How can fiction help us manage self-care and caring for others?

Lately, I find myself torn between two desires:

  • pouring, time, money, and energy into caring about me
  • pouring time, money, and energy into caring about people and causes I believe in

In other words, where does the permission to take care of yourself cross over into the realm of selfishness? As a childless, unmarried, and relatively independent professional, I find myself asking this question a lot.

I've accepted over the past few years that I shouldn't be taking shortcuts on certain things anymore, like flossing and nutrition and haircuts.

I used to be the kind of person who took the cheapest route to everything. I took vitamins sporadically, hoping that the occasional multi would have me covered until I remembered again two months later (I realize nutrition doesn’t work like this, but I kept tricking myself into believing it did) . I got a haircut once a year. I botched several dye jobs at home using henna and ammonia-laced colors like "cherry red" and "burnt chestnut." Perhaps my deepest shame is that I avoided the dentist for at least two years in my early twenties--that one was more out of sheer laziness than actual frugality. I owned about $20 worth of makeup and I bought every article of clothing I owned at local consignment shops. I'm not saying this to brag about my thriftiness, but more out of self-pity for Old Liz. Aka Poor Liz. Adulting was a low priority then because it had to be. Now, with several years of solid income under my belt, comes New Liz.

New Liz gets her hair cut at a real salon and asks for ombre colors. She thinks about returning to the salon within the suggested eight weeks, but decides against it because caring for her hair more than once a year still feels like a foreign concept. See, New Liz is so new she can't even refer to herself in the first person yet (but for the sake of not pissing off my readers, I'll try). I shop exclusively at farmers' markets and Whole Foods, and I kind of despise myself for even writing that sentence just now. I go to the doctor over the slightest eyeball itch or muscle pull, a habit I should have adopted long ago after being hospitalized twice for negligence of my bodily pain.

I'm fearful that my sudden interest in quality self-care has hindered my ability to care for other people and things. Yet I keep pushing this fear aside. I suck it up and look for quality, poring over Amazon reviews whenever I can. Here’s how crazy it’s gotten: I spent $40 on compression socks yesterday. SOCKS. I won't lie and say that my self-esteem has skyrocketed because I started wearing calf tourniquets and covering my purple undereye bags with some Amazonian clay in a shade called “peach bisque,” like I’m some kind of fine cuisine at a Zagat-rated restaurant. But it's helped. And it's addicting.

I still try to donate to causes when I can. I have given money this year to things I believe in: an organic, student-run café on the campus where I work. A cat café. And, because cancer is probably way more serious than my need to drink lattes while surrounded by cats, I gave a bit to Memorial Sloan Kettering. But this feels half-assed in comparison to the amount I spend on a single palette of peach bisque to mask my skin. I sometimes breeze straight past the guys selling $1 newspapers to support the homeless (always parked right outside Whole Foods, by the way), because I figure what’s the point? I’m about to go buy an $8 box of organic blueberries and feel good about myself for donating a measly dollar?

I’d like to think that in a consumerism-obsessed culture, my personal passions can make up for what I lack in monetary generosity. If we write and make art about the things we care about, can that be enough? I know that real people need real money to help them eat real food. But then I remember one simple truth: back when I was grad-school poor, did I donate any more money or time than I do now? No.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but writing is definitely a part of the process that brings us closer to action. In writing about refugees, technology, and the future, I’ve gotten all sorts of ideas for how I can donate my time, if not more of my money, to these causes.

I believe that fiction can be a call to action in ways that non-fiction can’t—it informs us of the possible outcomes of our inaction in impactful, emotional ways. It takes us inside the heads of characters who represent people we may want to help. And most of all, for a brief period of time, it is a simultaneous act of self-care and selflessness. The act of reading soothes us, while the act of becoming another character and absorbing their needs and wants for 300 pages or so verifies that another person’s wants and needs deserve a place in our heads--and hopefully, in our wallets.