I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions. Like a lot of people, I spend the last few days of December and first few days of January reflecting about what has happened in the past year and what I want to happen in the upcoming year. I review the goals that I set for myself at the beginning of the academic year, and make adjustments. But I don’t really do resolutions in the traditional sense. In 2020, I did a vision board for the first time. You know how that turned out. Thanks, COVID-19.
This year I’m eschewing both resolutions and vision boards. Instead, I’ll stick to the same commitment that I’ve made to myself for the past five years: strengthening my commitment to my self-care rule of life.
Since 2015, I’ve been using a rule of life as the structure for my self-care disciplines. I’ve been teaching students in my spiritual formation classes to do the same. In 2022, I’m inviting my readers, friends, and colleagues to join me. On Saturday, January 15, I’ll be hosting a 2.5 hour virtual workshop, Self-Care as a Way of Life. In it, I’ll teach participants what self-care is about (hint: it’s not spa days) and how we can use it to enhance our health and well-being. Then I’ll walk you through the steps to develop your own self-care rule of life.
So if you’re ready to level up your self-care for 2022, come join me. The cost is $35. Space is limited, so reserve your spot now. And be sure to share with friends who might be interested.
Oh how easily the best laid plans go awry. I’m only three weeks into the semester and I’ve already realized that my schedule isn’t working for me. I’m facing a choice: (A) continue pressing through with the plan that I set up two months ago; or (B) change the plan to adapt to my current reality. It’s time to reset.
My weekly schedule template began about six years ago as an exercise to figure out how to fit in everything I needed to do in a week. After a year of breast cancer treatment, I was ready to start writing again and wanted to protect my writing time. I was committed to actively recovering from my cancer diagnosis and treatment. I had a ton of complementary and alternative healthcare appointments and classes, not to mention thrice weekly YMCA swims and workouts. And I was trying to do that while navigating a full teaching schedule, office hours, meetings, an institutional reaccreditation process, and developing an online degree program.
Doing all that required more than a to-do list. It required thinking carefully about how I spent my time each day. Voila! The template was born.
Just before each semester, I create a chart that details my planned workflow for each weekday (I use Excel for this). I start by listing the responsibilities that are set in stone: classes, faculty and committee meetings, and chapel. Next I schedule the high priority tasks that need protected, regular time: writing and office hours. Then I add in everything else. All the while, I do a lot of reflecting: What kind of rhythms work for me? What’s realistic given my self-care needs and energy limitations? How much time do certain tasks really need? Where is space for self-care?
The process takes days. When it’s done, I have a nice color-coded chart. I print three copies, posting one in my campus office, one in my home office, and one in my actual planner. Each Sunday afternoon, I plan my week ahead by consulting my template.
I admit: I got a bit ahead of myself this semester. I suspected that I needed to hold off on putting my template together until I began to get a better feel for the demands of starting a new job in the midst of a pandemic. But I’m a planner. I had to have a plan. So I developed one.
Just three weeks into the semester, it’s clear my plan isn’t working. I’ve spent too many afternoons feeling fidgety and/or exhausted in my campus office. I can’t seem to do work that requires creative output (like writing). Maybe it’s the weirdness of pandemic campus energy. Maybe three years of sabbatical, medical leave, and virtual teaching have eroded my endurance for working on campus. Who knows? All I know is that it’s not working. It’s time to reset.
That’s easier said than done. After all, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my schedule template for this semester. I set office hours based on it and communicated those hours to students. They’re on the syllabus, for God’s sake! How could I possibly change course mid-stream?
But it’s either change course mid-stream or continue fighting against the current. Quite frankly, I’m not that strong a swimmer. As much as I hate to do it, it’s time to reset, again.
Saying no has been one of my self-care basics for a long time. But some no’s are harder to give than others.
Earlier this year I discovered a saying that’s been attributed to Warren Buffett: “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” Now I’m pretty sure that Buffett and I have different ideas of success, but the statement still connects with me.
The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.
Even though I think I say no a lot, I haven’t been saying it enough. I mean, I thought I was being judicious by prioritizing requests that are central to my sense of personal mission and that come from people I know and respect. The problem is that I know a lot of people who are doing fantastic things: writing books, hosting podcasts, producing films, and leading ministries that are life-giving and revolutionary. I want to be supportive. Plus, I’m a pleaser and overachiever who feels guilty about saying no. So when they ask me to speak or preach or write, I say yes.
It’s as if I have a subconscious cap on the allotment of no’s that I can give. I don’t even know what the cap is. Maybe it’s 10 percent. All I know is that saying no to one request makes me likely to say yes to the next one.
Unfortunately, every yes I give to someone else’s dream is a “no” (or at best, a “not yet”) to my own projects. The constant crush of deadlines means that I keep pushing off things that I feel uniquely called and equipped to do.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been revisiting Buffett’s quote, recognizing that it’s no longer enough for me to say no to some things or even lots of things. I need to say no to almost everything.
And that’s hard. Like the vibrantly colored doors in the photo below, each invitation beckons me to a delightful destination on the other side. But every door I enter takes me away from the work that I have to do on this side. So I’m closing a lot of doors from this point forward.
Maybe if I get an invitation at the precise moment that I need to take a break I’ll do that. For now, though, “Thanks, but no.”
As a seminary professor in the US, my life is organized around at least four different calendars. There’s the Gregorian calendar, which divides our year into the twelve months it takes the earth to journey around the sun. And while the Gregorian calendar was named after a pope, it is distinct from the liturgical calendar, the cycle of Christian liturgical seasons beginning with Advent in late November. There’s the fiscal year, which is used for financial reporting. In many academic institutions, that starts on July 1, which is when most new faculty positions technically begin. The fiscal year is distinct still from the academic year, the way that academic institutions divide their calendars into semesters or quarters.
The benefit of all these different calendars is that I have multiple opportunities each year to reevaluate and reset the practices and rhythms that I follow to enhance my well-being. Whereas many people do this at New Year’s, I also do it at the beginning of each semester and summer, as well as during Advent and Lent.
This month, I am beginning a new academic year at a new institution. It’s a major transition. I’ve learned that even good transitions – and this is a really good, long desired change – bring about stress. There are the big changes: packing and moving and unpacking and rearranging office spaces; developing new courses and revising existing courses to fit the needs of students in the new context; and launching new programs and initiatives. But there are also tons of seemingly small adjustments that have to be made on a daily basis. Like this syllabus that needs to be copied: where and how exactly do I do that? Does it have to be sent somewhere? Can I just show up at the copy machine on the morning of class and make the copies myself? Where is the copy machine anyway? Do I need a code? Will there be a line of professors all trying to do the same thing at the same time? I didn’t even have to think about these things last year; it was an automated decision. Now, though, simple tasks require a few more steps, and that uses energy.
This is my fifth time starting a faculty position. It is the first time that I’ve recognized beforehand that I need to allow space and time for transition. This means not filling up my calendar and to-do lists in the ways that I normally would. Earlier this year, I began turning down requests that came my way to participate in conference panels, contribute to edited volumes, and serve on boards. “I’ll be transitioning next academic year so I need to minimize my external commitments.” I’ve said no to a lot of good things. I’ve had to ask myself some hard questions about what my priorities are.
When you move into a new position, you move into other people’s hopes and expectations of who you will be. If you are a people-pleaser, you will be tempted to conform yourself into those hopes and expectations. You figure out who they want you to be and then you try to be that. I have done that with every new faculty position. The result has been that transitions have had a deleterious impact upon my health.
Fortunately, I’m not that woman anymore. This time, I face a new beginning not by asking who my new colleagues and students want me to be, but asking how this new space can empower me to be more authentically me. This time, I’m facing transition mindfully, with a clearer sense of my own needs, desires, and power to choose. Along the way, I’ll be writing about it. I invite you to join along with me.
Last year, I had a chance to contribute to a collection of prayers written by a diverse group of Christian women. Curated by Sarah Bessey, A Rhythm of Prayer debuted earlier this year and made bestseller lists in Canada and the United States.
It is a strongly worded prayer. Modeled after the imprecatory psalms, it begins, “Dear God, please help me to hate White people.” Since it’s already circulating online, I’m including the full text below. I urge you to purchase the book as well.
Let me share a bit of background about the prayer. I wrote it in a heated moment. A White person – someone whom I would have called a friend – dropped the N-word in a casual conversation. Notice that I didn’t write it out. That’s because I don’t. I don’t say it either, especially not with a hard -er. The word is traumatic for me. I am a lifelong southerner who is only one generation removed from sharecropping. My family history is full of racial trauma. When my paternal grandfather was 7, he and his father ran away from the White South Carolina farmer for whom they sharecropped. This would have been around 1915, fifty years after the end of slavery, and they had to escape under the cover of darkness because sharecropping was just another form of slavery. Later, his family would be the second Black family to move onto his street; his children would integrate their high schools, putting their educations in the hands of racist White teachers who did not honor their potential. And that’s just one side of my family; my maternal side has similar stories, including the murder of a family member who was a civil rights activist. The N-word is not a word we use because it is a word that comes with memory, painful and traumatic memory.
So I was hella triggered when that person used the N-word. And I was already past deadline for my contribution. I could have done a lot with that rage. I could have sought vengeance, maybe putting the person on social media blast in order to try to ruin their reputation. But I didn’t. I took my rage to God as the psalmists and the prophets did before me.
I didn’t even ask God to take revenge on my enemies as the psalmists often did. I took my anger to God. I owned it. I was truthful to God about what I was struggling with, because I believe that the God who knows us intimately can handle anything we bring. I raged against the different types of White Christians who make the journey toward racial justice so hard.
But then, as the imprecatory psalms often do, I turned it. I prayed for God not to let anger and hatred overwhelm me. I asked to be able to continue to love those who hate me. I prayed to remain true to the biblical mandate for peace, justice and reconciliation even when I have very little hope of its possibility.
A few days ago, a Virginia pastor decided to post multiple screenshots of my prayer on Twitter, saying, “This kind of thinking is a direct result of CRT and is completely anti-biblical.” CRT is a reference to critical race theory, which conservatives have been attacking for months. Since then, his followers and other conservatives have targeted me for attack, harassing me through email, phone, and social media. In addition, they have bombarded my institution. Multiple conservative media outlets have picked up the story.
The “critics” – a word I use lightly since this is not good-faith engagement – are willfully misinterpreting the prayer (and also critical race theory), to an extent that can only be explained by hermeneutical incompetence or willful maliciousness. This is part of a pattern of abusive behavior that is being waged largely against Black women scholars and clergy who do intersectional justice work.
In all truth, my familial and personal experiences of racism have given me thousands, maybe even millions, of reasons to hate White people. It could easily be seen as justified. And I could find biblical precedent for it.
But dammit if God hasn’t given me a different spirit, one that insists on looking for goodness and possibility, one that holds holy rage and holy hope together. Many Black women can connect to that prayer, especially those of us who labor for justice within and beyond the church. Loving people who are committed to hating us – to disenfranchising us, incarcerating us, and abusing us in myriad other ways – is hard. And still, we persist.
I can’t believe it’s the end! Thank you to everyone who’s followed (and continuing to visit) this series. Be sure to sign up for my mailing list if you want to stay updated. I plan to offer a Rule of Life workshop soon.
Practicing good, consistent self-care requires knowing your needs and developing a plan to which you can hold yourself accountable. For me, that has come in the form of a rule of life – “a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness” (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast). Developed by monastic communities as a way of shaping communal life, many people use a personal rule of life to nurture their spiritual development.
But we are not just souls. We are body-mind-spirits-in-relationship. Thus, a rule of life is not just about growing in holiness. It is about growing in wholeness.
A personal rule of life should include practices to promote wholeness and vitality in our spiritual, physical, emotional, and relational well-being (mine also includes intellectual and missional). Wellness, of course, is relative. Your idea of wellness needs to be tailored to your unique needs, capabilities, and health concerns.
Spend some time this weekend drafting your own rule of life. Consider the disciplines and practices that you need to engage in to be well. Some practices are daily; others might be weekly, monthly, quarterly, or yearly. Start small. Mine started out with just a few practices but has grown over the years as I’ve learned more about my needs. A rule of life should be aspirational; make it challenging but realistic.
If you want to take it a step further, create a poster of your rule of life and put it someplace that will serve as a reminder to you. I keep mine in my planner as well as on my office and bedroom wall. I revisit it regularly to see how I’m doing, including where I’m doing well and what I need to improve.
At the beginning of this year, I did a mindfulness retreat with the Insight Meditation Society. I love silent retreats. Each time I do them, I leave with deep feelings of peace, clarity, and connection to the world around me. But this retreat was virtual. I spent 5 days in silence while being at home with my spouse, our 12-year-old (who was doing remote schooling), and our dog. Well, mostly in silence. At its start, our retreat facilitators acknowledged that being at home meant that we might need to talk, but that when we did so, we should practice wise, or right, speech.
As Pamela Ayo Yetunde and Cheryl Giles describe in their new book, Black & Buddhist, right speech “includes refraining from speech intended to harm oneself and others but also includes cultivating skills of speech that are nurturing, supportive, and inspiring.” Right speech isn’t about being nice. It acknowledges and allows for anger, but it aims at being constructive, not destructive.
The commitment to wise speech during retreat made me slow down, think about what was necessary and helpful to say, and then say no more than necessary. Silence and wise speech together helped me to be more self- and other-aware. It is a powerful practice that I need to do more often.
On this Good Friday (the penultimate day of our series), it seems appropriate to practice silence and, when speaking is necessary, wise speech. This means not talking, and also not emailing, texting, or being on social media. You may not be able to do this for all of the day, but choose a block of time when you can. Tell others around you what you will be doing so that they’ll be prepared and supportive of your practice.
Mindfulness is not just about the mind; it also promotes body awareness. If you have problems with self-care, then you likely have difficulty with body awareness. We arrive at a state of self-care neglect because we have been socialized away from our bodies.
We may live in our heads, focused on the world of thoughts, logic, and performance. This is often the plight of people who are high achievers. We can become masters at ignoring our physiological needs in order to get the work done. Sometimes we even pride ourselves on our ability to go without sleep, food, rest, movement, touch, and sex. We call it discipline, drive, and motivation.
Sometimes we’ve been taught to focus on the needs of other bodies – other people and institutions. We pride ourselves on caring and doing more for others than for ourselves. We call it responsibility, love, even discipleship.
After two breast cancer diagnoses, I am finally learning to pay attention to my body, including its sensations and needs. I am getting better at noticing pain and discomfort when it arises, and then responding to it with care. Body scan practices have helped me develop that skill.
A body scan is a guided mindfulness practice where we systematically pay attention to how each part of our body feels. Usually done lying on a yoga mat (or seated in a comfortable chair), they take 30 to 45 minutes. For years I avoided it because of the time involved. But after a year of practicing it once or twice weekly, I feel its benefit. I am diligent about self-care precisely because I know how much my body needs it.
One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running. “Perhaps I’m just too painstaking a type of person, but I can’t grasp much of anything without putting down my thoughts in writing, so I had to actually get my hands working and write these words. Otherwise, I’d never know what running means to me.”
Like Murakami, writing is how I reflect and process my thoughts and experiences. Sometimes I do that for public consumption. But a lot of what I write has come in the form of journaling. Journaling captures some of the never-ending swirl of thoughts that is constantly in my head, giving it form so that I can observe it. That is a practice of mindful self-awareness.
One of my self-care commitments is to journal at least twice weekly. I don’t have a particular process or form. I don’t do bullet-journaling (yet!) or write in response to prompts. I just write what I’m thinking about or going through at the moment. For the past 10 years, I’ve done most of my journaling electronically because it helps me keep the practice. As much as I love a beautiful notebook, frequent traveling made me opt for a digital format that I’d always have available. And I love being able to add photos to my journal.
Spend some time journaling today. You don’t need a fancy notebook. A single sheet of paper or digital document will do. You don’t need to spend a lot of time doing it and you can approach this in any number of ways: reflect on the day, use a journaling prompt, or simply write a list of experiences from this day that you’re grateful for.
The best practice that I have found for getting comfortable with silence and cultivating self-awareness is meditation. I began meditating nearly 20 years ago when I first embarked upon my self-care journey and I honestly don’t know where I would be without the practice.
There are many forms of meditation, but when I speak of it and its benefits, I am specifically referring to mindfulness-oriented practices, which help us to become grounded in and aware of the present moment. There is a large body of research demonstrating its health benefits.
As someone who stays in my head a lot, it is very easy for me to ignore my bodily experiences, including my feelings, sensations, and needs. And as a StrongBlackWoman in recovery, my modus operandi is centering the needs other people and suppressing my own. In fact, one of the biggest challenges in my self-care journey was that I couldn’t name my own needs.
Mindfulness meditation helps me to be grounded in the here-and-now, to notice what I am experiencing both internally and externally, and to do so without judgment. As my practice grows deeper, so does my self-care and my ability for compassionate connection. I began with a daily practice of 5 minutes of breath awareness meditation. My current practice includes 20-60 minutes daily of mindfulness practices, including sitting meditation, body scans, yoga nidra, qi gong, or yin yoga.