Love the One You’re With (Er… Yourself)

Post Author: Ann Bonner-Stewart

I hadn’t meant to not take a day off. It just happened. What with a diocesan convention here, a religious arts festival there, some pastoral care emergencies, Lenten planning, and of course, the weekly parade of bulletins, committee meetings, and sermons, it had just been easier to keep going. For me, taking time off sometimes feels like one more thing on the never-ending to-do list.

The local Barnes and Noble is just waiting for people like me—poor little overworked professional white women, desperate for guidance. There are a myriad of new self-help resources that could be used to justify why any of us should love ourselves by doing things like taking some time off. However, a desire for ways to take care of ourselves doesn’t have to take its cue from an increasingly individualized, consumerist culture. Though I’m certainly not above leafing through O magazine (ahem), I try to think theologically, too.

My own rationalization theology of self-care, of doing things like taking time off, when I’m actually able to do it, that is, stems from “the greatest commandment”:

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (NRSV, Matthew 22:36-40; Leviticus 19:18).

In other words, love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably intertwined. These verses are most often read as a call to curb the self-centeredness that seems to plague humanity; I know sometimes I need to hear it that way. However, some people, often women, are socialized to put others’ needs and wants first. Self-annihilation rather than selfishness is occasionally the default.

Maybe I’m the only one, but sometimes, if I loved my neighbor as myself, I’d be just barely tolerating her. On some Wednesdays, I’m still berating myself for preaching what I deemed to be a mediocre Sunday sermon. Often the only way I could have made the sermon “better” would have been if I had written on my day off. Would I have such unrealistic expectations of someone else? More often than not, the answer is no. I would give someone else the benefit of the doubt before I would even consider cutting myself some slack. For me, the great commandment is sometimes an invitation not to give myself the proverbial shaft.

In order to get myself out of that little recovering perfectionist brain loop, I practice the one kind of self-care at which I’m okay—I go to the gym. When I feel stuck in my mind or spirit, which happens almost daily for me, the easiest thing for me to do to realign is to hit the gym. When I’m frustrated or angry, I go lift weights. When I’m tired, I do some cardio. When I’m completely frazzled, I try to find a yoga class.

When it comes down to it, when I’m not taking care of myself–when I haven’t been to the gym in a while, when I’m working ridiculous hours, or when I’m not keeping in touch with my friends–I’m laboring under my own delusions of grandeur. If I’ve learned anything at all from this thing called the priesthood, it’s that I’m not fully in control. It doesn’t matter how long or hard I work; I cannot save the world. I can’t even save myself or my congregation. Fortunately, that’s not in my job description. My job, as I see it, is to try to be a good steward of that with which I have been entrusted, and that includes me, too.

I’ll probably never be the poster child for excellent self-care. I imagine my life getting more, not less, full in the coming years, and that it’ll get harder and harder to take care of myself. I probably won’t always take my day off; I might not have my so-called yearly physical for a while yet. The only thing I can try to do is to let go of my own ideas of what and who I should be and try to live with who I really am—a recovering perfectionist in need of the Triune God’s grace just as much as the next person.

Ann Bonner-Stewart serves as the associate rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Greenville, North Carolina and the managing editor of Fidelia. After the conversation detailed in the opening paragraph, the altar guild chair dialed a local massage therapist and shoved the phone into Ann's hand.

Image by: David Lezcano
Used with permission
5 replies
  1. Marcie
    Marcie says:

    Wow. This is exactly what I needed to read today. I need to print this and post it in my office! Sometimes it is hard to remember who the real Messiah is.

  2. cpclergymama
    cpclergymama says:

    Great article! I heard a lecture on this topic using the parable of the good samaritan by Dr. Stevenson-Mossner (sp?) of Perkins school of theology. She talked specifically about how the samaritan took time to care for the wounded man, even taking him to an inn for further treatment, then he continued on his way. Sometimes we forget to continue and take care of ourselves and our own needs. And that’s not only okay, its necessary!

  3. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    Following up on the comment by cpclergymama — I once heard a preacher notice that the “punchline” for the Good Samaritan story (said to a male) was — “GO AND DO LIKEWISE”… while in the pericope immediately preceding this one (Mary and Martha) the punchline (to a woman) was, in essence, to sit and be… or don’t just DO something… sit there! hmmmmmm.


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