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Why self-care is the secret to getting closer to God

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Forgetting to properly take care of myself is my number one occasion of sin.

“I keep confessing the same sins,” I admitted to the priest. It’s true. My confessions are always, depressingly, identical.   

Well, I got through to the Act of Contrition, which is my favorite part. I’m done talking about my sins, and now I get to say that powerful, somewhat frightening line: “I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace … ” (I love that. No matter how strong my resolve is, ain’t nothing happening without grace) ”… to sin no more, and to avoid the near occasion of sin.”

As I heard myself say it, something clicked. “Near occasion of sin?” No wonder I keep tripping over the same stuff!

So, I’m used to thinking of a near occasion of sin as if it’s a person or place I need to stay away from. You know the friend who always takes a conversation and turns it into gossip? If you find it hard to resist joining in, you just be cautious of the kind of topics you go into with that friend, and there — you’ve narrowly avoided having to bring “gossip” to confession with you next time.

Or, a more extreme example: If you don’t want to fall into the sin of lust, don’t walk through the doors of a strip club. Instead of counting on your willpower to control your eyes and your thoughts, maybe just don’t put yourself in a position where you even have to face that particular challenge. You won’t sin, because you never even got the chance.

I forgot all about that other potential occasion of sin: my own mood. When am I most likely to act out of anger, or treat somebody unfairly, or get impatient, or lack compassion, or hold a grudge? That’s easy — when I’m hungry. Or when I’m overtired, overwhelmed, or burnt out.

I have a terrible track record with muscling up the willpower necessary to check my anger when I’m running on five hours of sleep. I’m about 95 percent less compassionate with my family when my to-do list is taller than I am. That’s normal — but it’s also something I can address.

Self-care isn’t simply bubble baths and manicures. Self-care means giving your mind and your body what they need to function well. It’s not frivolous, and it’s not selfish. And actually, when we’re taking good care of ourselves, it’s much easier to do the right thing.

So my number one occasion of sin is bad self-care, and I think it is for a lot of us. We’re body-and-soul creatures, and so the state of our body and mind has a real influence on the choices that affect our souls. It doesn’t have the final say, obviously — you read all about saints who kept up miraculous levels of patience during horrible physical trials — but most of us aren’t that saintly. At least not yet.

Instead of expecting constant, heroic manifestations of willpower, let’s focus on doing what we can to make sure we’re not stressed out of our minds. I know, I know, nobody just decides to be stressed, and when we’re overwhelmed, it’s because there are legitimately a million things that need doing. I’m not saying that self-care is easy, or even always possible. But as much as it is possible, it shouldn’t be ignored. It really is important. If we can manage it, getting enough sleep, eating regular meals, keeping our bodies healthy, our living spaces peaceful, our minds clear — or even just one or two of those is a start — we’re setting ourselves up for success, when the time comes to make the right choice.

The best part is that virtue is built up like any habit. The more we get used to acting with patience and love, the easier it gets next time, even if the next time, we’re running on fumes and haven’t eaten in hours.

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