The problem with self-love as we currently understand it is in our view of love itself, defined, too simply and too often, as an extraordinary feeling that we respond to with hearts and flowers and fantasy, ritual consumption and affectless passion. Modernity would have us mooning after ourselves like heartsick, slightly creepy teenagers, taking selfies and telling ourselves how special and perfect we are. This is not real self-love, no more than a catcaller loves the woman whose backside he’s loudly admiring in the street.
The harder, duller work of self-care is about the everyday, impossible effort of getting up and getting through your life in a world that would prefer you cowed and compliant. A world whose abusive logic wants you to see no structural problems, but only problems with yourself, or with those more marginalized and vulnerable than you are. Real love, the kind that soothes and lasts, is not a feeling, but a verb, an action. It’s about what you do for another person over the course of days and weeks and years, the work put in to care and cathexis. That’s the kind of love we’re terribly bad at giving ourselves, especially on the left.
The broader left could learn a great deal from the queer community, which has long taken the attitude that caring for oneself and one’s friends in a world of prejudice is not an optional part of the struggle—in many ways, it is the struggle. Writer and trans icon Kate Bornstein’s rule number one is “Do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living. Just don’t be mean.” It’s more than likely that one of the reasons that the trans and queer communities continue to make such gains in culture, despite a violent backlash, is the broad recognition that self-care, mutual aid, and gentle support can be tools of resistance, too. After the Orlando massacre, LGBTQ people across the world started posting selfies under the hashtag #queerselflove. In the midst of the horror, the public mourning, and the fear, queer people of all ages and backgrounds across the world engaged in some light-hearted celebration of ourselves, of one another.
The ideology of wellbeing may be exploitative, and the tendency of the left to fetishize despair is understandable, but it is not acceptable—and if we waste energy hating ourselves, nothing’s ever going to change. If hope is too hard to manage, the least we can do is take basic care of ourselves. On my greyest days, I remind myself of the words of the poet and activist Audre Lorde, who knew a thing or two about survival in an inhuman world, and wrote that self care “is not self-indulgence—it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.
— Life-Hacks Of The Poor And Aimless, Laurie Penny