Since coming to college, I’ve noticed an emphasis on self-care, which I understand to mean the actions one takes to preserve one’s own health and well-being. Especially since the beginning of the pandemic, I have adopted habits to keep me grounded and healthy, like taking walks and baking to de-stress. Encouraging people to take stock of their mental health and build healthy habits has clear, unambiguous good effects. But at times, our understanding of self-care can become a complete prioritization of the self in a way that overlooks the fundamentals of living as a person in community. If I am prioritizing myself in all situations, this will come into tension with how I prioritize the communities of which I am a part. While I have responsibilities to myself, I also have responsibilities to others.
The question of responsibility isn’t abstract. In life we are faced with dilemmas on how we prioritize ourselves versus others. There are many things I know I should, or should not, do, but often it’s easier, more comfortable, or more fun to do something else. Beyond everyday worries posed by activities, hobbies, and people, I do not know how to determine my priorities when larger tensions between my desires and my responsibilities to others come into play.
As I prepare to graduate and make postgrad plans, I have asked myself to whom am I obligated, whether that is my own beliefs, family, or friends, and therefore what I owe, whether that be time, money, or geographic proximity. While I may hope to achieve some balance between my own desires and my obligations, the word “balance” can be misleading. Sometimes, desires and obligations are mutually exclusive. When I weigh my obligations to my family and my struggling community in Appalachia against my desire to not move back home in at least the near future, a pit in my stomach opens and I wonder whether, if in ten years I’ve still shirked my duties to the community that raised me, I’ll be able to look at myself in the mirror.
If I choose to focus on myself in every situation, I will likely end friendships prematurely, abandon posts to which I owe a real obligation, and lose control chasing the newest trends as they please me. The language of self-care seems to lead logically to the idea of the individual as the most important unit. However, this individualism can have profoundly negative effects not only on communities, but also on ourselves. The individual cannot exist without community. The poet John Donne famously wrote that “No man is an island entire of itself; every man / is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Christianity does not imagine Paradise as a place of solitude — Eden is populated by two people, not one, and Heaven is traditionally seen as a communion both with saints and with God. Even the concept of the Trinity — three figures in a singular Godhead — emphasizes the innately communal aspects of faith and life. How does one know when to prioritize their individual happiness over other obligations and vice versa? And, in the long run, will prioritizing individual happiness over responsibilities really make us that happy?
I had never thought about the thorn in St. Paul’s flesh beyond some abstract hypothetical until recently. Perhaps that is because I am now older, wiser, more mature, and possessing adult problems, that I am able to realize that every pain we experience is a thorn of the kind Paul discusses. While the decision to move back home to Appalachia or not has left me confused and torn, Paul’s writing on hardships encouraged me. The apostle writes that
“a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10 ESV).
While my current hardships are not the same that Paul suffered, the answer Paul received is just as applicable to me. As much as we may try to avoid suffering, it is not wholly in our power to rid ourselves of griefs. When my desires and my obligations contradict, there is not an easy way to prioritize the two. By placing myself at the center of my world, I may even cause greater pains and alienation. However, when I have healthy habits for dealing with stress, I can better fulfill my responsibilities to others, and in community we can withstand thorns together that we would be unable to as solitary individuals. Likewise, ascetic acts during Lent bind the church together in expectation and preparation for God through our denials. The God that weeps for humanity calls us to something bigger than solitary sorrow or solitary pleasure. By accepting both hardships and joys, we embrace something better than temporary happiness. We embrace Christ.
Sharla Moody is a senior at Yale majoring in English.