Seeking Self-Care for Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength
Paperback: Herald Press, 2018
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Review by Danielle Davey Stulac
It was the second year of graduate school, and I was four months into a grueling regimen of eight-hour per day reading sessions for which I sacrificed meals, fresh air, exercise, sleep, and friendships. I had grown accustomed to ignoring my body and its basic needs in order to stuff my mind with as much knowledge as possible. But that day, as I finished a lunch break and mounted the stairs of the library for the second half of my daily reading session, I sensed a nudge from God: “go get a massage.” Though my back ached and exhaustion had already set in, I resisted. Surely, I didn’t have time or money for something as frivolous as a massage. After a short wrestle with these thoughts, I decided to do it (having learned from experience the folly of ignoring such nudges). To my surprise, as the masseuse pressed her hands against my tense shoulders, I began to cry—long, heaving sobs. That such a small moment of care elicited tears that woke me up to the self-destructive nature of my attempt to be a disembodied mind for the duration of my exam year. I realized that I could not ignore my body, let alone soul. For my mind to function, I needed my whole self to be well. I needed to live wholeheartedly.
If I had read April Yamasaki’s new book, Four Gifts: Seeking Self-Care for Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength, I may not have hesitated to get that massage. Wholehearted living through self-care is the subject of this timely meditation. Yamasaki diagnoses North American culture’s tendency toward self-destructive habits that derail us from our primary vocation of loving God with “heart, soul, mind, and strength.” She recounts several alarming studies: 46% of Americans check their phones as soon as they wake up; 66% of 18-24 year-olds do. 43% of Canadians don’t take all their vacation days. Canada and U.S are tied as third most sleep-deprived countries in the world. Japan, she observes, has a term for death-by-overwork: karoshi—identified as the cause of death for a 31-year old journalist whose heart failed after she spent months logging about 159 hours of overtime. This addiction to activity can cause us to miss our deepest callings as creatures made in the image of God.
In the first chapter, Yamasaki acknowledges the ambivalence many of her readers may feel about the term “self-care.” After all, it sounds utterly incompatible with the core Christian call of self-denial. Isn’t the life of a Christ follower a life of self-surrender, not self-care? In response, Yamasaki offers a short meditation on the second great commandment—“you shall love your neighbor as yourself”—in which she proposes a tension between neighbor love and self-love, suggesting that self-care is not “me, first” but “me, too.” The heart of self-care is rooted in an understanding not only of God’s basic care for us, but also in our core commitments—in other words, learning how to say “yes” and “no” in ways that keep us focused on our vocation.
The book is divided into four sections that reflect on what self-care might look like in the areas of heart, soul, mind, and strength. As an example of heart care, Yamasaki discusses the importance of living in community, citing Biblical examples from Moses following Jethro’s advice to delegate of judges, to Mary’s visit to Elizabeth for encouragement upon receiving the startling news of her pregnancy. In her discussion of soul care, Yamasaki references her earlier book, Sacred Pauses, suggesting pausing throughout the day for prayer, and listening to God through lectio divina. Loving God with our minds involves maintaining a singular focus on our goals by developing intentional practices—particularly in relation to media use. To love God with our bodies, we can develop better sleep and eating habits.
The title, Four Gifts, rightly reminds us that any such practices we acquire in our Christian life— disciplines, as the church has traditionally called them——are a gift rather than actions we perform through self-will. This word “gift” implies an intriguing tension between our work and God’s work. Yamasaki briefly addresses this tension in her discussion of self-discipline, reminding us that is a fruit of the Spirit, rather than something we conjure ourselves. This mystery is one I found myself wishing Yamasaki had explored even more fully. For, occasionally, the book read like a manual for self-improvement. For example, each section ends with a list of suggestions for action. While most of the suggestions are wisely oriented toward receiving care, such as, “reach out to someone when you need help,” “take a nap,” I still found myself inclined to perfect self-care through my own efforts, rather than through trusting dependence on God.
This caused me to wonder if thinking about transformation in terms “self-care” limits us to technique-driven self-improvement, when what we really need is wholesale intervention. When God shows up to Moses at the burning bush, or to Mary through Gabriel, their lives are overturned. Is it possible that to describe Moses’ subsequent appointment of judges, or Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in terms of “self-care” doesn’t encompass the expansiveness of God’s redemptive intervention for helpless creatures? What would it look like to consider self-care within the larger narrative of God’s transforming grace?
Ultimately, Four Gifts starts a much-needed conversation by powerfully exposing the pernicious frenzy of modern life and offering a different way. Perhaps, upon reading this book, many disintegrated people (like me as a graduate student) will be able to hear the voice of Jesus calling them into a desire of the heart that feels to good to be true. Four Gifts gently guides its readers toward a deeper encounter with the living God who cares for us.
Danielle Davey Stulac lives in Durham, NC with her husband, Daniel, and daughter Abigail, and is part of Blacknall Presbyterian Church. She is Program Director for the Theology, Medicine, and Culture Initiative at Duke Divinity School, and Adjunct Professor of English at California Baptist University Online.