On campus, we’re constantly encouraged to learn how to cope with stress. Columbia Health suggests that we exercise, eat well, and ask for help when we need it. Resident advisers make bulletin boards that encourage us to get off campus, go shopping, and make plans with friends. The language varies, but it’s clear that the Columbia community recognizes that taking care of ourselves is vital to our well-being and that doing so is easier with reminders.
Off campus, the concept of self-care is often debated; author Fariha Róisín characterizes it with the questions, “Is it indulgent? Is it too capitalist? Or is it, in actuality, necessary for our survival?” Róisín’s thoughts on self-care are deeply personal and conclude with even more questions. “How do you move past the bolt of a trigger, from the examination of trauma? It’s so important to say—this hurts me, or this is what happened to me, but how do you heal from such things?” I am similarly interested in a theory of self-care that centers healing as the next step in a progression from coping. The last act of self-care that I performed in 2017 was skipping one of the final classes of Music Humanities.
I chose to skip the Music Hum class on jazz, the one I had looked forward to the most all semester. As a treat for the class, our instructor invited a jazz band to perform and speak. Our instructor was enthusiastic and well-intentioned. She encouraged us to come prepared with questions about spontaneous music creation; she said she personally admired the skill of some musicians to improvise, but held lifelong apprehensions about her ability to perform it. She said it should be one of the easiest classes of the semester not to skip, but I did anyway.
I had never skipped Music Hum before, largely due to the fear that I wouldn’t be able to decipher the material on my own. Even when I had the flu I came to class with a bag of cough drops and left an empty seat between myself and the person nearest to me. But on jazz day, 10 minutes before I typically left for class, I was struck by a terrible thought: What would a Columbia jazz group look like? Would it be all-white? What would seeing a white jazz group in a majority white class with a white instructor feel like?
The thought was so terrible that it immediately made me feel guilty. Guilty for assuming the group would be all-white. Guilty for worrying that seeing an all-white jazz group would make me uncomfortable. Guilty for worrying about the conversation about race that the class would have to have. Guilty for worrying that the conversation would hurt. Guilty for being willing to skip class over something so seemingly inconsequential.
And also incredibly guilty that I was willing to betray the premise of the classroom to serve myself. There are a lot of theories about social contracts that I find shoddy, but I wholeheartedly believe in the one that dictates that the success of the classroom is based on active participation from students and their ability to be vulnerable in front of their peers. However, I doubted the strength of this social contract that day, and I know that skipping was unfair to my classmates, my instructor, and the performers—who I heard were engaging and talented.
However, I am confident that I made the right decision—a confidence that is born from the recognition that there are so few opportunities in which I can make decisions about whether or not to participate in dialogues about race. These decisions are so often made for me by a friend’s friend saying that he was a secret Trump voter, or by a classmate insisting that we owe creators of racist art in the Western canon our respect, or by those who claim that class has replaced race as the most relevant social tool for discussing inequality.
That day, the decision to have a conversation about race was made by my instructor and I was given the privilege of foresight, reading materials, a welcoming space, and ultimately the ability to choose not to participate. These are privileges I am incredibly grateful for, because on that day, it was a conversation that I felt was capable of hurting me more than helping me. Instead of risking the pain, I skipped class and didn’t send an email feigning illness.
Maybe the actual act of self-care wasn’t the decision-making itself, but the process of forgiving myself for making the decision. Self-care has to mean something more than choosing to prioritize my mental health when everyday choices are fraught with painful legacies. For me, it’s about being compassionate toward myself and trusting my ability to know what is best for me.
My advice is to reflect on your choices. Reflect on the ones that haunt you and the ones that you were able to make because of privileges you never expected to have. And even if you struggled to make them, or still struggle to forgive yourself for them, be compassionate toward yourself. Consider your fragility a necessary step in the healing process and try to embrace its awkwardness as evidence of growth.
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