Recently I had a strange shehecheyanu moment: I said a blessing over my first blood pressure pill.
I've known for a while that I probably don't take good-enough care of myself. I work too hard; I don't sleep enough or exercise enough or make enough time for self-care. But I figure I'm not alone in that, and on some level I've always assumed there would be time for that later. For now, there's so much to do! And I like what I do, and I like the satisfaction of taking on work and doing it well. But the flipside of that coin is that sometimes I demand too much of myself. And lately that trend has come to a head.
Last week I discovered that my blood
pressure was distressingly high. In a way, the news wasn't surprising;
this has been a high-stress year, between beginning rabbinic school
and continuing to run my arts nonprofit, taking the reins of my shul and establishing the Progressive Faith Blog Con... Anyway, to make a long story short, we're taking appropriate steps medically. Meanwhile, discovering the hypertension has sparked a cascade of emotional and intellectual responses.
Working at the hospital taught me, in visible and visceral ways, that our bodies are fragile. But it's one thing to recognize that other people are dealing with the challenges of embodiment and another thing entirely to realize, deep down, that one's own life is a training-ground for these same lessons.
I believe that we can find (or make) meaning in our bodies' imperfections. Impermanence is a powerful religious teaching, and our bodies help us learn it again and again. Right now, I guess, I'm getting the decidedly complicated blessing of a medical wake-up call. I try to practice mindfulness of my surroundings, my emotional landscape, the challenges I face and the pleasures that balance them. Now I get to begin practicing mindfulness of my blood pressure, too.
All weekend I dreaded calling my parents to share this news. I didn't want to worry or sadden them. To my relief, they responded with regret but not surprise. Turns out all four of my grandparents suffered from hypertension; many members of my family already take these little pale-peach-colored pills. In a strange way, that makes me feel better. As startling as it is to encounter this at age thirty-one, it must be manageable, since so many others in my family have managed it. I'm in good company.
It's funny, and a little bit sad, that I'm so much better at caring for others than caring for myself. (Based on the other clergy and student clergy I know, I suspect I'm not alone in this.) I can preach the gospel of self-care -- the need for meditation and prayer and exercise, the wisdom of Shabbat as an enforced break from work and stress, the intricate interconnections between body and mind and spirit -- but I don't always make caring for myself a priority. There's just so much to do, so much real and important work...! How can I ramp down my workload when there's so much yet undone?
But I must, precisely because the work is so real and so important. Becoming, God willing, a rabbi. Working in my communities, both the sacred and the secular. Ministering to people in need. Writing liturgies and poems that speak to people's hearts. Being a friend, and a daughter, and a sister, and a wife. Creating a legacy of relationships. Doing what I can to make the world a better place. I won't be able to do these things if I run myself into the ground.
It's time to take a step back. To find a way to work and worry less; to make more time for prayer and meditation and exercise. (Also to work with my doctor on the medical details, in conjunction with the emotional and spiritual ones.) There's too much to do for me to squander the health I've been given. In the words of the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, "it's late but everything comes next."