A Super Short Story
Consider Josh and Deb. The two, happily married for ten years, are chatting over drinks while awaiting their food. Deb begins to share about a difficult conversation she had with her brother that day, clearly seeking understanding and support from Josh.
Josh, a generally supportive husband, seems to be listening but eventually bursts out in frustration: “listen, Deb, I just can’t deal with this right now!” Josh’s hands are shaking. “I’ve got so much on my plate at work, and a lot of problems I’m trying to solve, and I can’t solve yours right now. I can’t even figure out how to catch my breath!”
Deb responds, “I just wanted you to be aware of what I’m carrying with me.” Josh becomes manic: “Not this again, ‘be aware’! I’m aware! Why do you and everyone else think I’m not ‘aware’?”
Deb emotionally (and verbally) shuts down, bracing for a silent, uncomfortable meal. Deb notices Josh wincing as he adjusts his position in his chair. His back is clearly bothering him, an ongoing ailment Josh continues to downplay. Deb would say something, but fears furthering upsetting Josh, choosing to wait in hopes that Josh will be more like himself tomorrow.
Josh loves Deb very much, in feeling and in action; this is known among Josh and Deb’s friends. However, Josh has clearly failed to demonstrate his love for Deb in this scenario. But why? While there are several possible reasons, a glaring problem is that Josh is simply unprepared. He’s not ready to love her. He is hampered by a lack of good self-care.
Josh is clearly stressed and living out of balance. He is burdened by responsibilities and unable to cope with them. This is made painfully obvious when his wife inadvertently unveils a ticking time bomb. Josh also seems to lack some needed self-awareness, evidenced by this explosive response to an innocuous remark by his wife meant to be taken at face value. Furthermore, Josh is irresponsibly not addressing some physical pain, encumbering his ability to respond well in this moment.
Self-love, or self-care, is not selfish or narcissistic. Like many things, there are extremes of excess and deficiency. I could become so self-absorbed that I begin to neglect my responsibility to others in my life. But I could also become so self-neglecting that I ignore the ways I am harming myself (and, consequently, others).
Had Josh been taking better care of himself, living more in control of his schedule and commitments, perhaps more willing to say “no” to the requests of others and “yes” to his own need to go for a walk, pray, or get more sleep, he might have responded better. Had Josh been more attuned to his emotional history so as to be able to recognize his personal triggers, he might have been more gracious. Had Josh addressed his back issues, he might have reacted more like his usual, loving self.
Josh has failed to live out his love for his wife because he is not actively loving himself.
The virtue of self-care is about readiness. Becoming the best version of myself. Discipline. Self-awareness. Physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Honoring my personality and passions. Embodying a kind of inner coherence. This right ordering of self is crucial in enabling me to be whole and happy. And to love well. Care for self is essential to care for others.
Acting as though you are the center of the universe is not how you love for yourself. But caring for yourself—respecting and valuing yourself, seeking healing for wounds, and noticing and actively responding to your needs—is.
Self-care can be neglected, perhaps because of some falsely heroic notion that love means totally forgetting yourself for the sake of others. One problem with that is, what then do we love others with? I love yourself with myself. Selves should not be discarded, seen as obstacles to overcome. Love ought not to be thought of as self-forgetfulness as much as self-giving.
So what kind of self are you giving to others? An anxious, out-of-shape, defensive, overwhelmed, un-self-aware, self-loathing self? Or a balanced, healthy, non-anxious, self-aware, self-valuing self?
I do not believe I can truly love others well unless I’m caring for myself. Taking care of myself is not selfish but is one of the most loving things I can do for others, because others need me to be the best version of myself. If I am not this best self, others will suffer, as Deb did in the example above.
Coming Out as an Act of Love for Others
I should point out that I am a straight, white male speaking not from personal lived experience but as an outside observer of a marginalized community. I run the risk of various forms of “missing the point” in speaking with any kind of authority on this topic, so I hope that those on whose behalf I speak will educate me where needed.
But to the point: self-care is one reason Christians should generally be excited and relieved when our friends make the brave choice to come out. Self-care is not the only reason. But it is one reason.
Coming out is not about an agenda. It is not about shoving something in your face. It is not about succumbing to disordered desires. It is about LGBTQ+ persons loving themselves the way God loves them, so that they can also love others.
Many of my Christian friends talk past each other on this topic. Liberals might say some form of “God loves LGBTQ+ persons and wants them to be authentic,” evoking conservative discomfort. Conservatives may say something like “God loves LGBTQ+ persons so much that God wants to fix them,” drawing liberal groans.
I don’t value authenticity for authenticity’s sake, since my actions affect others and that matters to me. I want to think twice about how being “me” might harm others (or myself), lest I start to validate all of my actions because they presently “feel right” to me.
But I also think what needs to be “fixed” in us has little to do with who we are attracted to or what gender we feel we are and more to do with the ways we are habitually arrogant, neglectful, and abusive, to name a few vices.
Here’s a relatively non-controversial statement we might all be able to agree upon: Christians should love people. Josh may love Deb, but he fails to show it in this scene. Josh would have been more able to meet Deb’s needs had he possessed a stronger virtue of self-care.
Coming out can be an act of love for others. The reality is that many LGBTQ+ persons are forced to hide, withdraw, and put up walls. They become anxious, self-loathing, or depressed, some to the point of taking their own lives because there is no space for them in the world or in our churches.
It is difficult to love others if such turmoil and angst define your existence. The burden of responsibility is of course not simply on LGBTQ+ persons to confidently exert themselves and ignore the ramifications of such self-expression. The burden is also on the rest of us to create safe spaces for them to be—them.
People who live divided, anxiously, nervous about the judgments of others, and fearful of losing respect or cherished relationships face a significant obstacle to participating in the lives of others. Isolation, retreat, and a lack of authenticity are inevitable.
Christians ought to remove this barrier, freeing LGTBQ+ persons to love themselves. But not simply for their own sakes—even though they are worthy of such love—but because we all benefit when people give themselves the right kind of care.
So to all LGBTQ+ persons who have come out: thank you. Thank you especially to those who bravely remain in religious communities who are suspicious of your identity, not that I think you owe this to the rest of us. Thank you. Christians might not fully appreciate your journey yet, but it is good for us.
I see in your coming out a virtue of self-care. I see especially courageous self-care in those of you with less racial and wealth privilege who may walk a more dangerous and isolating path in your struggle to simply be.
Thank you for somehow enduring the emotional turmoil, personal criticism, and self-doubt that may have marked your journey. But thank you for discerning the ways you have been shortchanging yourself and others by remaining hidden.
By honoring your unique and beautiful self which God created and continues to create (since grace does not meet us once and send us off on our merry way but walks with us, always), you are not only doing something extraordinary for yourself by coming out. You are loving the rest of us. You love us non-LGBTQ+ individuals simply by becoming whole so that you have the capacity and availability to love others.
But your self-care also potentially liberates us. From homophobia. From stubborn resistance to what we don’t understand. From oppressive insistence on right ways to be men and women, socially-constructed categories that often dismiss lived experience and can harm all of us, gay or straight. From a shallow view of how Scripture “works.”
In caring for and honoring yourself, you are caring for and honoring us.
I’m not blaming you, LGBTQ+ person, of course; you don’t owe me anything. In fact, if I’ve been too reductive here or made your journey too much about me, then what I’ve written here is garbage. And I haven’t even really considered the reality that you might be practicing self-care by not coming out, for whatever valid reasons you remain hidden (survival?).
But, as you may suspect, I’m only speaking to you as a rhetorical device. I’m really speaking to the rest of us who squelch your ability to care for yourself, who limit you and your potentially fuller participation in the lives of others. And I’m speaking to remind the rest of us how love of self and love of others are not enemies but are necessarily intertwined.
Whether or not you like where I have taken the virtue of self-care, we can hopefully agree on its importance. May my fellow Christians engage in courageous soul-searching and more deliberate self-care, so that we might become more capable of love.
I suspect even Jesus’s ability to love well probably stemmed, in large part, from good self-care. He knew when to retreat to the desert or a mountain when he need space to recharge. He certainly didn’t seem too fazed when his character and intentions were challenged, having a strong self-awareness and sense of who he was.
He also did not hesitate to nap, even on stormy seas.