A friend on Facebook recently started a thread asking, "What is the most important thing in life?" There were many good answers: family, compassion, learning from experience. I didn't have to think long about mine, I quickly set aside my first answer, (French roast coffee and Elvis Costello) and I went with my other go-to answer for most things: kindness. There's a Henry James quote I love, that sums it up nicely, "Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind."
I'm no kindness expert. I know at times I fail, but when a question arises, I look for my answer in another question, "What is the kind thing to do?" Often this is kindness to others but I also try to remember to offer this kindness to myself. That is often more difficult.
Writer Anne Lamott often talks about self care, referring to it as radical. "Radical self-care means that I gently bust myself out of the desperate lifelong need to please, and it means that I start to say no as a complete sentence."
The lesson that self-care is as important as care for others can be tough for a people-pleaser like myself. I'm told it's like when on an airplane, if the cabin loses pressure, we are to secure our own oxygen mask first, and then help others. My problem is, I want to make sure everyone has had enough waffles and is wearing clean underwear before I breathe into my mask and by then I will have passed out on my tray-table.
The concept of offering kindness to ourselves is especially difficult for those dealing with other "bigger" things, like raising children, supporting a partner, helping aging parents, or giving your all to a job. Fear of letting others down at the expense of ourselves is not kind, and at its worst it can lead to resentment of the things we love. I do not get extra Jesus-points for wearing myself down to a sighing martyr, still in pajamas at noon, who could use a shower.
Self care does not have to look like an impossibly expensive spa day or running away to join an ashram, although that doesn't sound so bad. It's saying no to one more obligation, it's letting the dishes sit and reading a book for a few minutes. It's a tiny bit of whatever makes you feel more like the you in your favorite version of yourself.
I must very gently take myself by the hand, and sit down with a quiet moment and a cup of that French roast coffee and breathe in the oxygen. It's the kind thing to do, and that's important.