I am a caregiver. Always have been one, at least for as long as I can remember. As a child, I took care of our family pets, my younger brother and cousins (until they were too old to let me do so), and my extended family of dolls and stuffed animals. It came as naturally as breathing. When I grew up, I found new outlets for my caregiving instincts, as a babysitter, a teacher, a hospital chaplain, a dog parent. I take those roles very seriously.
During the hours that any of my friends’ children are in my care, they may get educational games, crawling lessons, French lullabies, only the healthiest of snacks, more time with books than TV, and whatever else I can think of to ensure that their time with me helps them grow up healthy and happy. The patients and family members I interact with at the hospital may only be with me a short time, but it’s most often during life-and-death crises, some of the most critical moments of their lives. I do my best to be compassionate, non-judgmental, pastoral, calming, and honest. Whether or not they remember my being there, I want them to remember that during those difficult moments they were not alone, that they were loved.
My dog, Hurley, hears several times a day that he is loved. Whether or not he understands the words, I have no doubt that he understands the sentiment they express. To people who don’t understand, he may be “just” a dog, but to me, he is the one living creature God has entrusted entirely to me. The first two years of his life were, from all we can gather, pretty bad, and I accept it as my responsibility to make the rest of his (very, very long) life the best one possible. He gets only the healthiest of food and treats, has regular exercise no matter the weather or my energy level, is praised effusively when he behaves well (which is nearly always) and gently corrected when he doesn’t. I make sure he gets social stimulation by taking him to the park or spending time with friends who also have dogs, get him professionally groomed at least once a month, and never miss his bi-annual veterinary check-up.
But it has come to my attention today that Hurley is not, in fact, the only life God has entrusted entirely to me. I too easily forget about the other precious creature whose health and happiness depend on my daily care — myself. That is a responsibility I haven’t taken nearly as seriously as the others. It’s astonishing how bad caregivers can be at taking care of ourselves. I often feel selfish expressing my need for time away from work or saying no to more responsibilities at church. Yet when I could tell Hurley was getting stressed out by our full schedule of therapy dog work, I didn’t hesitate to cut back on the visits. I don’t put nearly as much thought into making sure I get healthy food and the right amount of exercise as I do with my dog. And when I make mistakes, I often get frustrated and angry with myself, not speaking gently as I do to Hurley.
As often as I “preach” to my friends, patients, and their family members about the importance of self-care, I am not always good at taking my own advice. Sometimes it helps me to remember that my life matters to God at least as much as Hurley’s does to me. Jesus did, after all, tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves. My closest neighbors are the children I babysit or tutor, the people I care for in the hospital, and the sweet dog who takes up more than his share of my bed. May God continue to teach me to show myself the same grace I give to them, so that I don’t run out of care to give for a long, long time.