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On smoke breaks and sleeping in: when does self-care become self-destructive?

| Friday, November 19, 2021

There is a central focus in a lot of leisure literature these days: how do we recreate? Especially post-pandemic, as this landscape changes, we have all borne witness to the trend of “self-care.” Face masks & skincare, smoothies and baking bread, staying in and watching Tiktoks–you name it. As college students today, we are inundated with the message to prioritize self-care for the purpose of maintaining mental and physical wellbeing. It’s why the University Counseling Center wants us to download the Calm app for meditation, why our dorms host other relaxing events, why McWell exists at all.

But the cult of “self care” habits contributing to a larger core of wellness is nothing new. In fact, self-care influencers in history have promoted habits that we now see as counterintuitive to one’s health.

For example, in modern Chinese literature, there existed a small group of intellectuals who focused on leisure and recreation, and this group contended that two habits we view today as bad actually do a person a net good. The habits in question were smoking and sleeping in. 

Essayist Liu Dajie writes of the former: 

“Tobacco in our daily lives is a luxury, something useless. But in our spiritual lives it is an essential element… When someone has lost at love, or has descended into a painful period in his life, he always wants to smoke, one cigarette after another. In the perpetual smoky shadows is another world that ordinary people cannot see, where it seems as if all one’s feelings of pain, sadness, tears, despair, and disillusionment dissolve into that cloud, and this can give us momentary solace.”

And essayist Lian Yuchun writes of the latter: 

“Getting up late in itself may seem like a lazy thing to do, but it provides us with the greatest possible energy, it makes our life vibrant and stimulating […] When you get up, you are sure to find that you do not have time to attend to all sorts of pressing business. As a result you will be extremely busy, and being ‘busy’ –particularly the kind of your own making– is the golden key to the palace of joy.”

Smokers, by virtue of their destructive habit, naturally punctuated their day with small breaks, interspersing work, and allowing them some fresh air throughout the workday. Moments of pause, moments to rest, moments to inhale what is a now known carcinogen. It could be argued that even “vape-rs” today are not afforded the same privileges. Instead, they walk among us, sneaking a puff on the way to class or between classes in the bathrooms. An even further point can be drawn about the way students use alcohol as a form of “self-care.” Instead of punctuating a day, perhaps we punctate a game day, or a weekend, or a week, with this gratifying break.

As for sleeping in, well, Notre Dame finds itself in the middle of the pack in statistics for the most sleepless US universities. Sleeping in is usually an okay solution, but not when it comes at the cost of missing class or rendering us unable to keep up with our daily tasks. Most students would agree that we’d like to sleep more, and yet there seems to be a competition for who can sleep the least. “Yeah, I was at the library until 2 last night finishing a paper” or “Bro, I was out all night at Olfs last night, got no sleep are two statements that grant someone a different type of “street cred,” and most of us can identify with one, the other, or both, as the case may be. 

We recognize on the surface that sleep deprivation and substance use are both “bad,” or at least that they have the capacity to be bad when we move beyond moderation. But what we often don’t recognize is that these activities are themselves a form of self care

This then begs the question: at what point does self-care become self-destructive?

This is a question that each person will have to reckon with at some point in their lives, and it’s one that college students face now more than ever amidst the growing trend of self-care discourse. People don’t usually like to talk about alcohol use and sleepless nights in the discourse of self-care. They usually like to talk about a new Korean beauty face mask made of snail slime or the newest superfood you can put into a green smoothie. But in order for us to have a real relationship with self-care, and in order for the campus dialogue to move forward, and for students to get any relief from daily stressors, we must come to terms with the reality that what is done for the purpose of “self-care” is not always “healthy”. Some attempts at self-care end up as self-medicating. We need to look at our habits when it comes to unwinding and relaxing, and we need to bridge the gap between the stereotype of self-care and what is going on in actual practice. 

Self-care is much more complex than slapping on a serum on a Sunday night. As college students, we experiment that some habits are more detrimental than others. But ignoring the fact that these habits are happening in the same realm and for the same purposes as traditional “self-care” is a huge disservice to our ultimate wellbeing.

Alexa Schlaerth is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame pursuing degrees in Chinese and philosophy. As an Angeleno, Alexa enjoys shopping at Erewhon Market, drinking kombucha and complaining about traffic because it’s “like, totally lame.” Alexa can be reached at [email protected] over email.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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