Rock, Sand, and Cura Personalis

March 11, 2019

(This is the transcript of a keynote address I offered at the Canisius College All-College Honors Program annual banquet. It's on the longer side for my posts.)

 

“Rock, Sand, and Cura Personalis: 

Self-Care as a Foundation for Service”

Paul Cumbo

Canisius College Honors Banquet

March 7, 2019

 

 

There’s a story in Chapter 7 of the Gospel of Matthew called “The Two Foundations.” We hear of two houses—one built upon rock, the other upon sand. The rains come, flooding ensues, and, well, the results are predictable. Anything we want to last, and to function well, needs a solid foundation. 

 

Our Jesuit education calls us to a life of service. Essential to that is cura personalis, care of the whole person. My talk is centered on three concepts: strong foundations, a service ethic, and cura personalis. Specifically, I want to explore cura personalis as it applies to self-care, insofar as self-care is the solid foundation for a life of service to others. Let me be clear: I’m saying it’s a both/and proposition: this life of service requires self-care and care of others. Each depends upon the other. They are simultaneous responsibilities—not sequential or alternating.  

 

On Valentine’s Day, I decided to do a Socratic Seminar with my twelfth-grade students—all boys—at Canisius High School. I like Socratic Seminars, and I thank the Honors Program for introducing them to me 20 years ago. Basically, we sit in a circle and talk about stuff that matters. Anyway, the question I posed to them was this: “I’ve come to believe that in order for a man to love someone else in the most genuine way, he must genuinely love himself, too. What do you think about this?” 

 

It was a great talk. It hinged, as these conversations do, on taking time to define our terms. So, for example, it was important for us to define “genuine love of self.” We arrived, by way of a meandering intellectual journey, at something like this: Love of self means acknowledging the fullness of who we are, including strengths and flaws, and “taking care of” all those parts. 

 

We differentiated between “liking” something and “loving” it—and that love is not merely liking, more intensely. We explored how it was possible to love our own flaws, even if we disliked them. Because ‘to love’ means ‘to take care of.’ To invest in. To work hard at improving. By that logic, of course, the things we like least about ourselves are the very things that require the most love. Our flaws, weaknesses, inequities, and bad habits. We don’t have to like them, we have to love them. Because they are, if we’re honest, part of the wholeness of our humanity—which, paradoxically, includes our brokenness. 

 

Now, remember, I had asked them about loving others. Well, it’s not hard to make the connection: unless we are willing to love our own flaws, it stands to reason that we would have trouble loving—that is, caring for—the flaws of others. And without this, how authentically, fully, and enduringly can we love the wholeness of their humanity, including their unique kinds of brokenness?

 

I am not a counselor, at least not a “capital-C” counselor. But I have been told by those who are that when a person is truly struggling to find self-worth, it often manifests in a breakdown in basic self-care. Those struggling neglect things like eating. Bathing regularly. Brushing teeth. Bothering to do the laundry, to change the sheets. And those same counselors have told me that oftentimes, those basic things are the starting point for helping a struggling person. There is a therapy consisting of wholly small victories. Achieving the small stuff matters, because taking care of oneself is, however simple it may be, an act of love.

 

This is personal to me because when I was your age I was going through a clinically diagnosed depression. It followed a life-changing decision I made to quit, just as I was getting started, a promising military career at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. I can say honestly it is the only commitment I’ve ever quit in my life. I had built my entire adolescent sense of self and purpose around the dream of military service, like my father, who was an Air Force Major, and both of my grandfathers, who were noncommissioned officers in World War II, only to arrive in the reality of the moment and realize, over the course of a couple sleepless nights (with a rifle at my side—an M1, caliber .30, gas operated, clip fed air cooled semiautomatic shoulder weapon, sir), that I had been wrong. Or maybe I was just scared. Maybe I just quit when it got tough. I was my platoon leader, and doing well. My company tried to talk me out of it. But whatever the reason—and I’m not sure I’ll ever know completely—I quit, put down my M1 caliber .30 gas operated clip fed air cooled semiautomatic shoulder weapon, took off my uniform, and signed my withdrawal papers. I spent the next few years back here in Buffalo, dragging myself from class to class at Canisius College, wallowing in what felt like aimless stupor. And at the worst of it, I stopped taking care of myself. It’s not that I got into drugs. Nothing like that. It’s that I stopped caring enough to take a shower in the morning, or eat. Or get out of bed at all. 

 

If we can equate love with “taking care of,” not just “having strong feelings for,” we realize the stuff we don’t like needs more love. More care. More cura, that is. It is telling that I spent much of those college years very much in isolation. I wasn’t in a place to love others well—certainly not to be of much service to them, at least not sustainably. There was too much deficit at ground zero.  

 

Okay. I’m shifting gears a bit, but you’ll see the connection. We all know there’s one piece of Ignatian jargon that stands above all others: “Men for others.” 

 

Make that, “Men for and withothers.” Err…, no, make it, “Men and women for others.”

 

Okay. So, let’s go with “Men and women for and with others.”

 

However you’ve come to know it—and let’s face it; it has become quite a mouthful by now—this phrase is connected to Jesuit education. It was coined by Superior General Pedro Arrupe in a 1973 address in Valencia, Spain. He was speaking to the alumni of Jesuit schools, calling them to task. 

 

Throughout his talk, he implored these men—yes, mostly men at the time—to re-examine their lives since graduating. Simultaneously, he critiqued Jesuit education as a whole, suggesting that it had fallen short of its formative mission. There is some not-so-subtle chastisement. It is not a comfortable read. I wasn’t there, of course, but I can only imagine it was even less comfortable to hear in person.

 

And it’s brilliant. Arrupe offers both genuine affirmation and unambiguous challenge. He’s nuanced where appropriate and blunt where needed. The man had an enviable acumen for agile articulation. I have spent many hours over the years studying and discussing this document with students and colleagues. It has traveled with me, dog-eared, coffee-stained, and egregiously annotated, from the Nepal Himalaya, to the mountains of the Dominican Republic, to the high desert of the Navajo Nation, serving as fuel for the kind of challenging, formative conversations that take place in these classrooms of life. 

 

Arrupe’s talk compels deep, critical reflection. It calls for contemplation in action, with an emphasis on the action part. It was a timely kick in the pants to a demographic Arrupe called out for being complacent in their ‘posts of power.’ 

 

When you hand a document like this to a young person, especially a young person who cares about the world, it’s sure to stoke the fires. In my twenties, that is, once I emerged from the depression I described earlier, I spent a great deal of time in restless confrontation with life’s inequities. I had the gift of travel in the form of traveling to India and Nepal between my junior and senior year of college, and the world woke me up. 

 

Suddenly yanked from the doldrums of my own psychological struggles,  I witnessed a wholly different type of struggle in the slums of New Delhi, I changed quickly. I changed even more quickly when I began my teaching career the same week of 9/11, just a few miles from the Pentagon. I engaged with the world in those years, and its gut-wrenching terror became altogether apparent. I as spent more time in the poor villages of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, I struggled to reconcile these parts of the world with the decadence of suburban Washington, D.C., where I had begun my teaching career with the often-privileged sons of the elite at Georgetown Prep. And Arrupe’s document, and its derivative catch-phrase, kindled in my heart and mind a passionate insistence that the world was hopelessly inclined toward injustice. I was convinced that radical action was the principal priority, and that established structures and systems were flawed irreparably. And I was convinced, also, that so much of the problem lay deep in a fundamental human flaw—and that was our universal selfishness. I saw problems everywhere in society. At times, I was inclined to disavow my entire upbringing as a fraud. I resented my own material wealth, which, as a teacher was not much by American standards but a fortune by global standards. And yet I knew that wealth it was the very reason I’d come to where I was. You see, my education—including the writings of Jesuits like Pedro Arrupe and Daniel Berrigan—had presented a conundrum: I was the son of privilege, and yet I also knew it was my privileged education that brought me to said awareness—and a fervent desire to transform the world. There’s a both/and conundrum for sure.

 

I’d like to think some good came from this. But I also know that this period of my life was one in which, ironically, I wasn’t disciplined. I poured myself, often without balance or measure, into my work. I sacrificed friendships and personal relationships. There was a period in my late twenties, just before I met my wife, when I was literally living across the street from work, teaching full time, coaching full time, and directing service programs full time. It was in many ways an “either/or” kind of life. It was either work related, or it was of no real value or consequence to me. As such, I saw my own personal inequities, my own bad habits, those things no one else could see, as entirely disparate from an outward life wholly focused on outward service. It wasn’t that I brandished it vocally—I didn’t brag about it. It’s just that I ignored the clear inner longings that told me I was lonely, that this was unsustainable, that I was in many ways being hypocritical, and that—in the worst moments—I was growing resentful. When I would hear of friends getting married, I grew resentful of my own failed relationships. When I would have financial trouble, I grew resentful of my own career choice—one that I knew damned well would never pay much. When my adolescent students acted like, well, adolescents, failing to acknowledge just how much blood, sweat, and tears I was investing in their education, I grew resentful of them. I would grow judgmental of their parents’ parenting skills—something I was woefully unqualified to do, as is (I believe, to be quite blunt) anyone who isn’t a parent. Gradually, I began to resent my own commitment to service and to others. Because, you see, that’s what happens when a young person burns himself with the bright flames of an outward-directed service ethic while failing to maintain the slow-burning, subtly burning coals at the heart of the fire by practicing mature self-care. Eventually, resentment grows. Eventually, the fire goes cold. 

 

Well, for me, the coals endured—although just barely for a while. Because God is good, I met my wife a week before I turned thirty. And just in time, Megan saved me from my own self-assured disintegration. My firebrand sensibilities were tempered by the very different decade of my thirties. Specifically, my restlessness was calmed by marriage, and even more so mitigated by fatherhood. My thirties have brought me, slowly but steadily, to a more refined (though undoubtedly incomplete) understanding of the world, of people, and the systems we’ve created. Even as I continued to commit myself to Jesuit education, and continued to work in the context of developing economies, my life became newly immersed in a far fuller range of human experience—one that demands self-care even more urgently, and ironically makes it even harder. Honestly, it has made me far more optimistic about the world. 

 

When one becomes a parent, he or she cannot help but experience all things as a parent. First, it is a great tempering of expectations, and a great dose of realism. This has a way of changing the way one sees, well, everything. It tends to make us a little more conservative (small “c”) in our thinking. But it is also ushers in a great, liberal (small “l”) expansion of hope. The creation of life is overwhelming. In my opinion, it is the premiere existential paradigm shift of human experience, and that’s because becoming a parent is so infused with simultaneous terror and hope—and recognition that for all its flaws, humanity is an absolute miracle. Perhaps that’s why the Christmas story is so powerful—the God-man is made manifest in the form of an infant. Humble, vulnerable, and poor—and yet an unmatched affirmation of human vitality, hope, and potential.

 

If you’d prefer math to theology, try this: The odds against our individual conscious existence prove staggering. The economics of scarcity and value are as clear as the cry of a newborn—we are so rare, by relative volume, in the vastness of space—so, so rare that each of us is, undoubtedly, a miracle if only by mathematical ratio. That alone is reason enough to practice self-care, no? 

 

But that’s before you factor in the love, which itself is a force so powerful it cannot be articulated fully in words (or math). And so, in the midst of this paradigm shift of fatherhood, it’s no surprise that my understanding of Arrupe’s clarion call shifted. As I began to regard my students from the standpoint of a father—with the perspective that each is someone else’s child, my approach to teaching—indeed my understanding of our mission—transformed. The longer I’ve been a husband, father, and teacher—the more those three roles have blended. And one of the by-products of that blend is this realization: having one’s own self in order is really quite necessary to being much good in the service of others. As I say to the teenage boys I teach every day, “You can’t be a man for others without being a man.” The meaning is clear: we can’t do much for others unless we also take care of ourselves.

 

So I’ll say it again: To have a foundation of rock, we have to love ourselves. I don’t mean we have to likeeverything about ourselves. That sounds dangerously like Complacency, or his bigger, meaner cousin, Arrogance. No. We have to loveourselves, even the parts we don’t like. And doing that genuinely means taking good care of that self that should be loved. That’s hard. It’s really a lot harder than we think. 

 

Now, this may not sound particularly novel, and you might be saying to yourself, “Well, yeah, I figured that out a long time ago!” But if that conclusion came to you rapidly, I’m going to challenge you think on it a little more. Because, like most conclusions we come to quickly, there’s a good chance it deserves more reflection. How well, in fact, doyou love yourself—as evidenced by your actions? By how well you take care of yourself? Because the reality of who we are in a given moment is best found by examining not what we would do ideally, but what we actuallydo—especially when no one else is looking or when no one else would know the difference. (Which is pretty much the best measure of integrity, by the way.)

 

I’ll take ownership of the point. See, I’d like to think I’m a pretty smart, educated, capable, and accomplished guy of thirty-nine—but I didn’t figure thiscura personalis thing out until recently. Like, really recently. 

 

Here. Try this. If you’re pretty sure you’ve got your own stuff together most of the time, ask yourself these questions:

 

  1. Do you go to the doctor and dentist as often as you should, and follow their advice?

  2. Do you floss your teeth daily, or almost daily?

  3. Are you disciplined about getting enough sleep?

  4. Are you disciplined about getting enough exercise?

  5. Do you have a disciplined approach to electronic devices, so they don’t interfere with your relationships, sleep, or health?

  6. Have you ever kept a meaningful New Year’s or Lenten resolution?

  7. Do you clean your living space? Not just trash and clothes. I mean, like, wiping down surfaces and cleaningtoilets.  

  8. Do you maintain a healthy diet, because you’re a smart person and you know what’s good and bad for your body?

  9. Do you have true mastery over the potentially addictive substances and behaviors that tempt you most?

  10. Do you approach your assignments diligently, taking full responsibility for on-time completion to the best of your ability?

 

If you answered “no” to a handful of these, or most of them, or even maybe all of them, you’re not alone in this room. Because the fact of the matter is that we allstruggle to take care of ourselves in the way that we should. To be disciplined. And my point, you see, is that taking care of ourselves—getting our own basic stuff in order—is really vital to being of service to others. I’d argue that it is, in fact, a not-insignificant act of service in and of itself. It’s discipline, and that’s key to discipleship. The connection between those two words is not arbitrary. 

 

I’m not saying never do anythinguntil you’ve mastered personal discipline. No. And in your late adolescence and early adulthood, you shouldbe passionate about stuff. Go for it. Get out there and engage the world. Even if you don’t scrub your toilet or change your sheets or see your doctor as often as you should. Even if you are addicted to gaming, or vaping, or your smartphone. Don’t be afraid to be an activist, political or otherwise. Hey—the upside of youthful passion is that it’s passionate, and without it, a lot of stuff might not ever get off the ground. But at the same time, tread lightly, and measure the loudness of your voice when it gets critical of others, because the downside of youthful passion is that it’s often not particularly well-informed by experience, and it often exudes a rather unpleasant aroma of irony and hypocrisy. Sort of like the guy wearing too much cologne: clearly, he can’t smell it, but others sure can. So, case in point: if you answered no to any of those self-care inventory questions I asked before—let alone a whole bunch of them—it may behoove you temper and reflect upon your opinions about other people and their misguided ways for a while. Because, you know, irony. And in the meantime, you can work on improving those things, maybe just a little at a time. 

 

Let me shift gears again, this time to our Jesuit high schools and universities. Again, if you’re listening, you’ll see the connection. I’ve been employed by Jesuit schools for 21 years—literally since right after I graduated high school, and I have a postgraduate degree specialized in Jesuit school leadership, so I get to critique them a little. If I have one concern with them that rises above others, it’s this: In our formative education of young people, we put such an emphasis on service-to-the-other, that I think we may do so at the expense of emphasizing the importance of self-care. In fact, I think we inadvertently compartmentalize service into something wholly outward. We normalize the idea that service is something quantifiable, done through programs. And because of that compartmentalization, it conveniently doesn’t necessarily have to have much to do with how I live my private life. It doesn’t dependon my self-care. It’s an either/or approach, not often enough a both/and. 

 

Now I don’t want to be simplistic. I think we do a decent job of treating service and self-care as complementary. Just consider how well our schools align retreats with service initiatives. But again, those are two compartments. I not sure we do so well at helping students truly understand that self-care and service are morethancomplementary compartments—they are, in fact, co-dependent. They have a mutually-causal relationship, not merely a correlation. We must develop the man or woman—help him or her to achieve a genuine wholeness of mental, physical, and spiritual health—if we wish to have him or her be, in any lasting way, “a man or woman for and with others.” We have to empower students to focus on their own self-care—while making very sure we distinguish it well from selfishness. And, institutionally, we have to remember that for all our fervor to set the world on fire through important projects in faraway places, our principal priority—whether in the classroom or far afield—must be the formation of the students in our care.Their formative education is our primary responsibility. 

 

My assertion on this is not unchallenged. Not long ago at a conference for Ignatian service-learning coordinators, I got into a bit of a tiff with some colleagues. This was in the heyday of my role in Campus Ministry. I had the temerity to suggest that as high school or university educators, we should acknowledge that the principalgoal of a service learning program for students should be formative education of those students—not humanitarian work or the completion of a particular social justice initiative. In other words, that yes, while we certainly should carry out acts of service, things that tip the scales in the direction of a more just world in the long term, we should first and foremost have the humility to acknowledge that when we bring our boys to a service placement here or another country, we are there for one thing more than any other: As educators, we are there principally to carry our primary mission of educating—of forming—those boys in the context of our mission. Key to that is making space for them to realize that we are allpoor in different ways. That while material poverty is relative to wealth, we each have different, unique, personal poverties that we must acknowledge and confront alongside the material poverty around us. A colleague asked me, “So Paul, you’re saying that for all these years you’ve brought dozens of groups of students to carry out service projects in poor mountain villages, you’ve essentially just been using the locals and their poverty as a sort of laboratory for the moral development of your own privileged students?” My reply? “No, not justusing them. But yes, in a sense, if I’m being honest, I suppose we are. It’s a both/and. And if you’re not willing to acknowledge that, than, well, you’re a hypocrite.” (I should note that this same colleague orchestrates an annual “sleep out” in the streets of a western city, wherein students spend a night sleeping in boxes—but of course safely cocooned in down sleeping bags—in an effort toward solidarity with the homeless. But apparently, this does not qualify as a laboratory in which students “use” other people’s poverty as a sort of laboratory for their own moral development.” Obviously, yes it does. And obviously, there’s a both/and to the whole idea.) 

 

You see, it isn’t that simple. The ethical principle of the double effect applies well here. It’s the idea that positive effects don’t necessarily exist in isolation, and that there might be a negative, or partially negative effect, alongside positive ones—and that this does not negate the value of pursuing the positive effect. If we didn’t reconcile the reality of the principle of double effect, we’d be paralyzed from ever doing anything.

 

Because there isa double effect: the four road bridges, three improved roads, four multi-kilometer gravity driven aqueduct systems, half-dozen homes, two school buildings, and dozen or so cement sanitarios that exist because of our little “laboratories” at Canisius High School are absolutely concrete products of a service ethic. And you bet those things have made life better in poor villages. The economic development springing from a well-constructed bridge and road, for example, is hard to fathom. Roads are everything in developing countries. But here’s the thing: my primary job as an Ignatian educator is not road-infrastructure developer. For this purpose, there are professional road-infrastructure developers who are much better at road-infrastructure development. No. My job as a teacher is about forming a different kind of infrastructure of the hearts of my students. And the change in the hearts of these boys is the real product, and that is the more sustainable impact. It’s the long view, that patient trust, that the Jesuit poet Teilhard de Chardin encourages in his poem by the same name. 

 

Like so many things in life, there’s a both / and. We in Jesuit education have to focus on our own students if we want to see magnified, long-term change in the world. This calls for a sort of institutional self-care, which is so important to creating young men and women of service. It may seem selfish at first glance. It isn’t. It’s just honest. And the telos, the aim, is not selfish at all. 

 

Which brings me back to my point a few minutes ago. I said service to others and self-care are co-dependent. Meaning they depend upon each other. And I said they are simultaneous, not sequential. Because care for others is a fundamental driving force for self-care. Being there for someone else is a powerful motivation to, well, be. In my experience, nothing has driven me to appropriate self-care more than coming face to face with the overwhelming responsibility that comes with fatherhood. I woke up a few months ago and realized: “You idiot. You haven’t been to the dentist in years. You haven’t been to the doctor in years. You’re almost forty, and you’ve had the same extra fifteen pounds that you’ve been planning on losing since you first met your wife ten years ago.” We cannot be men and women for and with others unless we are whole men and women, with both our strengths and inequities loved, cared for, and nurtured.  

 

Because it’s real simple, friends. Anything else is not sustainable. In my work in program administration, as well as in my entrepreneurial business pursuits, I’ve learned to value prioritizing sustainability. That’s not about using corporate jargon. If sustainability sounds too corporate-jargoney, let’s go with ‘enduring.’ What this means is tempering my most exciting ideas and aspirations with the cold light of realism in terms of one essential question: Great idea, man, but will it endure? And you see, the same applies to a life of service. If we want to be of service to others sustainably, in a way that endures the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, then we’ve got to take care of ourselves. There is no honor in exhausting ourselves in outward efforts that depend on a depleted and neglected inner core. Sure, there may be some short-term successes, and even some admirable acts of heroic generosity. Thing is, it just won’t last. At least not as long as it would if we were taking better care of ourselves. And that martyr-complex thing? Careful. Amidst all the apparent selfless generosity, good chance there’s one hell of an ego at work. Who is serving whom?

 

Now there’s a danger here, of course. Some of you are probably thinking of it right now. How do we draw the line between genuine self-care and self-indulgence? It’s a tricky distinction. But the gut is a powerful thing, and we tend to know when we’re fooling ourselves. Whether or not we act on that—well, that’s a matter of discipline and maturity. I’m not so sure it’s all that hard to know the difference between taking good care of yourself and, for example, just avoiding discomfort. Getting plenty of sleep by being disciplined about bedtime—you know, turning off Netflix at a set time and hitting the rack—is very different from getting plenty of sleep by staying up as late as I want, then selfishly making up for it on the morning end, sleeping in late without regard for my responsibilities. There’s a difference between making an intentional retreat to catch up with oneself and just taking an arbitrary day off to avoid responsibilities. I’m not talking about lowering the standards to which we hold ourselves in the interest of “self-care.” Because that’s not self-care at all. That’s just being lazy. 

 

I think the key to achieving cura personalis, simultaneously caring for ourselves while serving others, is to realize they aren’t binary and mutually exclusive. Rather, they have to be blended—that is to say, integrated. They have to effect (with an “e”) each other, and subsequently they affect (with an “a”) each other. It cannot be all about self-care, everyone else be damned. But neither can it be all about others, self-be-damned. It has to be both—not balanced, because balance suggests they are at odds with one another—but rather integrated. Overlapping, if you will. That is the type of integrated wholeness of being to which I referred before. 

 

I give talks at boys’ schools on authentic masculinity—and my point is that the authentic man lives such that the various aspects of his life—physical, mental, spiritual, social, emotional, and sexual, for example—blend and overlap. Even as there is tension among and between these elements, the man who has achieved authentic masculinity integrates them. Such that yes, his sexuality and his spirituality are connected; such that yes, he sees the connection between his physical and mental health. That what he does in one area or context of life is not compartmentalized from the others—and that the habituation of small, seemingly harmless vices can creep into our ability to love others and meet our responsibilities. And that small victories over daily struggles are essential to the fabric of our broader moral being.  

 

That talk is about young men, but it is, of course, in no way exclusive to males. It is simply about achieving and maintaining an integrated wholeness. That is being human. The word “human” shares the etymological roots with the word “humble.” They are both derivatives of “humus,” which means earth. And thus, being fully human requires being fully humble—being down to earth. So, my invitation to you, my fellow future alumni of Canisius College, is to allow yourself to be fully human. St. Irenaeus of Lyon said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

 

Embrace with humility your own unique struggles as a partof your unique wholeness. Get to know those struggles well, so you can best master them, if only little by little. This will make you stronger, maybe even stronger than you think you can be. And strength is so, so important—because life is hard and sometimes very scary, and you have to endure it. The prognosis should be encouraging, though. The data looks good: Since you’re all breathing, you have endured 100% of the challenges set before you thus far. Those are good numbers. Care well and honestly for yourself, such that you might achieve good, or maybe even great, things in the love and service of others who are, like you and me, unique children of God. Others who are, like you and me, struggling daily to realize their own beautiful potential amidst the wholeness of our humanity. 

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