I've forgotten how much I learn from my students when I teach. Tonight I joined eleven 15-year olds in our zoom boxes to explore the idea of responsibility from a Jewish lens. My goal in the lesson was to get the students to a place where they saw collective responsibility as a Jewish value. Maybe that happened, maybe not. What did happen, wound up being a lesson for me.
My YouTube yoga teacher, Adriene Mishler, often says "take a moment to let the nutrients of your practice sink in." It was while on the yoga mat tonight, moving my body, taking care of myself, that the nutrients of these teenagers thoughts about responsibility really sank in.
I began the lesson by asking them to write down a list of all of their responsibilities. As students shared their lists two distinct categories arose: responsibilities to self and responsibilities to others. When I think of responsibilities to the self I think of things like paying bills, flossing my teeth, taking out the trash. From these young folks, though, I kept hearing the term "self-care." While stretching my body on my yoga mat, and breathing deeply, it hit me just how far behind in understanding my responsibilities to myself I am. Growing up steeped in the ideologies of the Reform movement in the 90s, in a liberal town, meant that I learned, over and again, that I was responsible for the work of Tikkun Olam, in all its forms. Responsibility to the other, to right the wrongs of the world, to be relentless in the pursuit of peace. I do believe that, as a Jew and as a human, I do have a responsibility to pursue such wholeness, but you know what I didn't learn? Self-care.
In honor of my 40th birthday I booked a couple of nights at an AirBNB out of town. When a friend asked what I planned to do while I was there, I responded, "exist." I packed a lot of food. My yoga mat. A couple of books. Lots of sweatpants. I spent a full 48 hours returning to the basics of my self-care. The months leading up to my birthday had been stressful and had presented steep challenges to my mental health. All of my caring practices had fallen away as I became slave to defending myself against the pressures that had been consistently mounting since August. It had become easier to busy myself with endless chores, and then to numb myself with TV at the end of the day than to roll out my yoga mat. My retreat was a self-care reboot. I slept. Drank a lot of water. Cooked and ate nourishing meals. Stopped to snack when I felt hungry. Did yoga. Walked. Read. Meditated. Washed my face before bed. Flossed my teeth. Breathed a whole lot. I dialed everything back to the practices (and they do take practice) that actually nourish and sustain me. Reminding me how to care for myself. I had to leave my environment in order to reconnect with the practice of existing.
I'd like to say that the nutrients of that practice kept me in a zen-like bubble of self-care, but mere moments after I walked through my front door, anxiety began to creep right back in. The inner-voice that I had listened to for the past 48 hours, the one telling me to be good to myself, to be responsible for myself, my health and my energies was crowded out by frantic voices of chaos and pressure and stress. And so I paused. I breathed. I took my anti-anxiety medication. I drank some water. And I kept up with my daily practices of movement, nourishment, and breath. Chores still get done, for the most part, and the stack of adulting-related envelopes will still get opened. Those are also my responsibilities. But first and foremost, I rededicate myself to myself.
Tonight those teens told me that their responsibilities towards themselves do, in fact, result in the fulfillment of responsibilities towards others. It's not within my power to fix all of the broken systems around me, or even to stand up to the ones that I think are dangerous. It is within my power to love and care for the broken and dangerous places within me. By being responsible to my self-care, I make myself stronger for those who rely on me, and build myself back up to a place of being able to fulfill my responsibilities to myself and everyone else.