For those of us who experience structural and institutional violence, many have embraced the concept of using self-love and self-care as an instrument of resistance in the face of injustice. Today, I’d like to challenge a part of that notion. More specifically, I’d like to challenge how we define “self” and expand thinking on the ways we hold healing spaces.
Firstly, I’d like to make it clear that I wholeheartedly believe that self-love is one of the most radical and necessary forms of resistance we as people of color can practice, and that self-care is essential to the quality, effectiveness, and sustainability of the agendas we push. If we are hurting or are unhealthy ourselves, it should be no surprise that our work will reflect that. For organizers, or for really anyone working their ass off to make a living, burning out is a harsh reality. Speaking from an organizing perspective, burnouts occur when someone uses their own body like an allocable resource; like a reserve that can be tapped into and drained when necessary. It’s when you calculate the minimal amount of sleep you can realistically get in order to get work done. It’s when you skip meals for a few days because the action you’re helping organize really needed an extra fifty dollars to run smoothly. It’s when your body physically changes because of the anxiety, lack of exercise, depression, and countless other factors you’re facing.
Personally, I’m all too familiar with burnout. About a year ago, nearing the height of the Ferguson protests, I dropped out of school and fled home to LA for a year after physically and mentally breaking down. When I arrived home, fellow organizers, friends, and family all advised me to practice self-care by removing myself from the actions going on back in school, in my neighborhood, and elsewhere – and for once I listened. Though I couldn’t ignore the news and occasionally observed an action or two, I spent most of my days remodeling bathrooms, taking classes, driving my sister to and from school, and sleeping a lot.
I was doing everything right. Eating better, exercising, exploring interests of mine I never had the time to back in school, and spending time with loved ones. For once, I was doing things for myself – and it was killing me. In this moment, I felt extremely disconnected from a substantial piece of my identity, which during my many low points, contributed to my steep spiral downwards. Collectively pushing away the communities, causes, and issues I cared so deeply about in an effort to heal hurt me more than I could imagine. Though it was difficult to continue practicing something that seemed to hurt more than help, I was confident in the assurance of my peers that it was just a matter of time, and kept it up. It was only through a class I was auditing in Claremont that I was introduced to the concept of Ubuntu by Professor Sidney J. Lemelle, and then things began to click.
Ubuntu is an old South African philosophy that goes by many definitions centered on various principles around the notions of community and sharing. Roughly translated, it is an interpretation of humanity, proclaiming that “I am, because you are,” – that my humanness, my happiness, my success, is directly tied to others and cannot truly exist without them. By no means am I an expert in its definition, as I can only speak to my interpretation of it, nor is it my intent to make this yet another trendy, fetishization of the ancient principles of Brown people. What I can speak on, though, is how this framework has helped define parts of my identity I once deeply resented and how it remains relevant to many of us who where taught to practice self-care in isolation.
Self-care can look very different to different folks, and personally, I’ve had trouble defining my own understanding due to the difference between how others interpret healing and how I define my own happiness. In the many forms I’ve seen people practice self-care, I’ve observed a general trend of people believing that they must process through their struggles in solitude, or removed from their communities – something I was told and practiced during my time home. Though I do recognize the importance of dealing with one’s internal struggles initially on their own and acknowledge that to many people, this strategy of solitude works best for them, I am a firm believer that if we can grow together, in some capacity we can find ways to heal together as well.
With that being said, I challenge folks to engage in self-care practices that enable your community to heal and improve alongside you, a core principle of Ubuntu. Though self-reflection and solitude are both important throughout your respective processes, don’t let it be your only steps, and seek ways to help lift others who need it as much as you. I’m just a twenty-two-year-old kid learning along every step of the way myself, but this is a framework that has helped me grow and work through my troubles and identify who and how to lift others going through similar struggles. I used to hate myself for returning to the same toxic environments that broke me. This philosophy, however, helped me recognize that my happiness cannot exist without the presence of my community, allowing me to understand and forgive myself for returning home and for my inability to stop building and organizing.
Depression and other mental health issues plague our communities, and it’s my belief that we treat them as isolated incidents and issues. I had to go through it myself to understand that this is not just my struggle. Through Ubuntu, I’ve learned to define “self” through my community, and to practice self-care accordingly. There’s too many of us going through the same struggle to handle these matters alone, and too much love to spread to keep it to ourselves.