One of my favorite books is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It is a book based on a traumatic true story of an African American slave woman named Margaret Garner who escaped slavery with her children. My favorite line from the book comes when the male character, Paul D, tells the main female character, Sethe, “You, your best thing.” Paul D says this to Sethe because although she survived the unimaginable, she had lost her sense of value and worth. Sethe believed her value and worth came from being a mother. But, when she lost a child in death she believed the best thing about her had gone. Sethe’s sense of value and worth came not from insider her, but from a source outside of herself. And Paul D had to remind her that she, not her child, was her best thing. Paul D was helping Sethe to remember her own importance and to value herself above all else.
When I read this line, it immediately reminded me of how women are often raised and conditioned to believe that there is something very noble about putting ourselves last in our own lives. It seems very normal in our culture for woman to take a second-class seat—even in our own lives. Women subconsciously learn to sacrifice themselves, to meet the needs of others before they meet their own. Mothers do this with their children, wives do this with their husbands, daughters do this with their parents, and even girlfriends behave this way when in significant relationships. And while it is a woman’s nature and a part of the fabric of her DNA to nurture, it is critically important that we learn to nurture others without neglecting ourselves.
As women, we often mistakenly believe that putting others needs before our own is a sacrificial service that will pay off in the end—but actually it is a disservice to all. When we neglect ourselves and place a higher value on the needs of others over our own, no one fully benefits. The woman certainly will not, but neither will those she nurtures. Only women who understand their worth and value, and who take the time to cultivate a life of self-care can give the best of who they are. If we nurture and care for the needs of others from a self-neglected place, we do not only shortchange ourselves. We also shortchange those who would have reaped the benefits of being connected to a strong woman with a strong sense of self. We can give much better care to those we are charged to love and nurture when we first love and nurture ourselves.
Consider the instructions given prior to take-off on any commercial airplane flight. We are advised that, in the case of an emergency, we should put on our own oxygen mask before we help others. We are instructed to do this even if we are traveling with children. The idea is that we can’t help others, regardless of how vulnerable they are, unless we first help ourselves.
This example is so critical to women in understanding self-care, self-worth, and value, because sometimes we feel a deep sense of guilt for caring for ourselves. We feel guilty if we put ourselves first, but the reality is that we risk our own wellbeing and that of those in our care when we put ourselves last. Putting ourselves last causes us to love and nurture others through our own lack and frustration and emptiness at times. When we love and nurture from this place, those who should benefit from what we give end up with care that is contaminated by fragmented pieces of our issues and our own state of lack. The best thing we can do for ourselves and for those we love is to fully, completely, and unapologetically love ourselves.
Paul D in the book Beloved is the rare voice that reminds women of the place and space we owe ourselves. He reminds us that we are our own “best thing.” The best gift God gave us was the gift of ourselves. And nothing is more deserving of our time, attention, love, and care than we are.
Our ability to love others depends on our ability to love self. Our true power as women comes from a deep well within from which we draw that reminds us how fearlessly and wonderfully we are made. It is also from this inner well that a woman’s life’s thirst is quenched; it’s where we drink in more of ourselves, which then enables us to water those around us so that they are properly nurtured. We can only be the best mothers, daughters, potential wives, and friends, when we give ourselves the same care we so easily give to others. But this takes some intentionality.
A woman who knows and understands that she is her own best thing is a woman who has done some intentional self-reflection, has asked herself some hard questions and has determined that she will relentlessly pursue the finding, valuing, and honoring her own life. The woman who knows she is her own best thing reflects on her life, and when she discovers ways in which she has betrayed herself by putting the care of others before her own, she makes changes to put herself first. She understands that this is not a selfish act but an act that will cause her to love more authentically.
The woman who knows she is her own best thing is not afraid to give herself the time to retreat and replenish. She is not afraid to make herself a priority in her own life; nor is she afraid to demand appropriate love and care from those who are supposed to care for her.
Women are able to do this when they understand that they are their own best thing and that they must love and protect their best thing. We must set appropriate boundaries that we will not allow others to cross. We cannot allow others to dictate those areas of our lives. We cannot allow parents, bosses, or boyfriends to disrespect and cross boundaries with us. We must understand and operate intentionally because we know that we are our best thing—we are a gift to ourselves and our loved ones, and that precious gift requires special care.