The Time Traveler: Self-care

Hugh Ellis

I have often had issues with the ‘self-care industry’ and the self-care posts of ‘influencers’ on social media.

For a start, some of its favorite things to say seem patently untrue.

‘You can’t pour from an empty cup.’ Except throughout my youth, I witnessed people pouring from very empty cups; it was the most disadvantaged, marginalized, run-down, beat-down-upon people I saw taking care of others. Certainly not the upwardly-mobile types who could ‘afford’ to.

‘You can’t love others unless you love yourself.’ Is this true? Who totally, unreservedly loves themselves in these confusing times? Yet we still manage to love others, however imperfectly. I’ve seen those on the verge of suicide take care of others despite their own suffering, or perhaps because of it.

‘Self-care is the first duty of a revolutionary’. That certainly strikes a chord. But those words, originally by poet and activist Audre Lorde, were aimed at marginalized people, who certainly deserve a day off from the fight. I’m was not sure what they meant, if anything, for a ‘diet woke’ middle-class keyboard-social-justice-warrior like me, who is complicit in many of the unjust systems he’s trying to undo.

So, yeah, in the past I was all too ready to dismiss the self-care mantra as a load of bunkum. It helped that many of the things touted as self-care – going to the spa, getting a massage, pedicures – were not the kind of thing I gravitate towards.

But this year, 2020 – with its lockdowns, travel restrictions, economic hardships, the constant threat of getting a virus that might kill your elderly parents even if it spares you, and the constant expectation to meet targets at work as if nothing has changed – has made me think again.

I went into Lockdown One with an optimistic spirit. There would be two weeks, maybe four weeks, to stay at home and recharge, then we’d be back to normal.

Alas, things didn’t turn out that way. By mid-year – with the first deaths of Namibians from the Coronavirus, with the headaches of having to do business online in a county ill-equipped for such, with Donald Trump playing silly buggers in the US, and with a poor young black man killed over a bottle of stolen glue back at home – I had fallen into a state of cabin fever and despondency.

At some stage a couple of months ago, I realized I needed to pause, calm down, re-evaluate, and in the words of Michael Jackson’s famous song, ‘start with the man in the mirror’.

I guess I’ll let the self-care influencers know I take their point. Sort of.

I didn’t go for any manicures, but I did start taking myself out for a Dagwood at Wimpy on Friday afternoons.

I started saxophone lessons, having long wanted to play an instrument but having never made it a priority. I started taking night rides around my hood on my bicycle – no Lance Armstrong training program, but a way to get out of my head nonetheless.

And slowly, inexorably, my mood – as well as my drive to change real, working-world, political-world things – began to improve.

I’m still justifiably suspicious of an industry that uses self-care and ‘wellness’ to sell everything from yoga courses to ‘Hollywood’ waxes. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do self-care on your own terms. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do calming things together, so self-care becomes social care.

Ultimately, Audre Lorde was right. You can change things as a burned-out warrior, but you’ll do it better as a centered individual. Heck, it’s a rebellion against a global capitalism that seems to relish in seeing human beings only as means of production, just to take a few minutes doing something you’re not paid for.

So, please, in this ridiculous year, take that 30 minutes of to chill with your kids, or play that soccer game with your buddies you’ve been putting off. Switch off the Instagram (or NBC or CNN) buzz and take a walk outside.

Remind yourself you’re a human being.

Hugh Ellis is a Namibian citizen and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communication of the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views he expresses here are personal views. Follow Hugh’s blog at

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