Self-Care?

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“Please know that we are here to support you in any way we can. Stop in any time to share feelings, express concerns, or simply be silent together.” “Please be compassionate towards your friends and classmates as each person will process the events differently according to their different needs. A hug can go a long way, as can simply reminding a friend that you value them.” “Care for and be careful with one another.” “Take care of yourselves today.”

The results of the election have left us struggling to put into words how to care for ourselves and for one another. Universities across the country have been under fire for their emphases on “self-care,” for responses such as those copied (above) from my email inbox. These and other messages of “grieving” and “processing” are seen by some as “coddling college crybabies” or tending to the “delicate flowers of the Ivy League” (Thanks, Fox.) To these sources, calls for compassion represent the softening of the American left and the infantilization of the millennial generation (no doubt the results of their affinity for ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces.’)

Recognizing hurt, anger, and confusion and attending to these feelings, however, is a far cry from turning ‘campuses into preschools.’ The “emotional grounding” these conversations and processing spaces provide is essential for undertaking sustained forward-looking action. To be able to take care of each other at the systemic level we must take care of ourselves at the personal level. The spaces for care formed in the election’s wake are an acknowledgement that, for millions, the results of this election are more than just an ideological letdown; its rhetoric and platforms were highly personal, and the reaction to the results, likewise, is highly personal. Many people—undocumented immigrants, Muslims, women of all races and classes—feel and clearly are threatened by our president elect, a reality made obvious by a quick glance at his 100-day plan, or the formidable list of xenophobic, extremist appointees strolling in and out of his New York penthouse.

Yet, I wonder: what does it meant that in the wake of an event that many view as a national catastrophe, we all looked inward? What does it mean that, in the face of national tragedy, our campus narrative immediately became one of taking care of ourselves and, then, of others like ourselves?

In our eagerness to recognize the truth that politics are personal, did we forget that elections are, above all, political and communal? Did we, with milk and cookies, with promises of listening ears and comfy chairs, with mourning days spent watching Netflix, depoliticize our campus response?

On November 8th, I felt a fire of fear, frustration, and a defensive kind of love for those most at risk grip my chest. And I can’t help but think that, short of emotions and fears that are all consuming (and, thus, debilitating), every spark of every fire that can be mustered in each of us will be necessary to sustain a continuous response of resistance and activism over the next four years. Self-care is important in drawing boundaries for this passion, but it cannot squelch it, and it cannot be mistaken for a political response or as civic engagement. Caring for ourselves and communities cannot be a means of mopping up, rather than channeling, sources of our frustration. For our anger, our hurt, our disappointment, and, most importantly, the anger and the compassion we feel on behalf of others are our motivation. They are our sources of power.

Conservative media, with its crybaby caricatures, asserts that the world somehow has to be ‘this way’ and that we must accustom ourselves to it. It argues that developing a thick skin in response to words of hate is a requisite of adulthood, a stage of development currently arrested by the overprotective college campus. I, of course, argue against a callous response to hurt and hate. But, here, Fox News may just echo a truth: it’s not that we must brace ourselves because the “real world” is hard, but that we must brace ourselves because activism—fighting for a more equal and just world—will be hard. Railing against the forces put into power by this election will be difficult. It will be uncomfortable. We must harness every bit of our energy into confronting that reality.

I found myself last week alternating between assigned readings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and my Facebook newsfeed. The background of each felt, in many ways, similar. Eighty years ago, King’s hero, Gandhi, was wasting away during his hunger strikes; sixty years ago King himself was sleeping in jail cells and Mexican-American high school students were “walking out” in the face of educational failure and police brutality; thousand of black, brown, and white faces were Marching on Washington. These examples of civil disobedience have become almost mythic symbols of pride, bright spots woven into the fabric of our nation’s battered national history.

As I read of these marches, these sit-ins, these walkouts, I thought: will this be us? Will we accept our inheritance, take on these legacies as we enter into our historical moment? As I read these stories of activism and sacrifice, I heard those .edu emails ping their way into my email inbox. And within the paradigm of challenge and sacrifice on one hand and comfort on the other, with MLK and Gandhi setting the standard, I couldn’t help but think: man, do we have a long way to go.

Now that we’ve shown, as a community, how to grieve, how to model self-care, I hope we begin to challenge others’ and our own misogyny, racism, and compliance with unjust systems. Comforting one another is not enough; we must challenge each other to stand in spaces of discomfort and not to indulge in mentalities of ‘self-care’ that, meant to keep us sane, have the potential to make us complacent. The support we show as a community must have a bigger goal than to allow ourselves to attend to ‘business as usual;’ it must push us to change our ‘usual’ and our set plans. It must push us to recognize that this election requires a response from us. It may (and maybe should) change how we use our weekends, what we do with our evenings, what we study, how we study it, what we write, the words we use, and the depth of the conversations we have.

The next four years are bound to be an endless cycle of tension, disappointment, hurt, and ‘self-care-comfort-addressing needs’ to bring us back to our baseline, our working zone. But there may also be times when the necessities of activism change our view of what are our ‘needs’ are. There may be a time when we may find ourselves camping in a North Dakota winter protesting pipelines or missing class to march on Washington. And, Princeton, I hope we’ll be there.

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