The Problem With ‘Self Care’

Self care is a concept, a lucrative subset of a 4 trillion dollar wellness industry, and a red-hot social fad that doesn’t do anything to address the underlying issues of why so many people are burned out at work and seriously anxious about an ever-growing list of things.

Because of the money now associated with self care, the purveyors of it have a vested interest in NOT helping resolve the underlying issue of frantic busyness that defines so many people’s daily lives. Granted, some of that frantic busyness is explained by people trying to eke out a living with too few jobs that pay a livable wage, but a lot of it is the result of social contagion. I run on the treadmill of life because you do.

We will mute the clarion call for self care when people will themselves to get sufficient sleep, eat healthy food, and be physically active.

My university is a classic case study in the ridiculousness of self care. All of a sudden, despite my colleagues’ tendencies to overwork, the leadership is talking about the importance of self care. We are like seriously overweight people who think we’ve found the miracle diet, but in this case, we’ll be fine if we just make time for a warm bubble bath at the end of our frantic days. And don’t forget the candle.

I predict all of the self care talk will have no medium or long-term effect on how faculty live their lives. But on the plus side, more bubble bath and candles will be sold.

Living Peacefully and Joyfully

During Sunday night’s Skype session with Nineteen I learned she’d been on a nice walk with KN, the uber-nice mother of one of her best friends, who was visiting Midwest leafy liberal arts college for Parents’ Weekend. On that walk KN revealed that she has read three books that I’ve recommended. Cool dat. Note to self: Make a batch of “I read PressingPause.com” t-shirts to give to subscribers and loyal readers. No doubt a future status symbol*.

I have another book recommendation for KN. I don’t read books consistently enough, as a result I don’t get through all that many, as a result, I choose what I read carefully. I don’t know if I’ve ever chosen as well as in 2011. The ten month long hot streak continues with A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine (2009). So good I read it twice, the second time taking nine pages of notes since I plan on using it in a future writing seminar.

Irvine says the public’s preconceived notions about Stoicism are wrong. Stoics were fully engaged in life and worked to make the world a better place. The goal of the Stoics was not to banish emotion from life but to banish negative emotions like anger, anxiety, grief, and envy. Musonius Rufus (Is there a better jazz/funk name?) said that “a cheerful disposition and secure joy” will automatically follow those who live in accordance with Stoic principles. Would be Stoics, Irvine writes, will take to heart the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire—most notably, fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. Instead they will turn their attention to the pursuit of tranquility and virtue.

The word “tranquility” is hardly ever used in conversation today, probably because few of us experience much of it, but it’s the central concept of the book. Irvine says “Tranquility is a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions—in particular joy.” On a scale of one to ten, what’s your tranquility quotient?

The bulk of the book is about how to practice Stoicism. Irvine does a great job of adapting the Ancient Roman philosophy to modern times. He acknowledges that people should choose a philosophy of life that fits their personality and that Stoicism won’t be for everyone. He points out that in some significant ways Stoicism and Christianity overlap; consequently, they can be complementary.

For Irvine the greatest problem is that few people have any coherent philosophy of life. As a result, they succumb to mindless consumerism; consequently, at the end of the road they often regret that they’ve squandered their time. What is your philosophy of life? To what degree does it shape your day-to-day actions?

The body of the book is a description of five Stoic psychological techniques and Stoic advice on ten topics such as dealing with other people, anger, old age, and dying. Probably best read with a significant other or a small group of friends who you can discuss it with.

* Any graphic artists out there interested in creating a PressingPause logo? If so, please email me (see the “contact” tab at upper right).