You know those kids in high school and college who did all their homework all the time, the ones who always had something to say in class discussion and had questions for the teacher every week? I was one of THOSE kids. I guess that’s not too shocking of a confession to come from a Harvard graduate student, but in hindsight I feel a little sheepish about those days. The most important thing I’ve learned in my time at HDS so far is how to prioritize and balance the things in my life, and homework just doesn’t always make it to the top of the list.
Self-care. This is a term I don’t remember ever hearing before setting foot on the HDS campus, when all of a sudden I heard it multiple times a day. I picked it up, using it in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way when I chose to do something other than my homework. Having a glass of wine and watching Netflix instead of doing my reading for the next day? Self-care! Going out to dinner with friends when I have yet to start a paper due in two days? Self-care! Taking a nap instead of getting caught up on work I’m behind on? Self-care! The more I used the term, the more I came to appreciate it in a genuine way, and to realize that there was space for all of these things in the life of a healthy, balanced graduate student, which I aspire to be someday…
Yes, constantly putting off my work to do other things kind of defeats the purpose of being in graduate school and taking classes, but some prioritizing is helpful and even necessary. There just isn’t time to do every reading for every class I’m taking in a semester or to spend as much time as I would like on every paper. Rather than getting stressed out about this, I have learned to decide what to prioritize. I’d much rather read one chapter of a book thoroughly than quickly skim the whole thing; this gives me some insight into the author’s argument and allows me to participate in discussions in class. There are some papers I work on for days, and others that get written less than 24 hours before they’re due. Sometimes I turn in a paper late in order to make sure it’s a paper I feel good about, and to me that’s worth any late penalty. And yes, there are times when taking a break is more important than getting everything done and in on time—I really do claim a glass of wine and Netflix as a crucial act of self-care every once in a while.
HDS is a place that encourages care of the self and of others. Other students are constantly checking in with me, especially when they know I’m going through a difficult time. Professors are understanding of various needs—missing class for a doctor’s appointment, turning in a paper late because of events in students’ personal lives—and there are almost unbelievable numbers of staff members you can talk to about almost anything going on in your life. This is a place where, when someone asks how I’m doing, I feel comfortable saying, “Not too great,” knowing that they will stop and listen, and then encourage me to do the things I need to take care of myself. My self-care is not practiced in isolation here at HDS, but in the context of a supportive community that creates the space in which I feel like I can take good care of myself. Sometimes, I need a hug, and I know there are people I can ask for one anytime. Sometimes I need a friend to hold me accountable to doing my work by joining me for a paper writing party, and sometimes that same friend is the perfect person to ask over for dinner and some much-needed time away from my work.
This semester, I’m completing my first unit of Field Education, and therefore taking the paired “Meaning Making” class. I was reading one of our assigned texts, “Welcome to Theological Field Education!” (and yes, that exclamation point is really part of the title), when I got to the chapter on “Self-Care and Community” by Jaco Hamman. Hamman talks about all kinds of self-care—physical, emotional, spiritual, and more—but the line that stuck with me was “self-care is one way to love yourself so that you can love your neighbor.” (102) I couldn’t believe it: in this book that I was reading as a requirement for class, I was not only being encouraged to practice self-care, but in fact being told that self-care is an integral part of being a person who works with other people. HDS was, in essence, telling me that I must practice self-care. Suddenly those Netflix and wine nights seemed even more justified.
Six weeks into this academic year–my second year at HDS–a first-year student told me that her first memory of me was hearing me tell a group of people how important it is to practice #selfcare—and yes, I did say the hashtag out loud. If the only thing someone ever knew about me was that I was a serious advocate for self-care and encouraged everyone to incorporate it into their lives, I would feel good about that. I still use #selfcare in a tongue-in-cheek way sometimes, when I notice myself letting my schoolwork slip lower on my priority list than I’d like it to. For the most part, though, prioritizing self-care has led to a lack of guilt over not doing everything, which is impossible anyway, and a sense of joy over everything in my life, including my school work. When I don’t feel overworked and overcommitted, when I make time to read for pleasure and spend time with my friends, I feel happier, healthier, and less stressed—and who wouldn’t want that?