self-care, caring for others, leading by example: a response to an interpretation of Torah

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of returning to my old summer home to visit Husband and Sister, who are working at camp together. My visit fell over Shabbat, which was wonderful–I have always loved and enjoyed camp services more than any others (with the possible exception of NFTY services). It was beautiful to be around so many people that I love, to be surrounded by Jewish voices raising up in prayer and song. I had an amazing time.

During Saturday morning services, we had the traditional d’var torah about the week’s portion. For last week, the reading was from Numbers 19:1-22:1 in which, among other things, Miriam dies, and Moses, frustrated and tired and probably really missing his sister, goes against G-d’s instruction to speak to a rock to get it to yield water for the Israelites and instead strikes it with his staff. Water comes out in abundance, but Moses, for his lack of faith and angry action, is refused entrance into the holy land.

The d’var centered on Moses’s choice to strike the rock, as well as his and Aaron’s “moment of selfishness”, during which the brothers went into their tent and “fell on their faces”, which is pretty understandable, when you think about it. Grief is one of the more powerful emotions out there. Who can blame them. But the d’var continued: “Sometimes, we need to take care of others before we take care of ourselves. This is the responsibility we take on as leaders.”

And I, the social worker in a sea of staff members who in a few days were going to get six hundred kids to care for, physically recoiled.

In social work, we talk a lot about self-care. Self-care is a really broad term, and everyone defines it differently, but the key concept is the same: you can not–can not–properly care for and support for others if you are not caring for yourself. You just can’t do it. The way you treat people when you are exhausted and frustrated and strung-out and over-stretched will never be as good as the way you treat people when you are rested and happy and healthy (for whatever your baseline of “healthy” is, because it does of course vary from person to person). Those of us working in communities, in schools, in camps, in therapeutic or service agencies, and all other work where we are depended on to help and serve others are often spending long hours in work that, while meaningful and incredibly important, is draining, both physically and emotionally.

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, author of Trauma Stewardship, an amazing text on what it means to work in fields where vicarious trauma and secondary traumatization are incredibly common, writes: “If we are to contribute to the changes so desperately needed in our agencies, communities, and societies, we must first and foremost develop the capacity to be present with all that arises, stay centered throughout, and be skilled at maintaining an integrated self.” It is critically, critically important that we meet our own needs before we help others. There’s a reason the flight attendant tells you to secure your own mask before assisting the person next to you. You cannot keep someone’s head above water when you yourself are unable to breathe.

What would it have been like, I thought to myself, listening to the d’var torah, if camp had been run with a trauma-informed perspective? If staff were taught what stress does to the body and soul, what a lack of sleep does to the way we function, what a small moment of quiet and peace–or a “moment of selfishness”, as it was phrased in the d’var–can do for someone who is exhausted and close to tears or lashing out? Would I, as a camper, have respected a counselor less if they had told me, “You are so important, and I want to help you with [x thing], but I need you to give me just one minute to collect myself, because I’m having a hard day and I want to give you the attention you deserve, not just half of my mind”? As a counselor, what would it have meant to me to have a supervisor who would genuinely, and with no passive-aggression, tell me, “You look really tired. I think you should take a break and go rest for a little while. Come back when you’re ready.”

As I looked around at the people around me, this amazing group of young adults who would soon be the primary caregivers to six hundred incredible but exhausting campers ranging in age from three to fifteen, my heart ached at the message they were receiving. Taking a moment to care for yourself was “a moment of selfishness”? It’s “your responsibility” to care for others first and yourself second? Moses’s striking of the rock because he was tired and exhausted and just wanted people off his back was his “biggest failure” as a leader?

The failure here wasn’t Moses. Or at least, not Moses alone. Far be it from me to criticize a deity, but if I were in Miriam’s shoes looking down at this whole incident, I would have some choice words for G-d. Probably along the lines of, “Really? You’re punishing my baby brother because in a moment of grief and anger and exhaustion, he didn’t follow your exact instructions? You don’t think that maybe this wasn’t the time to give him a task that required patience and tenderness? That maybe this was the time to give him a moment to rest, to collect himself, to feel his grief, so that he can be the leader the people need him to be?”

(Miriam, I think, was a lady who did not take any shit from anyone. Can you hit a deity with a timbrel? I bet she tried.)

To be a role model is to lead by example. What are we teaching our children when we work ourselves to the bone? When we are exhausted and drained and pretend to be otherwise? When we reward overworking and punish rest? When taking a break to care for ourselves is “selfish” or “lazy”, but coming to work drained and stressed is responsible? What message does this send to our future leaders?

We have a duty, as caring professionals but also as people who strive to be positive influences on the people around us, to set an example of health and self-care. Don’t half-ass your job because you think taking an hour off makes you irresponsible. If you can’t bring 100% of yourself to your job because you’re exhausted, sick, or upset, be honest. Be honest with yourself, with your co-workers, with your supervisors, with the kids or adults you set an example for. If a client or a camper or whoever you’re working with tells you something that upsets you, tell them that. Use your “I” statements, be respectful, but don’t bottle it up. If every bone in your body hurts and sitting in your chair or walking across camp is too much for you, be honest. Don’t let the leaders of tomorrow, the ones who look up to you and see you as a shining star of what it means to be a grown up, see you struggling through the day as if nothing is wrong. Teach them that it’s okay to take a break. That it’s okay to have feelings. That it’s okay to feel sad or hurt, to take some time to breathe so that you can give them all the care and love and attention they deserve.

And for those of us who supervise: Understand that it is our job to look out for our staff members, to validate them when they are hurting, to give them the care they need. If someone tells you, “this hurts me, I can’t do it, I need a break”–give them the break. Don’t tell them that they are irresponsible. Understand the impact of your words and your tone. Listen to what they tell you. See the strength that it takes to ask for health, and show them that they will never be punished for doing so. Model this behavior. Be genuine, be caring, be compassionate. Allow them, allow yourself, to take a “moment of selfishness” when it’s needed, because a moment of selfishness can make the difference between a tender word of encouragement and a strike of a staff. You’ll get water in the end, but how you get it determines how you are remembered.

Care for yourself.

You deserve it.

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2 thoughts on “self-care, caring for others, leading by example: a response to an interpretation of Torah

  1. Thank you!! I was a public school teacher for six years and self-care was never mentioned. In fact, the exact opposite was emphasized. Now, unsurprisingly, I work at a private school in which we are encouraged to rest and relax.

  2. Pingback: empathy vs self-care: the social work struggle | Human Living Human[e]ly

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