The permanent challenge: Caring for oneself
In considering the category of “caring” in our relationship with Mother Earth and with all beings, Pope Francis stressed not just a virtue, but a true paradigm that represents an alternative to the paradigm of modernity, namely, that of the drive for power, that has caused so much damage.
We must take care of everything, including ourselves, because we are the closest of our neighbors and, at the same time, the most complex and most undecipherable of all beings.
Do we know who we are? What do we exist for? Were are we going? Reflecting on these inescapable questions, it is worth remembering the thoughts of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), perhaps the most true:
What is the human being in nature? The human is a nothing in the face of the infinite, and a whole in the face of nothingness; a link between the nothing and the whole, but incapable of seeing the nothingness whence he comes or the infinite whither he goes. (Pensées § 72).
We truly do not know who we are. We only distrust, as Guimarães Rosa would say. To the degree that we live and suffer, we slowly go about discovering who we are. In the final analysis, we are expressions of that background (the image of God?), that sustains and directs everything.
Along with what we really are, there is also that which we potentially can be. The potential is also part of the real, perhaps it is our best part. Starting with this background, we can develop points to guide us in the search for that which we want and can be.
In this search caring for oneself performs a decisive function. First, it is not about a narcissistic view of one’s ego. That generally leads not to self knowledge but to identification with a projected image of oneself and therefore is false and alienating.
Michel Foucauld, in his thorough study, The hermeneutics of the subject (2004), tried to resurrect the Western tradition of caring for the self, especially as seen through the wise men of the Second and Third centuries, like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and others. The great motto was the famous ghôti seautón, know thyself. That knowledge is not abstract, but very concrete: recognize that which you are, try to deepen thyself to discover your potential; try to make real that which you in fact can become.
In this context the different virtues were addressed, so well discussed by Socrates. He warned about avoiding the worst of the vices, one that has become common among us: namely, hubris. Hubris is to exceed one’s limits and to strive to be special, above others. Perhaps hubris is the worst aspect of Western culture, of Christian culture, especially of the culture of the United States with its imagined Manifest Destiny (the belief in being the new chosen people of God): the feeling of superiority and of exceptionality, imposing our values on others, sanctioned by God.
The first that must be said is that the human is a being and not a thing. Humans are not a substance, constituted once and for all, but a knot of relationships always active, that through the chain of relationships are continuously constructing themselves, as the universe does. All beings of the universe, according to the new cosmology, are carriers of a certain subjectivity, because they have a history, live in an interaction and interdependency of all with all, learning through inter-exchange and accumulation of information. This is a universal cosmologic principle. But the human being has its own form of this principle, namely, the fact of being a conscious and reflecting being. The human being knows that he knows and that he does not know and, to be complete, does not know what he does not know.
This knot of relationships is built from a Center, around which relationships with others are organized. That profound I is never alone. Its solitude is for communion. It demands a you. Or, better, according to Martin Buber, it is where the you begins that the I awakens and is formed. From the I and the you is born the us.
Caring for oneself implies, in the first place, accepting oneself the way one is, with one’s talents and limitations. Not with bitterness, like those who want to change their existential situation, but with joviality. It is to accept one’s own face, hair, legs, breasts, appearance and mode of being in the world; in short, to accept our bodies (see Corbin et all, O corpo, 3 vol. 2008). When we accept ourselves more, fewer plastic surgery clinics will exist. With the physical characteristics we have, we should develop our mode of being in the world.
Nothing is more ridiculous than to artificially construct beauty, in disharmony with one’s inner beauty. It is a vain attempt to “photo shop” our own image.
Caring for oneself demands knowing how to combine our aptitudes with our motivations. It is not enough to have an aptitude for music if we are not motivated to be musicians. Likewise, the motivation to be musicians is of no use if we do not have the aptitude for that. We just waste our energies and gather frustrations. We wind up being mediocre, something that does not make us better.
Another aspect of caring for oneself is to know and to learn to coexist with the dark dimension that accompanies the light dimension. We love and we hate. We are made with those contradictions. Anthropologically, it is said that we are simultaneously sapiens and demens, people with both awareness, and rudeness. We are the intersection of those opposites.
Caring for oneself is to be able to create a synthesis, where the contradictions do not annul each other, but the luminous side predominates.
To care for ourselves is to love, to accept, to recognize our vulnerabilities, to be able to cry, to know how to forgive and to develop the resilience that is the capacity to overcome and learn from our mistakes and contradictions. Then we can write straight, even if the lines are crooked.
Free translation from the Spanish by
Servicios Koinonia, http://www.servicioskoinonia.org.
Done at REFUGIO DEL RIO GRANDE, Texas, EE.UU.