I struggle to believe that anyone is truly cold-hearted. Perhaps a measly few, but I reckon the vast majority of us are full of empathy and compassion at our core. When I think of all the needy, desperate people in the world, my heart aches. The toddlers orphaned by AIDs; the single mothers working 15 hour days in order to feed their children; earthquake victims who have lost their homes; migrants fleeing war and rape and death; men crippled by the weight of depression with nowhere to turn. How we wish there was a panacea for all this suffering. I remember when I was in Paris, I often saw refugees sleeping on the streets: men, women, pregnant women, children and babies, fighting to survive in the hope that somebody, anybody, would save them. And I wished I could be their saviour.
On his most recent album, Ed Sheeran sings ‘before I save someone else, I’ve got to save myself.’ This struck a chord with me, because I’ve come to realise that you simply cannot pour from an empty cup. You can’t help someone else if you are simultaneously destroying yourself. There was no way I could have helped those refugees in Paris, regardless of how much I wanted to, because I was starving myself. I was depriving myself of food and nourishment, of the energy to function, of the ability to empathise, or the capacity to comprehend the severity and vulnerability of their situation. I thought I could take care of someone else when I couldn’t even take care of myself, but it just doesn’t work like that – you can’t be working tirelessly in a research lab searching for a cure if you are sick with cancer yourself. You can’t be the resilient confident of a grieving friend if you yourself are battling crippling depression. You can’t help the rehabilitation of a stroke victim if your own health is deteriorating day by day.
There is this belief that self care is selfish. A belief that we should always be selfless and sacrificial and go out of our way to help others, regardless of the cost to ourselves. To some extent, I am all in favour of this: of course I am. Our compassion and humility is what makes us human, and helping others is integral to our sense of self worth. But there comes a point where we have to put ourselves first, and in no way is that wrong or selfish. If we are constantly giving away our love and our care, and never replenishing our stores, we will burn out, we will grind ourselves to the ground and we will fall apart.
Self care is never selfish. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about others; in fact, it means the opposite. It’s a marker of admirable self-awareness. You are so full of sympathy and benevolence and kindness, and so desperate to give it all away, yet you’re smart enough to know you can’t help someone to the best of your ability unless you help yourself first.
And the final line of the song? Before I love someone else, I’ve got to love myself.
Bang on, Ed.