It’s come time that I would like to discuss Christian language about losing the self and about self-love, and do so by revisiting something I wrote a few years ago called “The Desert Spirituality of Motherhood.”
In this well-intended piece, I wrote about how motherhood requires giving up of the self in order to be purified. Some of that is accurate, but some of what I wrote is off-the mark, and falls into the category I’ve come to despise in mom-devotionals: rationalizing our legitimate needs away.
I wrote this: “But the false self who feels buried, who thinks we are above drool and spilled cereal, who wants everything to be easy, without sacrifice, and who wants accomplishments for accomplishments’ sake must die in the desert of motherhood.”
And to this I would now reply: Hold on. It’s true that no one is “above drool” and the mundane pieces of life, but neither should anyone be confined to the mundane aspects of life. Perhaps this “self who feels buried” doesn’t need to “die,” but rather is in a real need of being resurrected, cared for, and set on a path of purpose–in short, loved and healed by Jesus.
Yes, in the Gospels Jesus says that “He who seeks to gain his life shall lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake shall gain it.” And this is very true, but I fear that I’ve misapplied it myself and seen it wrongly applied quite frequently. God loves us and wants good things for us. He gave us emotions, and when they are severely out of balance, it’s a signal that something needs to be fixed. Following God is meant to be a fulfillment of who we are called to be and of putting our gifts into his service. It is not the squelching of our abilities, moods and value. When we “give up our life,” this is a call to put our gifts at the service of God rather than selfishness.
And we can know that this is accurate because of the greatest commandment. We cannot love our neighbor as ourselves if we have no love of self. Fr. Jacques Philippe, a well-known priest and writer on the spiritual life has written:
Love travels along two paths that are inseparable in the end: love of God and love of neighbor. But as this text suggests, there is another aspect of charity—love of one’s self. (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) This self-love is good and necessary, not egoism that refers everything to “me,” but the grace to live in peace with one’s self
, content to be what one is, with one’s talents and limitations.
– Called to Life
Christian devotionals sometimes wrongly attack self-love and self-care as selfishness or indulgence. But they are not always the same. Being a self, caring for ourselves is actually what allows us to give to others.
In true humility, we recognize our gifts so that we can give them! True humility doesn’t pretend that we are worthless wretches with nothing to offer anyone, cowering in a bedroom feeling low. Yet, it always maintains the other side of the truth, which is that none of us are ever perfect and that it’s good also to recognize our shortcomings and sins and aim to get better.
So I retract my portions of my essay. The intensity of my negative emotions meant that something needed to change. For me, I started working outside the home. Maybe this isn’t the path for everyone, but it has made me feel that I am using my gifts at the service of others and answering a call.
Encouraging Scrupulosity – Another problematic theme I see in some devotionals
And now, if I may, I have seen an entire genre of mom-devotionals in which frankly I see scrupulosity encouraged alongside this downplaying of the legitimate needs of parents.
In one recent post, the author found sinfulness in her social media latte post. She declared that she was a hypocrite, posting her shiny, “best life” photos while avoiding the stickier interior issues. Maybe that’s true, but I’d had enough of this style and unsubscribed. The post had also included that this was a break after a long stretch of busyness for her, and I just couldn’t shake the ill-feelings that this was precisely the sort of Christian-mommy post that finds sin where it isn’t and overlooks some other legitimate goods. These things are misleading and frankly unhealthy.
Here’s what bothers me about this genre of devotional:
–1. Finding sin in innocent actions encourages scrupulosity. I don’t want to discourage examination of conscience, but neither should we obsess over all the minuscule ways we might be sinning. There are more loving, healthy, helpful, Jesus-centered things to do instead.
-2. A coffee break can be a healthy impulse–as a mother, a little alone time is necessary for sanity. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves–the “ourselves” isn’t optional. As I mentioned earlier, if we aren’t caring for ourselves appropriately, we cannot care for others. In humility, we see our own value interconnected with the value of others. Humility is not acting like we are worthless and don’t need to recharge or manage our own needs.
If some time out with a coffee is self-care, it is pernicious to look for sin in an innocuous action.
–3. Where does this self-critical confessional stem from? Honestly, (and I’m speculating here) I think it stems from a sense of guilt at life going well. Sometimes, we are so accustomed to speaking of the cross, that we forget the joy and the resurrection. I’ve spent time reflecting on this myself–what to do when things are going well. What is there to “offer up” so to speak?
The answer, I believe, comes as forgetfulness of oneself, not as worthless, but in seeing opportunities to love others. Instead of continuing to look inward, we can turn our gaze outward to help others–to give back some of the goodness that we have been so lucky to receive from God.
4. God loves us. He does want us to live good lives–to have “life abundantly”–and while we do need to realize our sin, we need to also see our value, that we have gifts we are called to share. Fussing over lattes isn’t one of them. When life is going well, something isn’t necessarily wrong. It can be a time to share blessings.
Perhaps the author’s quiet cup of coffee strengthened her to jump back into the parenting fray or gave her a chance to write something which would encourage others.
Only the individual and God can say what is indulgence and what is self-care, so I can’t claim to know the state of her soul.
[For the record, I do not intend anything like the “prosperity gospel” here; I do not believe that God heaps material goods on people for being Christians. What I do mean is that when we do have abundance, we should be grateful and share it instead of looking the gift-horse in the mouth, so to speak, and seeking out problems with it.]
There are legitimate goods that are okay to celebrate and enjoy. And I believe that we live the Christian life when we focus on what we can give. In Bishop Barron’s words, “your life is not about you.”
When he speaks of the great values of God and teleology, Bishop Barron says: “None of this is meant to be crushing to the will, but liberating. When these great values present themselves to our freedom, we are drawn out beyond ourselves and integrated into great realities that expand us and make us more alive. “
So–what do you think? Have you had any turn-arounds in thought? Do you buy the distinction I’ve made about self-love and selfishness?