“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” wrote poet, author, and activist Audre Lorde in her 1988 book, A Burst of Light.
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election—a moment in which both self-preservation and political warfare felt paramount—the idea of self-care entered the public consciousness more intensely. Google searches for the term spiked during mid-November, as scared and anxious Americans attempted to soothe themselves. And—as is wont to happen with terms coined and used by activists and marginalized groups—once self-care became buzzy, it also became somewhat watered down.
A simple Google search turns up lists with headlines such as “19 Items to Buy for Your Mental Health, Because Self-Care Isn’t Always Free” and “9 Products That Won’t Let You Forget About Self-Care This Year,” encouraging readers to purchase a $30 self-care journal or a $65 Jo Malone candle. Don’t get me wrong, I love bourgie candles as much as the next girl, and I don’t fault anyone for enjoying these products—products can be super fun, and retail therapy feels damn good! —but I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Audre Lorde was not thinking about going on a high-end bath-product shopping spree when she wrote about self-preservation as political warfare.
* * *
In 2012, Lucy McBath’s seventeen-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was fatally shot by a man who objected to the loud music he and his friends were playing at a Jacksonville, Florida, gas station. The tragedy rocked Lucy’s world and plunged her into an identity crisis. She had been Jordan’s mother for nearly twenty years. Who was she now?
Lucy found herself leaning into her Christian faith for solace and talking to God.
“Now that I’m no longer his mother, what do you want me to do with my life?” she asked.
Her answer came in the form of a calling. She sensed that what had happened to Jordan would continue to happen to other young men of color, and that staying silent was no longer an option. She’d never considered herself an activist. Hell, she’d never even been a public speaker. But she had a voice, and she was going to use it.
“I felt like all I needed to do was open my mouth and [see who] would listen to me,” she told me. “I felt like God had given me a mandate, and I was going to have to speak out. I felt like even though Jordan is no longer here, physically, I’m still his mother and I still need to parent him and protect him. A part of that was challenging the stand-your-ground laws. I’m going to challenge these laws, and I don’t care what it takes. Whoever would be willing to listen to me, whoever would open their doors for me, I was going to [speak to].”
And that is just what she did. And has kept doing.
She began speaking up about gun violence, police brutality, and racism. She told her story and people listened. She launched a national campaign against stand-your-ground laws—which her son’s killer used as a defense (he was convicted of first-degree murder in 2014 thanks to Lucy’s work). She became the faith and outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety and a national spokesperson for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She gave a moving address at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other Mothers of the Movement, other mothers who had lost their black children—Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Hadiya Pendleton, Dontré Hamilton—at the hands of gun violence and police brutality.3
“We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and urging you to say their names,” she said at the DNC, to those present and the many more watching on television. “We’re going to keep building a future where police officers and communities of color work together in mutual respect to keep children, like Jordan, safe. [. . .] And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.”
Lucy, if you can’t already tell, is an extraordinary woman. She exudes warmth and compassion in a way I have rarely experienced. When we met up for lunch at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, she greeted me with a full-hearted hug, even though we had only met in person once before. If you sit and talk with Lucy, within ten minutes you feel close to her, and sense that she would fight for your humanity if you were ever in need of her voice.
This unwavering dedication to other human beings also means that sometimes she can forget to take care of herself.
Lucy describes the years immediately after Jordan’s death as like being on a train that she couldn’t get off. It wasn’t until after the 2016 election that she realized she was completely burned out.
“I had planned to take a three-month hiatus, which I did. I was gone after the election and didn’t come back, formally, until March,” she told me. “It was the best thing I ever did because I really had a chance to figure out and create different ways to do this advocacy. When you’re so mired in the work from day to day, I think you have the tendency to lose a lot of the creativity. [Stepping back for a bit] really gave me a chance to sit at home and rest and think about, what does this advocacy look like for me going forward?”
This story of burnout is a common one for activists. After all, the work of creating social change can be emotionally, mentally, and physically grueling. So what’s one way to maintain a sense of sanity in the face of daily insanity? Self-care.
For the women I spoke to for this book, who come from various spheres, backgrounds, and geographical locations, self-care is less about relaxation products and more about the intangibles—the space that allows you to take a step back, recharge your soul, and say yes to yourself so that you can continue saying yes to others in effective and creative ways.
From the book, A Girl’s Guide to Joining the Resistance: A Feminist Handbook on Fighting for Good Copyright ©2018 by Emma Gray. Reprinted with permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.