Unsettling the table

At this point in the semester, the stresses that our studies, relationships and society in general impose on us often reach a critical mass. A friend of mine recently mentioned that she is quick to feed her close friends whenever cooking becomes too great a challenge to take on, aware of their occasional need to be cared for.

When we prepare food out of sympathy, we do so not because we recognize the virtue of cooking, but because we are well aware of how stresses can accumulate to the point that cooking seems unimaginable. My friend’s example of caring for others who are not able to care for themselves reveals how inadequate the principle of self-care can be.

We encourage each other to stay healthy, find time to relax and hold on to patience and hope in the face of numerous challenges. With the best of intentions, we tell others to take care of themselves. However, in these well wishes, the principle of self-care is more dogmatic than it is helpful.

Above all, the principle of self-care asserts that we should care for the self. Our experiences in a world of deadlines, unkindness, violence, and so on, produce an affective response that is felt personally.

Self-care culture says that if the problem is based on our own individual reactions to the world, unjust as it may be, then the solution must also come from the individual.

This mentality doesn’t mean that we can’t care for others, but it does suggest that care happens between individuals, when, in reality, care should also take into account what causes distress, not just who’s affected. 

Though we’ve learned to validate emotions, splurge on feel-good food and create places of comfort, self-care culture assumes that care is accessible to all. While meditation, an evening stroll or a comforting meal may be readily available to many, this mode of thought makes the experience of feeling okay susceptible to commodification.

By enjoying self-care as if it were a commodity, we often stop short of organizing relief for those who are unable to do so themselves.

However therapeutic yoga classes, shopping sprees and dinners out are, they are not universally available; not everyone is able to afford to spend the money or time on these experiences of feeling good. When we are able to afford self-care, it becomes even more difficult to recognize how exclusive commodified feel-good experiences can be.

Often, insisting on self-care produces a distance between what we conceptualize as our own reality and the realities of others. The doctrine of self-care supposes that not only good health, but also sickness, violence and discrimination are simply personally felt, and are not systemic features of the world as well.

Even when we care for others, the logic of self-care still persists. We confuse caring for others with assisting others in caring for themselves. Empathy, rather than sympathy, becomes the currency of care when we no longer recognize our own place in the lives of others.

Practising sympathy reveals the absurdity in scrolling past image after image of acts of oppression while saying, “They better take care.” If self-care is meaningful, it is because it restores our capacity for sympathy and allows us to stand resolutely – to act – for the care of others. Sympathy, and not the insistence of self-care, forces us to ask ourselves what else is possible.

By rejecting the distance that separates our own experiences from the trauma of others, sympathetic care leads us to organize for others, sparking soup kitchens and community programs. It compels us to work for the justice of those we love.

Sympathy asks what is needed and what is felt by those we care for and compels us to act accordingly.

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