I have recently had several conversations involving the concept of “self-care” which seems to be a popular idea at the moment. This fashion strikes me as somewhat odd. Here I’ll try to explain why.

A doctor colleague talked of how she had given up working in hospital and taken to private practice because the hospital required her sometimes to work 36 hour shifts. She called this change an act of self-care. I understand what she means, but... if not mutilating oneself is “self-care” then, of course, I am all for it, but it seems to be a rather strange use of language to call it so. Is it self-care to not sit on a bed of nails, or not to put one’s hand in the fire?

On another occasion a person advised me that perhaps I should pay more attention to self-care. I asked him what he meant. He said that self-care meant getting a proper diet, exercise, rest and the like. Well, I do all of that already, but I don’t consider doing so to be a special discipline or prescription, it is just living life in a sensible manner.

It would appear that what people mean by self-care is living life naturally. If we have reached such a pitch of unnaturalness in the way most people live that we need to adopt a special programme to be in line with what should be natural then things have indeed reached a point of serious distortion.

We should care for one another. If hospitals require their doctors to work 36 hour shifts then they are failing in their duty of care for their staff. If doctors collude with this, they are failing in their duty to their patients. If they stop cooperating with it, this is not self-care, it is rebellion against an unjust system. One might say that this is just playing with words, but the way that one thinks of something makes a difference. To stop cooperating with an unjust system is not a selfish act. I am resistant to the idea of making selfishness into a virtue.

Behind the idea of self-care there seems to be a philosophy that if everybody cares for him or herself all will be well with the world, but this is basically a philosophy of selfishness, not much different from the theory of economics that each should seek to maximise his own profit and utility. It also seems to imply that we do not need to care for one another because it is their responsibility (not ours) to care for themselves.

The way of heaven is a different matter. A better world is one where people care for one another and for other sentient beings. It is also one where we adapt to natural circumstance and do not need artificial procedures to achieve what should come naturally.

We modern people do tend to live seriously unnatural lives and so, perhaps, there is a place for this imperative to undertake a self-care regime, but it seems to me a rather sad state of affairs. Of course, city life is bound to be unnatural in some degree. I live in the country and i do not need a gymnasium: I get my exercise digging the garden and collecting wood for winter.

When I look around me I see a remarkably large number of people who are seriously over-weight. This is a result of eating more than they need, not getting exercise, consuming alcohol and having a diet that is overly laden with sugar and fat. Such people could undertake a self-care regime and go regularly to the gym or swimming pool, but wouldn’t it have been better not to have erred in the first place? When we see the disadvantage of something, isn't it just sensible to desist?

All of this has much to do with the stress of modern living. If I drive along a single carriageway road at the speed limit, I often find there is a string of cars behind me all urgently agitating to get past and go faster. We have succumbed to a collective insanity. Rather than seeking reparative measures, we should really be calming down and living in a more sensible manner so that such mania ceases to be normal.

So, I am not really opposed to the measures that people call self-care, but I think that there is a better way of thinking about it and a more natural way of living. My mother would have called it “being sensible” and the Buddha would have said "Cease from harm, do only good, do good for others."

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once again "self" seems to be the stumbling stone. Everything might be much easier in terms "care" instead of "self-care". Care can be of course concern about ourselves but it's inclusive of others.  The case of the doctor is highly illustrative. She could have said: "I changed my way of working in order to better care my patients. I couldn't work well while at risk of burn-out. I've chosen to better care my patients through taking more care of myself".  The other way round it's trivial (even understandable) selfishness.  It's a matter of intention, and self-care frequently reveals intentions which are mostly of a desperately inward nature. 

Thanks, Massimo. Good observation. There can be a certain modesty in taking something upon oneself. One says "I did it for me," when in fact one actually did what one believed to be one's duty - did what was right and proper to do - but does not want to claim credit. But then, on the other side, you are right that our "desperately inward nature" endlessly churns away out of sight and distorts even our best intentions.

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