on different meanings. Suffering no longer means quite what I thought it did. Once I thought suffering meant “utter misery for no particular purpose other than the fact that life sucks and then you die,” but suffering started to become more purposeful. Suffering involves hope and faith.

Similarly, joy has taken on another meaning. When I thought of joy, I always thought of the giddy excitement that builds up before an expected event, like waiting for Christmas or your birthday. I suppose I had a child’s perception of joy.

About this time last year, one of our parish priest’s homilies was about joy, and how joy was actually an acronym that stood for Jesus, others, yourself, and they are in that order for a reason. You can do things for yourself that bring you fleeting happiness, but putting others first is always better because the good feeling lingers. ‘Tis better to give than to receive and all that. In turn, what you do for others is also done for Jesus, as in Matthew 25:40: “And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’” Things that are done solely for Jesus, like prayer and adoration, always bring the greatest joy. True, they may not seem joyful at first, but over time, they become the necessary things to sustain one’s spirit in a world that is overly focused on material.

One of the trendy buzzwords that comes up all the time is self-care. That word always irritates me because I read about “self-care rituals” on Tumblr, and they involve things like taking bubble baths and spending hours binge-watching your favorite shows on Netflix. Most of the time, it equates to “if you’re an introvert, it’s OK to take your introvert time.” Well, that’s all fine and good. I admit that the occasional bubble bath and Netflix marathon aren’t bad. It’s necessary to take a break from reality to restore your sanity. But self-care can be overdone, and that may not always bring about happiness or joy. Self-care involves putting yourself first.

A common argument is that, to some degree, you have to put yourself first so that you can be at your highest capacity to serve others. It is true that you shouldn’t neglect your basic needs, like food and hygiene and being adequately dressed, but that’s not really self-care… it’s just common sense. To me, this self-care thing goes much deeper than those basics and can easily turn into selfishness. Leave me alone. I’m doing my self-care rituals. It is easy to have too much introvert time and become lazy and unwilling to come out of your metaphorical blanket fort, even when others need you.

Putting others first can sustain you in ways that self-care can’t. Spending time with others is more worthwhile (80% of the time) than spending time by yourself, and spending time with Jesus in prayer and adoration is more worthwhile (100% of the time) then spending time by yourself engaging in self-care.

Self-care is perhaps only surface-level care. Little bits here and there can be restoring for moments, but they are not gifts that keep on giving, like acting on the “J” and the “O” of joy. A good offering for Advent might be to moderate our self-care and keep the “Y” where it belongs—last.