Altruistic coping

A recent essay in The Atlantic by Stanford professor of psychology Jamil Zaki highlights my growing unease with the cultural direction self-care has taken.  It’s titled “’Self-care’ Isn’t the Fix for Late-Pandemic Malaise.”

Zaki upholds the importance of self-care which he defines as “anything pursued for the sake of one’s own wellness.”  Self-care is vital, but limited in its efficacy.  It is “especially good at softening intense stress and anxiety,” but, as it has come to be practiced and marketed, not so good at addressing the deeper human need for connection.

Alongside self-care Zaki suggests reclaiming the importance of “other-care.” 

For people engaged in caring for others all day – professionally, within one’s family – this may sound like another shove toward exhaustion.  But Zaki pushes back with research showing that when we’re able to experience a sense of autonomy in other-care – something we choose to do as a gift to others rather than a grudging demand – it contributes toward flourishing.

One example he gives is the origins of the Black Panthers in the 60s.  Faced with a lack of access to quality health care and education, the Panthers approached self-care as a revolutionary act expressed through mutual aid, preventive medicine, and exercise for the betterment of poor Blacks.  Activists like Angela Davis and Ericka Huggins expanded this to include mindfulness and yoga practices.

Zaki ends with this critique and suggestion:

As with so many revolutionary ideas, the narrative around self-care has now been wrapped in marketing; the industry has soared past $10 billion a year in the United States alone. The millions of people who Googled self-care as the pandemic began likely didn’t find information on its community-based roots. They found instead an atomized, hyperpersonal world of tips, products, and services—calming, sometimes expensive tools for being alone in nicer ways—that can help sometimes, and that might strand us at other times.  By integrating other-care into our plans, we can go back to self-care’s broader, more connected origins and rebuild meaning at a time when so many of us desperately need it.

Another essay I recently came across written by Luis Cruz-Villalobos makes a similar argument for what he calls “altruistic coping.”  It’s one of 11 coping keys he observes in 2 Corinthians 12 regarding the apostle Paul’s responses to trauma.