In Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he shares a story of a woodcutter struggling for hours to saw down a tree in the forest. Another man comes along and suggests that he stop awhile to take a break and sharpen his saw. Perhaps then the process will be much faster and easier. “I can’t take a break,” the woodcutter says, “I’m too busy cutting down this tree.”
This story resonated with me when I first read it. For years I neglected my own self-care. How many times had I been that woodcutter refusing to stop, to sharpen the saw of my well-being because there was just too much to do, too many responsibilities more important than myself?
How often had I actually made my work harder by not taking time away from it to rest, to relax, to take care of my own needs? How many times had I created the fragmented pieces of a life that were unmanageable for me but believed I had no choice? This is just the way it is, I would tell myself. I allowed myself to believe that chronic stress and exhaustion were just a part of life that I needed to accept.
Years ago I went on a desperately needed silent retreat during a tumultuous time of my life. I was completely overextending myself and my health was suffering the consequences of it. After almost two days of resting, relaxing, meditating, eating delicious healthy food, and hiking in the woods, I began to feel myself coming back to life.
I felt something I had not felt in a long time. I felt good. It was like running into an old forgotten friend that I used to have so much fun with and didn’t even realize I missed her so much until we were there, in each other’s presence, laughing together again.
Then as I walked in the woods feeling connected to this person inside, I felt a defiance boiling up in me. “I have a right to take care of myself,” I thought for the first time. “Yes,” the voice grew louder, “I have a right to take care of myself!” I felt like a child stomping my feet in anger, desperately trying to prove my worthiness, to justify my need for care.
Suddenly an unexpected wiser voice spoke inside of me, “You don’t have a right to take care of yourself. You have a responsibility to take care of yourself.”
In that moment everything shifted. I no longer saw myself as this person who could choose to take care of myself if I found the time, if it suited me, if I got around to it. Now I saw myself as a woman whose primary responsibility was to my own well-being. I had been entrusted with this body, this heart, this mind, this spirit, and it is my job to take care of it, to feed and water it, to love it, to nurture it. This is my job. Sure, I have other responsibilities as well, but nothing is more important than this. Nothing.
I know there are a hundred things that get in the way of us caring for ourselves. Some of us have children, aging parents, demanding and important jobs, and so many other responsibilities. But the truth is if we do not have enough time to take care of ourselves, then we do not have enough spaciousness in our lives. It’s time to ask for support or let something go or stop feeling guilty or find creative and radical ways to change our lives.
We all deserve a life that is both meaningful and manageable. We all have a responsibility to ourselves.
In Cindy Ratzlaff’s book, Queen of Your Own Life, she wrote, “She made a promise to herself to hold her own well-being sacred.” Can we do that? Can we make that promise to ourselves? Can we do it without the guilt or the feelings of selfishness or unworthiness attached to it? I believe we can. I believe we must.
We are not just doing this for ourselves, although that would be a good enough reason. We are doing this for the world. When our saws are sharpened, when our strength reservoirs are full, we are better parents, daughters, sons, mentors, partners, guides, caretakers, encouragers, workers, friends, leaders, examples, human beings, and so much more.
My well-being is sacred. Yours is too. Let’s make a promise to honor that and live like we believe it.