Choosing Self(ishly?)

A conversation I had with myself on the way out of therapy today (3 pm):

Me: I’m exhausted. I have an hour before I have to pick up kids. I should do something nice for myself, like rest. Or eat. Wait, when was the last time I ate? Breakfast?

Other Me: But you said you’d make that hospital visit. You really should do that.

Me: *shudders remembering the last two times I’ve been to the hospital, where Marrett died. I came out shaking and had to scream cry in my car for a while before I was safe to drive*

Other Me: Seriously though, it will get easier the more you do it. And J is literally dying, you might not see her again if you don’t go today. Plus, you told your colleague you would. He’s been picking up a lot of your slack lately. You should stop disappointing him. He’s supposed to be on vacation.

Me: Great. Now I’ve got 45 minutes until I pick up the kids. Screw obligation, and what I said earlier. I am not inflicting more pain on myself today. I’m going home to feed myself.

OM: *scowling internally, trying to shame me with THAT look*

End scene.

Do I sound completely nuts, or do you have these conversations with yourself too? If you are in a helping profession like me, or someone who identifies as a woman like me, or a parent like me, you’ve been conditioned over many years to put yourself last. Take care of others’ pain with compassion, and deal with your own pain on your own time. Nobody says it quite as starkly as that, but the message comes across loud and clear.

And honestly, some of that is good boundary-setting, necessary to do the job I do. It’s not healthy pastoring to bleed your own wounds over those who come to you wounded. That training of being able to put aside my own pain has served me well in pastoring. And in parenting. It’s what allows me to stay calm when my child says the exact thing I’ve dreaded hearing from them, moving my own hurt to the side for a moment so I can see what they need.

As a widow though, putting myself last is dangerous. The pain of losing Marrett is so enormous that it’s like a constant scream in my ears. I can’t even hear the pain of those around me. When I do, I can’t bring myself to care about it. The screaming threatens to escape my lips in the form of angry words, misdirected at those who had no part in causing M’s death. The screaming comes out in the shower, when the children are not home, in hopes that it will not peek out and terrify them while I snuggle them to sleep at night.

If I do not take the time to care for this pain, it might kill me. Literally. Widows are 66% more likely to die in the first three months after a spouse’s death than married people of the same age.

Yet every time I choose me, like I did for one measly hour this afternoon, I feel guilty. I feel disappointed in myself. I feel sure others are disappointed too. For so long, I have equated choosing self with being selfish, a trait both my faith and my training teach me to despise.

Marrett’s death has re-ordered my life, in a way that I still can’t comprehend. It only makes sense that it will re-order my priorities too. If he is not here to care for me, then caring for myself becomes one more job that I must do alone. It is irresponsible to put myself last when I am the only one who can tend this wound.

I mean, I guess Jesus is helping too, but he’s making me do the heavy lifting.

I am reminded as I write this of my favorite quote from my favorite mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux. He said ” The [one] who is wise, therefore, will see their life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself … Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare … You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God.”

So here I go, learning again to fill up before I pour out, knowing full well that the emptiness needing to be filled is greater than it ever has been. I will try to reject the guilt that rises when I put my own needs first, remembering that choosing self is not choosing selfishly.

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