The Power of Self-Preservation: On Redefining Resilience and Resistance

By Sundai Johnson. Photography by Deun Ivory. 

I sat in a boat on the Sea of Cortez. On the ride over to a close-by island I clung to the side of the boat and eventually found my way to the boat’s bottom. My relationship with water is tumultuous, as I feel most full when I am near it, but due to my inability to swim, have a visceral fear of it. The waves moved the small speedboat in a violent cradle and with clenched eyes, I saw myself at the bottom of the sea. I did not see the bathing sea lions, nor the seashells’ loud glint topping the hills, nor take note of how the spiked sides of the mountains were really overturned rocks that had once been the underside of a volcano.

On the way back, I was still. And this time, as the whole earth rocked around me, I was fluid with its movement but remained steady in the sway. Nothing changed about the water, just how I decided to ride in the boat. This has become the image of self-preservation in my life. Our whole worlds move around us, and the more we move, the more likely it is for us to tip.

But the more still I become, and the more I fix my eyes on the shore, the more I can rock with it, and remain.

I have found, that in my work as an educator and a writer, and in my life as a whole, it is crucial to establish self-preservation as a state of being. My students, as we all do, carry their entire existence and who they are cupped in their souls and bring it to our classroom daily. My work is social. It is extremely political. And it is indisputably, emotional. It requires me to show up in far more ways than one, and if not minding my capacity, I become depleted. What good am I with my arms stretched out if I am empty? The same is true in my relationships. If there are no emotional boundaries or mutual understandings about how we define relationship, then we are dipping our buckets into one another and coming up dry. Without deliberate exercise in self-preservation, I am at the mercy of loosely defined expectations and end up at the bottom of the boat. Yet while necessary, a challenge of practicing self-preservation has been seeking to do so relationally, and in professional environments in which there is no true infrastructure for self-care. Thus it has become imperative to move intentionally about my work and my relationships, and rethink my own self-imposed expectations, in order to hold space for the health of my soul. Here I can truly begin to understand what it means for me to walk in love and light and cultivate the conditions that will allow me to do so.

Living with intention has become integral in defining what self-preservation looks like for me. As I begin to more closely define what will be my life’s work, my service to others, the nature of my relationships, and the overall quality of my life, I am better able to make decisions that serve that purpose and its subsets. Aligning myself with purpose has granted me the freedom to dissociate myself from anything that does not serve that purpose.

Now, when I find myself taking on weight in my work or in my emotional body, I can say, does this align with my purpose, does this serve the work? And when it does not, be willing to set it free. Centering purpose has forced me to be accountable to what I value, in ensuring that it shows up in what I choose to give space to. If I cannot see the shore from where I stand, I am not looking in the right direction.

Alongside centering purpose, I have grown mindful of how necessary it is for me to create space between moments in order to better understand what I am feeling, and what is vital for me to communicate. While this has proved to be far more challenging in practice, creating distance has made room for me to clearly define my emotional boundaries as I am learning to step back from moments before I respond. It is giving myself permission not to immediately take on every task, or every emotion that is directed toward me, or even those that I feel. In doing so, I can tend to my heart, my relationships and my work because I am able to better evaluate my needs and what I can give. I do not have to give up myself, to give of myself. But I do need time to work through sustainable ways to do so.

Stillness is an element, if not the most important element, of my own self-preservation.

The first stage of stillness, for me, is monitoring my exposure. That is, filtering what I take in through conversations I engage, environments I enter, and news outlets and social media platforms I access. I consider what I want to expose myself to and carry into both my physical rest and moments of stillness. As I lean more deeply into my stillness practice, I rely on faith-based meditations that center spiritually. I rely on a power outside myself to deposit that which I cannot control. This in turn empowers me to more appropriately manage that within my control, which I have come to find is generally very little, for all that is truly within my control is my own movement. In this space of surrender, I am not asked apologize for what I cannot carry and can extend grace to myself and those around me. I can see the waves, and must move with them, but I am released from the pressure to rein them.

In these ways, self-preservation not only fosters resilience, as we are able to guard our hearts through the unceasing shape-shifting of our lives, but also becomes an act of resistance.

Black women have historically been socialized to work in service to others. We have been conditioned to embody a posture of servitude, despite ourselves. Self-preservation creates space for vulnerability in the lives of Black women and resists the notion that we are designed solely for work and service.

We are then able to claim more power over re-defining our own individualized identities outside the framework of how we may be perceived, and can move freely within our own existence.

In order to sustain my own capacity, to hold up those around me, and to work in service to others, I must have a source from which that flows. If my well is emptied out, and not refilled, I am not equipped with the resilience to thrive or the means to intentionally deposit into others.

The goal of self-preservation is not only to ensure that well does not run dry, but also to have a tool-kit to access, if or when it does. So that when they say, take care of yourself, we can trust that we will.

We will stretch and expand our space to make room to preserve all that is good, and gracious and brilliant about who we are and are growing to be. It is then that we can live authentically and unapologetically, and know how to remain on the boat, unmoved by the shake and the rock of the sea.

How are you working to self-preserve? What methods have you used for self-sustainability?


Sundai Johnson is mid-west bred, LA based writer. She digs her Michigan roots into the city and gathers the pieces that look like home as she goes. She recently published her chapbook you always lose something in the move: a collection and launched her company The Writing House, (@thwrtnghouse) with hopes to expand services and programs in the upcoming year. She seeks to spend her life telling stories and is writing and loving her way through her twenties. More about Sundai and her work can be found at suhnde.com.