On Self Care and Social Responsibility
I have a coaching report in hand to share from last weekend, but am interrupting usual service, on this day of the UK’s referendum on EU membership, to reflect on coping strategies in times of anger and anxiety. In recent weeks, both mainstream and social media seem to have been full of things that make me sad or worried or outraged or all three, to the point that it sometimes feels like I’m living in a work of dystopian speculative fiction. I can’t be doing with the emotional pain.
It is sensible in such circumstances to step back. Don’t keep reading the things that make you angry; turn away from the outrageous headlines; stop feeding the anxiety.
Yet, this approach to self care feels like a counsel of despair: turning away from the world, because the world is a bad place to be. Disengagement feels like giving up. It is also - I note because my empathy is still functioning after a fashion - a response available only to those of us privileged enough to lead safe lives.
The problem is essentially the one Stephen Covey identifies as the discrepancy between our circles of influence and our circles of concern. There are lots of things that are worrying by their potential to impact our lives, but about which we can do very little. The Brexit debate is a classic case in point; such major consequences hanging over us, and only one vote each. No wonder so many people spend their days shouting into the void - though mostly to other people who already agree with them, or (if they don’t) are already fixed in their opinions and shouting for the other side.
The US presidential election (or ‘presidential slow-motion car crash’ as I tend to think of it) has a similar feel. And all the more worrying for those of us who can only watch on in hope that sense will prevail.
And into this emotional quagmire drops a wonderful post on social media from my fellow arranger Joey Minshall. She talks about spending time playing the piano, then gardening, then making socks for someone, then re-writing a tag for a quartet. And it struck me: this is self care that may step away from the roar of world events, but it doesn’t step away from the world. It looks around for what is within her circle of influence and works on that. It is not just that all of these activities are creative - increasing the beauty and complexity in the world - but three of them are acts of service, doing something for other people.
(I am counting plants as other people in this context, you’ll note. Which doesn’t make sense in classic taxonomy, but will make sense to anyone who has ever done any gardening.)
This observation, in turn, reminded me of my new year’s post a few years back, in which I analysed the criteria my life needed to fulfil for me to feel satisfied with it. Creativity and being useful to others were two major categories. But so was a balance between local and global levels of activity: home and neighbourhood, versus acting in the wider world. It is important to reconnect with the immediate environs where we can make a difference when the world is being horrible - but is that enough?
And then I thought: Joey didn’t just do those wholesome and life-affirming things, she also told her friends around the world. Social media can bring us the overwhelming horror of things, but it can also open a window into the grass-roots acts of love and nurture happening half a planet away. And, because my empathy is still functioning after a fashion, she reminded me to value and join in with them.
So, in writing this post, I am paying forward the service she did for me in helping ground me at a time of existential distress. Let us all tend our gardens, and each other, and let us make music to calm and order each other’s jumbled spirits. And in the bigger picture, let us work out what it is possible to do, do it, and then go and cook something tasty and nutritious for someone we love.