Self and Soul
Despite my undying love for summer, I am always grateful for the rhythms and regularity of back-to-school season. As a student myself currently, this means the advent of work-rest rhythms of assignments and exams. As a parent, it means the welcome arrival of imposed structure for my child, and an outlet for her boundless curiosity. Even aside from being a parent and a student though, the air in my whole city shifts as the weather cools. In Wisconsin, people lose their minds during the summer—a phenomenon that puzzled me to no end when we moved here almost a decade ago, but I understand now. The warm, sun-soaked days of summer are so fleeting that beginning Memorial Day weekend and stretching to Labor Day the scramble is on to pack in as many outdoor activities as possible.
As the mundane grind of the cooler months settles in, conversations about self-care begin to crop up. Rest is in short supply for many of us. Our jobs demand 40+ hours of our attention each week. Many people have a side hustle of some sort—whether to make ends meet or to prepare for a future career move. Some of us are going back to school, or working to pay our way through school for the first time. Caring for children, nieces and nephews, or aging parents eats into our leisure time like vegetables on a dinner menu—good, necessary, healthy, and not always what we wish was taking up space on our plates. “How are you practicing self-care?” articles and inspirational speakers ask. Are you practicing yoga? Diffusing oils? Lifting weights? Taking long baths with unrealistic amounts of bubbles? How are you carving out “me” time?
Then there’s also the reaction from some of my fellow Christians that goes like this: “don’t worry about ‘self-care’ what you really need is ‘soul-care,’ and this distinction disturbs me.
When I was in college, I remember sitting in intro to philosophy and learning about Plato’s forms. The ancient philosopher asserted that there exists some sort of “higher forms”—true and undefiled beings, uncorrupted like the “lower forms” we encounter here on earth. A perfectionist to my core, I glommed on to Plato’s thought like it was the best thing I’d heard of since sliced bread. Plato’s views informed an emerging religious belief that people didn’t really need their bodies, that is that bodies are not essential, the really “real” aspect of a human was their soul.
Christians throughout the ages have encountered Plato’s thought and responded in similar ways as twenty-one-year-old me. C.S. Lewis is often attributed with saying “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” And while this can sound nice and seem like a good reminder that there is more to life than what meets the eye, it is decidedly more inspired by Plato than it is Jesus. If there is one thing Jesus teaches us, it is that God thinks bodies are awesome.
The book of John begins like this: “The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one…The Word became flesh and blood and moved in to the neighborhood.” (John 1:1-2, 14, The Message)
What kind of God is this? Who not only creates flesh and blood and calls it “very good” but who takes on flesh and blood, wrapping muscles over bone, coming to earth with the spilled-out blood and water of a mother. Rather than the God I imagined in college, who held up some idealized version of humanity for me to aspire to, a “higher form” unsoiled by the mess of the earth, the stink and sweat and grime of the body, Jesus—the Word made flesh! —is God’s emphatic, enthusiastic “YES!” over all our bodies.
When we consider whether to practice “self-care” or “soul-care” I am uneasy with the dichotomy because there is no self without both soul and body. So, while it may seem more “spiritual” to spend time reading your Bible; it may feel less “selfish” to spend your precious few minutes alone praying, the truth is yes! You are a soul, and you are a body, and caring for one directly related to caring for the other, that’s the way this type of union works.
“We cannot separate our bodies from our spirits from our minds from our hearts. We are one entity,” writes Linda Kay Klein. Theologian Beth Felker Jones points out that the binding together of soul and body in humanity gives us a picture of what it meant for Jesus to be both fully human and fully God. We can no more divide ourselves into “soul” and “body” than Jesus could divide himself into “God” and “human.” The power and beauty are in the mystery of these things bound together.
As the seasons change, routine settles in and stress levels rise, do practice care for yourself—your whole self—soul and body. Which may mean you need to pray and fast…or it may mean you need a tall glass of water and a nap.
You may need to clear out some space on your shelves and in your closets, take a break from shopping and live more simply, or you may need to invest in that pair of shoes you need to support your tired feet.
You may need to log out, step away from social media, block out the controversy and the heated dialogue, or you may need stay engaged, speak up, and call out misinformation or hatred when you see it to make space for someone else to flourish and thrive.
You don’t have a soul, you are a soul.
You don’t have a body, you are a body.
You need both to make you, well, you.