How to care: an essay
2021 / 2022
How do we care, for Self & for other, in a world that is on fire? Is a personal essay on the need for collective care, as apposed to individualised forms of care wired in capitalist structures of un-care.
This essay is inspired by important queer, Black, feminist and activist works on community care such as; iLiana Fokianaki from The Bureau of Care, Alok Vaid-Menon and Sarah Ahmed's reading on Audre Lorde. Next to that I cite my two personal favorite works that go into conscious Self healing and how our (collective) ego plays a role in keeping up a destructive system;
“How To Do The Work” by psychologist Nicole Leperra and “A New Earth'' by Eckhart Tolle
How do we care,
for Self & other,
in a world that is on fire?
It’s Sunday morning and I am standing in the fruit and vegetable section of the supermarket. My girlfriend went on to grab some other items on our list, but I can’t seem to make a decision on what to buy. I was planning on getting an eggplant, but they are all wrapped in plastic, so that’s a no go. Also I’m hungry and I really feel like eating avocado on toast, but I know that buying them means buying into a monoculture food production that respects neither planet (1), nor people so ever mind. My girlfriend comes back to find me standing there, not really moved yet. Babe are you stuck? She asks. “Every fucking thing is wrapped in plastic, why don’t we go to a greengrocer anyway? I hate this supermarket and I hate living in the city” I reply, clearly agitated. Every choice seems like the wrong choice and my mind is starting to spin, I look around and all I see is plastic packaging, I see people bagging up plastic wrapped veggies in plastic bags, I see ready prepared meals and...my inside fills up with anger and sadness as I am still standing there, stuck in the produce aisle. “It’s just this fucking system, everything’s fucked up, everybody just keeps doing what they do and they don’t seem to give a fuck about their actions. They just walk around mindlessly like sheep, living their stupid lives” I say and I start to cry.
Before I go on, I would like to introduce myself for a minute, because what you just read and will read, can of course not be seen separately from who “I am”, and I feel it needs to be in context for you to be able to hear my words completely.
I am a white woman. I was born into a very wealthy country. My mum, who raised me, is an artist and a free spirit who does not like to conform to “the norm”. My dad on the other hand, who lives abroad, is a Jehovah’s Witness, which is at the least to say, a very interesting combination. I identify with the same gender as the sex I am born into, but not so much the construct of this gender that our system has created for us to fit into. Since we are talking labels, I would say I identify with what being queer and loving queer means to me, not only because my sexual preference falls outside of the heteronormative construct but also because all my life I have had a very strong feeling of not being “normal” or fitting in, which now something that I see as my blessing. As Eckhart Tolle(2) describes so beautifully: “One can go as far as to say that on this planet “normal” equals insane. What is it that lies at the root of this insanity? Complete identification with thoughts and emotion, that is to say, ego”. l will get back to the ego part a bit further on.
I have sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) or HSP (3) and ADHD. It means that I have an increased nervous central sensitivity to physical, emotional and social stimuli, so I process more stimuli than (some) others. It means I get easily overwhelmed by sound, by emotions, by information, but it also means I am very receptive to other people’s energies, emotions and pain. It’s like I can feel it like it is my own, which as you can imagine, in our world, can be A LOT. It’s why a lot of times the world we live in becomes too much for me, too loud, too painful to be in, too painful to watch. It’s like I care too much. I can feel this system that is built up of oppression, of otherness, of wanting more, just forcing itself into my body, into my veins, but I don’t know how to change it, how to get rid of it. And what better place to feel all the above, than in a supermarket on a Sunday morning?
Why am I telling you all this? Because I believe that care is crucial, but in order to care in the “right” way, we need to heal first. I believe that how we heal and how we take care of ourselves matters to the world, and vice versa. Care can change how we show up in the world, in our communities, on our planet and for ourselves. I am writing this because care has been my downfall and my biggest strength, it’s what has the power to bring me down, but when used right, can also be a fuel for change. I believe that the more we heal, the more we start to care, and we realise that whatever position we are in, that it is all of our pain to care for.
So, how do we care “right”?
There is a significant difference between individualised, self centered “self-care” and conscious care for Self that can not be seen separately from community and from healing (i.e. collective care). The first part is very important to unpack before proceeding onto the second: where the notion of care and health has it’s roots in many first nations and ancient cultures (4), it has been violently misused and individualised with the rise of European colonialism and the Industrial Revolution. To quote iLiana Fokianaki (5) from The Bureau of Care, who has written an extensive and historically critical essay on the individualisation of care: ”Self-care was turned into a sign of cultural sophistication for the Western imperialist class, and looking after your own well-being was framed as the individual’s obligation towards society.” while they stress the importance of recognising ”how systems of colonial oppression operated in part by imposing certain standards of hygiene and diet on indigenous populations, “teaching” them to take care of themselves.”
Examples of this can still be found endlessly in “our” culture today, where commodified self-care is fed by us and to us, trying to care ourselves into believing that being rich, white, skinny, able, spot-and hair-less (etc.) is the most respectable position to be in, while forcing this dominant worldview onto others through i.a. the means of (social) media under #selfcare. Although, I would like to acknowledge that however sceptical I am about this (now) I have to refrain myself from only “blaming” the individual for becoming a puppet of the system here, since the same capitalised and colonised notions of care also reach deep into my own pockets. Not too long ago I jokingly said “I don’t want to become one of “those” radical feminist who grow their body hair just to make a point” - jokes on me apparently.
Putting the blame solely on myself and the other, thus the individual, would only uphold the idea of individual obligation towards “society” or individual “fault”, once again deflecting attention away from seeing the actual, structural problem we are collectively facing here. However, there is a fine line between being compassionate in the face of (un)learning and ignoring the problem and with that our individual responsibility all together, which is why we have to begin to understand the importance of collective care.
Self as part of collective
If individualised self-care can carry such a destructive tone, then how can care for Self still play a crucial part in collective care? The short answer is; because it can be integral to it. The long answer is; It’s complicated and I am still trying to wrap my head around the essence of this form of care, but I will try to make sense of it in the next part.
The care for Self (note: I am distinguishing higher Self with self identified by ego) as part of the collective, has not only played part in the most transformational healing journeys of my own life, I also believe it is a way to break free collectively. Because when care for Self becomes part of the collective need for care, it is simultaneously going against the individualised forms of living and care that amplify systems of inequality and oppression. For me personally, one of the ways to keep sane and dismantle that system within me, is to go in and connect to that Self. To ask myself: where do you hurt? How can I care for you? To take care of myself holistically, which is spiritually mentally and physically, whilst recognising the impact that my particular forms of care have on my environment.
I have learned a great deal from Dr. Nicole Leperra (6), who has written an amazing workbook on conscious healing titled “How to do the work”. She has also created an (online) community for self healing, which I am glad to be a part of. And the community part of this work, which I will get into later, makes it that much more powerful and meaningful than it would without. “To do the work” individually, as I have embodied it so far, is to first become aware, conscious of the ego’s voice, and to then separate your Self from it. And whilst doing so I’ve recognised that the ego speaks in the same words as the system (or the other way around actually) that has been creating structural inequality and pain for centuries. That it is that same voice telling us that we are not enough or we are better than, we need to do more or be more, want more, produce more, and most importantly that it is the voice that creates separateness between “I” and “You”. But when you see it, do not reject this part of yourself, but acknowledge its existence and compassionately allow yourself to heal beyond that, because it comes from pain.
To dismantle the system inside yourself, to do your own work on rethinking and relearning patterns, healing (intergenerational) traumas and negative convictions takes time. I believe that to care for Self, is to allow yourself to heal, whatever that means to you. To allow yourself to feel, to cry, to scream, to mourn, and not less significantly to play, to love, to rest, to be(7). All of those things matter when we do the work on changing the harmful narratives that are inside most of us. Where the individualised and supremacist form of care is only meant to support these oppressive constructs, in collective care lies a power of dismantling it, because it goes beyond the egoic self. And this notion of collective (Self) care for me carries the importance of collective (Self) healing. Because the more I heal “me”, the more I can see “you” as you are, which is not separate from me. When writing this, these beautiful words of Alok Vaid-Menon keep echoing in my mind:
“I am non binary, which is not just that I am challenging the binary between male, female, man, woman, but between us and them. In your statement you said “Why don’t I help them?” as if this struggle is not your struggle too. The reason you don’t fight for me, is because you are not fighting for yourself fully.” .. “What I want us to rephrase the conversation is, are you ready to heal? And I don’t think the majority of people are ready to heal, and that’s why they repress us trans and gender-variant people, because they have done this violence to themselves first.” (8)
Community as part of collective care
In order for us to re-imagine and recreate a “new” (post-capitalist if you will) Earth, we will need to work on healing our systems of care. Not only should we give room to heal as individuals (collectively), but we can not go without recognising the importance of community care and organisation, because it is the very essence of change.
I would like to lead with an example of a practice of community care within my own neighbourhood that I find quite strong and yet so simple:
Just around the corner from where I live, on a communal square, stands a “Give and Take’’ stall. It is a community organised (as far as I am aware of) and maintained project, which has been there for at least as long as I live there. I have cycled, walked by, taken from and given to this cart many times and it seems to pop up in my mind quite often, leaving me with a spark of hope for our kind and an intrinsic drive to participate in all of the changes needed. The simple concept being that you give something and/or take something (it’s all in the name right), whatever fits your need or space at that moment (not necessarily in that order or at the same time). It contains clothing, lots of books, food and homeware including holiday decorations, depending on the season. It has been expanded to an extra table recently and there is a box filled with donated bread, with a note that states very clearly that this bread is meant for humans, not birds. It has been graffiti sprayed on and those same words have been removed. Honestly I am not entirely sure who it is that maintains the stall, but I’ve found myself tidying it up at some point, and I have observed other people doing the same, so it seems to be quite community organised. This stall is for everybody to see and participate in, and the central location gives it that extra attention.
There are of course endless cases of small and large scale community care projects, some good, some not so good, but this particular one seems like a good example to me of how simple it can really be. How contributing to care doesn’t always have to be this huge gesture in order for it to make a difference. They can come in many different forms; from community organised health insurance to online safe spaces and communal gardens. How we go on to organise or participate in those small and large collective practices of care however make all the difference, to avoid it from turning back into individualised and privatised care.
The important nuance here lies in acknowledging what position we are organising and participating from, and most importantly who has access to it. I think that when we talk about care as a part of collective or community care, it’s important to recognise that having the time, space and resources to care for oneself and/or others and to be cared for, is a form of privilege for one and a necessity for another. The distinction here is subject to the need for care as a form of survival. To refer to Sarah Ahmed reading on Audre Lordes’ A Burst of Light:
“.. And that is why in queer, feminist and anti-racist work self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the experiences of being shattered .. For those who have to insist they matter to matter: self-care is warfare.” (9)
If we want to heal collectively, we must do so mindfully and prioritize the healing and care of those that are most impacted by oppression, which is why community care is so important. Because it is not the individual care for self that is problematic or “selfish” on its own. It is however the case, when it becomes a priority or superiority to care for self, without taking into account the care needed and taken away from fragile individuals and groups.
There are a lot of ways to sustain and create collective care (of which I have added some extra personal insights at the end of this essay). But, before I go there, I would like to conclude with what I believe (so far) is the essence of what collective care is really all about: that we are all interconnected. Every being; every plant, every animal, every human and so forth. When I suffer, you suffer. We might think with our unconscious brains that we are not, but we are. We shouldn’t just build on each other in order to survive, we should build on each other in order to thrive, collectively. Because, we need each other in order to heal, to create change. I believe we desperately need to collectively care for others and ourselves, to make sure we don’t carry all of the pain on our own. To not keep all of the joy of living to ourselves.
The glorification of individuality has only been created to uphold polarisation and otherness, to keep most small and manageable. It is made so that few can “thrive” in the mindset that “finds collective expression in the economic structures of this world, such as huge corporations, which are egoic entities that compete with each other for more”(2). Individualism does not equal collective freedom. Capitalism is not freedom. Although it is perceived by some this way, they are the chains that keep us stuck in the same system that gave us its false sense of freedom to begin with.
“In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle the eyes.” - Kahlil Gibran (10)
In addition to my text, I would like to conclude with a couple of points that I have found to be quite meaningful within practices of collective care. Because practicing it in the right way might be even more important than writing or thinking about it, in order for us to re-imagine a new system of care.
Working together towards creating sovereignty and accessibility within (new) sustainable systems: food systems, healthcare, income, education.
Giving/sharing what you can: time, space, love, knowledge, money, food, shelter etc.
Also: accepting the same from others.
Buying from and supporting local (fair) businesses and community projects.
Actively listening and asking others what they need instead of filling in the blanks.
Holding space for others and yourself to heal however they/you see fit.
Creating and respecting boundaries.
Sharing personal (embodied) knowledge on care, health and healing practices.
Being allies to those that are hurt most by oppressive structures, making it a
priority for them to heal.
Slowing down as opposed to exponential growth.
Using and sharing your own personal skills and talents to create change.
Practicing intersectionality and being actively anti-racist, - sexist, - ableist etc.
and working on educating yourself on topics that you are not familiar with.
Saying no to capitalist systems of un-care where possible.
Allowing yourself to experience life to the fullest of its expression.
Allowing yourself to be (enough).
(1)Sustainable Food Trust (2020). [online] Sustainable Food Trust. Available at: https:// sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/why-our-love-for-avocados-is-not-sustainable/.
(2)Tolle, E. (2016). A New Earth : Awakening to your Life’s Purpose. London, UK Penguin Books.
(3)Verywell Mind. (n.d.). Highly Sensitive Person Traits That Create More Stress. [online] Available at: https://www.verywellmind.com/highly-sensitive-persons-traits-that-create-more-stress-4126393.
(4)Narayan, S. (1638). Ancient wisdom for healing the planet. [online] www.ted.com. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/shweta_narayan_ancient_wisdom_for_healing_the_planet?language=en.
(5)Fokianaki, I, The Bureau of Care. (2021). 5, A Bureau for Self-Care: Interdependence versus Individualism, (e-flux journal #119, June 2021). [online] Available at: http://thebureauofcare.org/2021/10/5-a-bureau-for-self-care-interdependence-versus-individualism-e-flux-journal-119-june-2021/.
(6)Lepera, N. (2021). How to Do the Work : Recognize Your Patterns, Heal from Your Past, and Create Your Self. Harpercollins Publishers.
(7)Brown, A.M. (2019). Pleasure activism : the politics of feeling good. Chico, Ca: Ak Press.
(9)Ahmed, S. (2014) feministkilljoys. Selfcare as Warfare. [online] feministkilljoys. Available at: https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/08/25/selfcare-as-warfare/.
(10)Gibran, K. (1973) The Prophet; Published by Alfred A Knopf, Inc.