Hugs, Self-Care, and Comfort Books: Which Do You Need Most in the Age of Covid?

A self-hugging yoga exercise.

I am fascinated by articles about self-care. The anxious writers address the needs of their stressed-out readers by trying to sell them products like scented candles and weighted blankets. I do want those products, but I buy books instead.

Eleanor Morgan at The Guardian has a different spin: she writes about single women who are isolated during lockdown and are not getting enough hugs. She thinks the lack of hugs is damaging her subjects’ mental health. And the sympathetic Ms. Morgan leaves even the hugged of this world feeling sad: she quotes an Oxford evolutionary psychologist who claims the average person has FIVE BEST FRIENDS. And they’re all huggers.

Naturally, I felt desperate by the end of the article. I asked my husband, “Do we have five best friends?”

“No.”

“Then we might have to move to Oxford.” Heavens, that Oxford evolutionary psychologist must have quite a social life.

Even at the height of popularity (perhaps college? or my long-distance bicycling late forties?), I had many acquaintances but few close friends. Yes, you have five friends in your book club, or people you ask for dinner, but they are probably not your BEST friends. Ask people on the street if they have five best friends, and they will name their family members. Mine is my husband. I miss my mother, but she wasn’t a hugger. She did give the handshake of peace, which would be reckless these days.

It looks thoroughy uncomfortable.

If you need a hug, you can compensate with a weighted blanket, I’ve heard. I haven’t been shopping in a while, and I’ve never seen one of these. NBC says “the deep pressure of the blanket makes you feel like you’re being hugged or swaddled.” I prefer to sleep without any blankets, though I do use blankets in winter (reluctantly). But if you want a blanket that weighs 15 pounds, you have my blessing.

Far better, in my opinion, to hug yourself if you’re alone and blue. Have you done that yoga exercise where you cross your arms and and reach your hands over your shoulders? Now that is self-care!

I also advise reading comfort books. And here is a list of comfort books with links to my posts about them (when I’ve written about them).

Miss Penny and Miss Plum, by Dorothy Evelyn Smith.

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith.

Any Peter Wimsey mystery by Dorothy Sayers.

The Barsetshire series by Trollope (Try Framley Parsonage)

Dear Beast by Nancy Hale (if you can find it)

Anything by Ada Leverson.

Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing (a cozy catastrophe)

Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley (or any of his other satires)

The Egoist by George Meredith

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

And now let me retire with a comfort book.

Tempus Fugit! Seneca and Self-Care

Tempus fugit.   Do you lament the paucity of time?

The Stoic philosopher Seneca can advise you on the practice of two trendy movements, the pursuit of “mindfulness” and “self-care.” He vigorously reminds us  that it is important to take time for ourselves.

In the philosophical treatise, De Brevitate Vitae (On the Brevity of Life), Seneca says that life is not short:   the problem is that we waste our time.  “How much time has been stolen by a creditor, how much by a girlfriend, how much by a patron or client, how much by marital strife, how much by the chastisement of slaves, how much by running to and fro?”

He says that men hang on to their property and fight those who encroach, but they do not value their time.  “No one is found who wishes to divide his money; but with how very many people does each person share his life!  We are parsimonious with money, but when it comes to the throwing away of  our lives, we are extravagant–and this is the one case where the desire to be thrifty is creditable.”

On a much cruder level, we enthusiastically agree.   I’ve read many well-meaning but frenetic articles on how to read more books , or take more steps, or relax with a new skin-care regimen.    And I’m all for these things!  But it often involves entering data on phones. Unplugging from electronics is one of our biggest challenges.  We need to slow down, sit still, and read Seneca.

Seneca is simple and clear, and his philosophy can be life-changing.  He was a great Roman thinker, Nero’s tutor and political advisor, a playwright, philosopher, and writer of fascinating letters.

So enjoy!  On the Brevity of Life is only 22 pages.

(N.B. The translation of the brief excerpts from the Latin is my own.)