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"First Fit Your Own Mask": Self Care in the Life of Service

Monday, 7 April 2014  | Jennifer Turner


First fit your own mask before helping the person next to you.” The routine message about emergency oxygen masks before a plane takes off always gets me thinking: Does the same thing apply in life? Do I need to be “fixed up” before I can help others? What is the balance between self-care and self-less service? We have seen a shift in recent decades towards acknowledging that mental and emotional “fitness” impacts on our giving ourselves in service to others, and that this is connected to our spiritual fitness, our disciplines of holy habits that sustain us for the long haul.

Parents of young children experiencing sleep deprivation discover that their ability to cope with everyday life under stress has its roots in habits of life developed or not developed well before children appear on the scene. The same applies when the larger crises of unemployment, severe illness or rejection arise. We survive with the support of family and friends. But we also need permission to be “kind to ourselves” through self-care, best expressed in good habits of sleep, eating, exercise developed in the years before the crisis.

Care for the body – both physical and emotional - is part of spiritual stewardship of God’s good gifts to us. Some neglect it through carelessness or indifference, but in my mentoring work I see again and again the tendency for the biblical value of sacrifice, wrongly understood, to result in destructive habits that weaken the person’s response to the inevitable stresses. Sensible living is given no weight and self-care thought to be self-ish, if not sinful.

Henri Nouwen has bequeathed to us the term “wounded healer” to remind us we serve out of less-than-perfect lives. In fact, it often seems that the very wounds we suffer are what God uses to help us put ourselves in another’s shoes or to share our experience of finding hope in the midst of pain. Recently re-reading Nouwen’s rabbinic parable, I noticed that he is saying more than the “healer” is himself wounded. The healer is someone who first binds his own wounds in order to be ready to help other beggars at the gate. This is not a once-for-all fix. He tends his wounds one at a time so that at any moment he can stop bandaging and attend to others.

This principle is relevant more generally to leadership of organisations. Taking their cue from family systems theory applied to congregations by pioneers such as Rabbi Friedman, writers call for leaders to exercise a non-anxious presence through developing “self-differentiation”. This can sound selfish, part of the over-importance western culture places on the individual. But rightly understood, it implies that leaders are first tending their own wounds, including wounds arising from their personal history and family of origin. From a Christian perspective such self-differentiation is growth in emotional and spiritual maturity towards all that the Creator intends us to be. This imago dei reminds that we are made in the image of a Trinitarian God in whom three differentiated but self-giving persons are eternally held together in a loving relationship. Likewise our personal growth will always be in the context of relationships, including with those we seek to serve.

Put starkly, people who understand the mandate to assist others must give due importance also to their own personal health and well-being. I remember one friend who after working 60-hour weeks for some time went to his doctor seeking stress-related leave. The doctor shocked him by responding: “You really are a bad employee, aren’t you!” After for so long having put his whole existence, family life and personhood at the disposal of his employer, in this case a church, he found himself having to take extended time away from work, creating difficulties for all round him. He was indeed short-changing those who employed and depended on him.

Leaders in whatever setting have a particular responsibility to pursue self-care, because dysfunction affects not only themselves but the whole organisation. We can see this by analogy to the family, where the emotional health of each parent has a profound effect on all members of the family. Systems theory applies this to groups of people, churches, work places. It is not that all problems can be blamed on the personality or maturity of the parents or the leaders (“pilot error”), or even on just one awkward individual. Triggers for a crisis may arise from inside or outside. But how the crisis is handled and resolved is impacted by the maturity of leaders who are able, through knowing themselves well, to maintain a non-anxious presence in the midst of the situation.

I am making this argument for self-care mainly in emotional and physical terms because it is too easy for Christians to jump straight into spiritualising our well-being when the biblical understanding of personhood is that we are body-persons, to-be-resurrected people, who express our spirituality through our bodies, the “power pack” of the spirit, to use Dallas Willard’s expression. Spiritual maturity is very important and fostered by pursuit of disciplines of abstinence and engagement. And they are another way of reinforcing to us that it matters what we do in our bodies. But emotional healing and maturity, self-differentiation, have value in themselves as well enabling us to give attention to spiritual growth and to serving others.

In our congregations, we too quickly blame theological differences (or even satanic opposition) for conflict that leads to dysfunction, when more often it is caused by lack of emotional and interpersonal maturity or an inability to separate personal issues from the demands of relationships both within and outside the community. What are needed are mature being-healed leaders who have given attention to their own functioning and by their calm response to the crisis are able to facilitate resolution and reconciliation. 

First fix your own oxygen supply? Yes, including all what it means to be humans-on-the-way-to-healing. It will involve physical and emotional disciplines as well as spiritual ones, but always for the sake of others with whom we are called into relationship.


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