Sermon #19 (2nd October 2016 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
Compassion is something that we talk about quite a lot here in church. It is perhaps one of the key religious values, or practices, one which cuts across many different traditions. Many of you may be aware of the ‘Charter for Compassion’ – a campaign launched by the writer and popular theologian Karen Armstrong in 2009 – she used this central value of compassion as a focal point to bring together individuals and organisations of all faiths and none, inviting them – inviting us – to sign up to a set of affirmations about the need to reaffirm and enact compassion in every sphere of our lives (and our own religious denomination here in the UK, The General Assembly of Unitarian Free Christian Churches, officially became a signatory of the Charter for Compassion a year or two after its launch, endorsing its call for a restoration of compassion as the central value of religion and morality).
So, I’m sure you’ll be reassured to know, we’re officially in favour of compassion! That’s the party line, as it were, and it’s probably one of the least contentious generalisations you can make about Unitarians… But we don’t talk about self-compassion quite so much. It seems to me when people hear the phrase ‘self-compassion’ (if they hear it at all) it conjures up thoughts of selfishness, self-centredness, self-indulgence, qualities quite at odds with the acts of self-giving and self-sacrifice which we might more readily associate with compassion.
Indeed the Charter for Compassion itself contains the following sentence: ‘Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.’
It seems to me that the phrase ‘to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world’ might play into the notion that everybody is important except ourselves. This idea seems to me to be slightly in tension with the final phrase, about ‘treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity, and respect’. Of course the Charter for Compassion was written with a certain agenda in mind – its focus was perhaps more about fostering points of connection between faiths – and its rush to do that it perhaps inadvertently did down the need for self-compassion. And in fact when Karen Armstrong wrote her follow-up book a few years later, ‘Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life’, step three was all about compassion for yourself. In that book she wrote: ‘The late Rabbi Albert Friedlander impressed upon me the importance of the biblical commandment “Love your neighbour as yourself.” I had always concentrated on the first part of that injunction, but Albert taught me that if you cannot love yourself, you cannot love other people either.’ She goes on to state that: ‘Once you have started to feel genuine compassion for yourself, [then] you will be able to extend it to others.’
This point seems really important to me and worth dwelling on for a moment. I expect many of you will have heard this comparison before but I often think of the analogy to the safety announcement that is made on airplanes – when the air steward tells you that in the event of an emergency you should be sure to put on your own oxygen mask first – before you start trying to help anyone else – because you’re not going to be any help to anyone else if you stop breathing. There are a lot of people out there (especially women) who feel it’s their duty to prioritise everybody else’s needs ahead of their own – selflessly taking care of everything and everyone except themselves – routinely and habitually putting their own needs last. But this is a way of being that is ultimately extremely wearing – it can lead to burnout, fatigue, and ill-health – not to mention resentment and distorted dynamics in relationships. Like we heard in the reading from Antony earlier on – we will feel the effects in the end. I would say – as in so many things – striving for a healthy balance of self-and-other is key.
The Quaker writer Parker J. Palmer takes the same idea a bit further, and draws out what we might call the religious dimension of self-care in the words that are on the front of your order of service today. He says: ‘Self-care is never a selfish act — it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to the true self and give it the care that it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.’
So – if we accept that self-care is ‘good stewardship’ which we do ‘not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch’ – perhaps we can move on to ask: what does self-care look like in practice? It will, of course, look a little different for each and every one of us. But there a few common strands that we can perhaps draw out and focus on to help each of us get a clearer sense of how we can practice self-care in our own lives.
The first, most basic strand of self-care is what we might call ‘maintenance’ or ‘adulting’. The original inspiration for today’s sermon was a rather blunt article called ‘What Nobody Tells You About Self-Care’ by Mawiyah Patten, which did the rounds online a few weeks ago. Here’s a little excerpt of her hard-won wisdom. ‘What people don’t often tell you is that self-care can be completely terrible. Self-care includes a lot of adult-ing, and activities you want to put off indefinitely. Self-care sometimes means making tough decisions which you fear others will judge. Self-care involves asking for help; it involves vulnerability; it involves being painfully honest with yourself and your loved ones about what you need…’ She also goes on to talk about attending to medical matters (making dental appointments and eye-tests, turning up for smears and mammograms), financial matters (bracing yourself to check your bank balance regularly, paying your bills) and practical domestic matters (like mending and maintaining the things about the house you need, staying vaguely on top of paperwork, and keeping a reasonably orderly environment). The sort of things that are all too easy to let slide when you are not looking after yourself. One way of motivating yourself to do this necessary but un-fun self-care is to think about your future self almost as a separate person. You’re doing a kindness for Future-You.
In that same article Mawiyah Patten also makes reference to the second strand of self-care that I want to mention – though she does so in a slightly backhanded way – and I’m going to call this strand ‘little boosts’. It’s the sort of self-care that you might be most likely to read about in glossy magazines. She says: ‘Typically when self-care is referenced, the speaker is referring to activities and experiences that bring you pleasure. “Go to a yoga class. Take a walk on a sunny day. Protect your leisure time. Get a [manicure]. Soak in a bubble bath. Treat yo’self.”’ And although she’s a bit flippant about it she also says: ‘Pleasure is great, and it is important. During seasons when I am depressed, I force myself to indulge in pleasure as though it were a lifeline… feeling bad all day, every day, is exhausting. It’s not good for your body, or your heart, or your psyche.’ When everything is getting on top of you, a bit of escapism is OK, I reckon – temporarily soothing or distracting activities can provide a ‘little boost’ to help you get by – watch undemanding TV, get out a jigsaw puzzle, go dancing, have the classic bubble bath – it’s not like you’re going to run away from your troubles or the world’s troubles forever. It is totally legitimate to claim a bit of breathing space to recover and regather yourself.
As an aside: the wonderful journalist-activist Laurie Penny has written a terrific article on this matter, entitled ‘Life Hacks of the Poor and Aimless’, in which she speaks up for self-care whilst offering a robust critique of what you might call the ‘wellness industry’. She notes that many of those who are most concerned about the state of the world, those of us who engage in various forms of activism to try and make things better, those people are full of compassion for others but often spectacularly bad at self-care. You might say that these people – us people? – often forget to put our own oxygen masks on in our rush to show concern to others and put things right in a world where the suffering and injustice around us seems overwhelming. Laurie Penny has got this to say on the matter: ‘The [hard, dull] work of self-care is about the everyday, impossible effort of getting up and getting through your life in a world that would prefer you cowed and compliant… I’m sick and tired of seeing the most brilliant people I know, the fighters and artists and mad radical thinkers whose lives’ work might actually improve the world, treat themselves (and each other) in ludicrously awful ways… I sometimes take a day off, because it became apparent that the revolution was not being driven any faster by my being sick and sad all the time. Late Capitalism is as good an excuse of any for not getting out of bed, but huddling under the covers worrying about Donald Trump is a very inefficient way of sticking it to the man.’
This brings us to a third strand of self-care – the sort we need in emergencies. If you take a look in your order of service you may already have discovered that along with your green hymn-sheet there also is a little blue worksheet and on the back of that there is something entitled ‘Everything is Awful and I’m Not OK’. This is a transcript of something that has been circulating online for a while now – it’s primarily aimed at people who are in a very bad way, maybe with depression – but I think it’s something which may contain nuggets of practical wisdom for each of us. When we get into a bit of a state of one sort or another the sort of self-care that is called for is more like first-aid. And I think it’s useful to have a list like this on hand to help keep us afloat – prompting us to attend to our basic physical needs, emotional needs, social needs – and giving us a few nudges to change our perspective and help us hold on until something shifts.
The fourth and final strand of self-care that I want to highlight kind-of takes us back to where we started. It’s about working on our underlying attitudes and habits. And as such you might say it’s about self-compassion as a spiritual practice. About unreservedly including ourselves in our circle of compassion and simply being a little bit kinder to ourselves, in good times and bad. As you’ll see, on this little blue slip, there’s space for you to give this some thought, some questions and prompts relating to all four of these strands of self-care, which you could ponder when you get home to start assembling your own ‘self-care toolkit’. With that in mind, I’ll close with a few words by the UU minister Sandra Fees, who says: ‘Self-compassion allows us to embrace ourselves with kindness when things are going well and when they aren’t going so well. It provides us with a balance, with a stability in our emotional life. We can begin to see our own inherent worth and dignity, and honour it… Compassion is a human need. We each need to love and be loved… As with compassion toward others, compassion toward self takes commitment and practice. May we learn to be good friends to ourselves.’
Sermon by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this sermon is available: