Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The joy of giving

One of the things that I find shocking about contemporary Amercian mothering is the complete unwillingness to accept that love means sacrifice.

As a young girl, I was taught that I could accomplish ANYTHING I set my mind to. This was the message empowering young women of the 70's and 80's (the decades in which I grew up... and it is still taught). When I was 14, I distinctly remember, as I contemplated my career aspirations at the time, feeling alarmed by the apparent incongruity of the college --> med school --> intern --> resident --> physician path, with the deep desire I had to be a mother. How could these two lives - being a doctor, and being a mother - coexist?

The fact is, they couldn't. Not as I envisioned them. I couldn't be a full-time mother and a full-time physician. It is simply impossible. We delude ourselves and our daughters by implying (or even outright telling them) that this is possible. We must choose... we choose to give up the career and be a full time mom, we choose to give up being a full time mom and have the career. Of course we CAN have both... but only part of both, and this is what we're not told. You CAN be a career woman who is also a mother, but you are going to give something up to do this. You are going to give up getting as far ahead in your career, you are going to give up seeing your baby's first step, you are choosing something and by so doing are choosing to give up something else.

I realize that you, dear readers, are probably going to be a tough audience for what I have to sell here tonight, because you, like me, live a cushy life. You measure need in a way inconceivable to much of the world. You need a new car because yours gets bad gas mileage. You need new towels because yours have holes. Let's be honest: this is not need. You don't need a car. You don't even need towels. You need air, shelter, water, food, warmth, love. There is very little in the material world that you truly need.

And in this amazing world in which you and I live, in a country where I can be sentenced to a year in jail for killing a toad on the endangered species list, but can kill my unborn child and no one will blink an eye, in this sad sad place, the thing most lacking in homes is not soft towels, but love, one of the few true needs we have.

There is a new movement afoot for stay-at-home mothers. Today's mom needs to take care of herself. It's hard being a mom, you know. The relentless demands, the mess, the crying, the chauffering, the laundry, the three meals a day, every day. So moms really need to be better about taking care of themselves, not being martyrs. After all, "If Mama ain't happy aint nobody happy." Put on your own oxygen mask on before assisting your child.

There is something in this to which a part of me says, "Yes!", yet a deeper part of me finds it worrisome. On the one hand, it is absolutely reasonable to feed ourselves, bathe, etc. We need to be able to function. But this idea of what we need has expanded, just as it has in material areas of our lives. We need time to ourselves. We need a break.

I have struggled with this for years. I have felt in my heart that the way to true happiness is to give yourself up to love, in service to others. Yet I could not escape the persistent cry from mothers, "What about my needs?" I could not escape my own plaintive cry.... "What about me?" How could I integrate service and sacrifice with self-preservation, with survival?

And now, in this season of extreme demands, this season of a sleepless nursing baby, children who need to be educated at home, a husband who needs tender attention, a goat to milk, wheat to grind, eggs to wash, friends to listen to and pray for, and of course the endless river of laundry and meals; in this time in which I do not have enough hours to give of myself as much as wants to be taken, I have had an epiphany.

What we have wrong is not that we have needs that must be met. What we have wrong is how to meet them.

If we are true followers of Jesus, we will lay down our lives for love. We will give ourselves over completely in service to God by serving our "neighbors"... the very people with whom we spend each day. Our children. Our husbands. Our friends. Our parents. We will find our true selves in this giving. And we will find that what we really need is air, shelter, water, food, warmth, love.

And we will find that the source of all these things is God.

The great sustenance of my life, the air I breathe that gives me light and hope, the source that meets my every need, is God. If I consider survival or self-preservation as my greatest goal (and realistically, isn't that ultimately what most of us are trying to do?), I can not love fully, because I am always trying to keep myself safe, if even a little bit. Yet when I give fully of myself, as a gift not only to the beloved, but profoundly as a gift to God, I am preserved.

I am preserved because God meets me in my sacrifice. Jesus did not call himself the bread of life and living water for nothing. God becomes my air, my shelter, my water, my food, my warmth, my love. These things that I need, he knows. God is the oxygen mask I must put on first.

Yes, perhaps, a break is just what is needed at times. But the break does not require money; does not even necessarily require being away from the children. The break needs to be from the material world, for a visit to the spiritual. And that visit can occur in your living room or as you push the stroller down the street. A praise song on the stereo, danced to with precious children, a song sung at the top of your lungs. A shawl pulled over your head for a makeshift chapel, just you and God hiding under that cloth for a tete a tete in the midst of chaos. Stepping outside for a deep breath of fresh air, a look at the vastness of the sky and movement of the clouds, a close examination of a perfectly formed "weed" (so many of our weeds are really lovely tiny flowers).

Give, give, give. Give all the love you have, the world longs for it. Pour it out into your children so that they know what it means to be loved, so that they have the capacity to be magnanimous lovers and bless others. Saturate your husband with love, choose to put his needs before your own. How much easier it is to love those who love us first. Demanding love never gets us far, but those who give great love, receive great love. If you want a husband who adores you, try this: love him sacrificially.

Yes, you will suffer. What kind of an offering would it be if it cost nothing? But the suffering is only the pain of that which is unneeded burning away. Give, love, offer the sacrifice to God, be made pure.

In this you will know the greatest joy possible.


Benjamin Rosenbaum said...

You, my dear, are an ascetic. I love you and honor you for it. But I also sometimes find it alienating.

I mean, I know what you mean. I'm right there with you in your disdain of materialism. New towels, I don't need. My current ambition is for us to make a good deal *less* money; and we've always tended to optimize for more collective being-at-home and less working-for-money in most situations. I'm also right there with you that if you want love, love first, unconditionally.

Nonetheless I flinch at the word "sacrificially", not at what you mean by it but at what else it could be made to mean; and I think your account is lacking part of the story.

My tradition believes in moderation. There's a Talmudic regulation of the minimum you can give to charity; there's also a regulation of the maximum, the intent of which is to avoid people impoverishing themselves and their families with extravagant, hotheaded, ecstatic displays of selflessness which are -- the tradition, in its communitarian-focused wisdom, believes -- ultimately unsustainable.

"Charity" is the wrong word, of course. Charity is, etymologically, a kind of love; it's a feeling. And Jews are suspicious of actions that come from feelings. We give tzedakah, which is justice. The point of tzedakah is not how good it feels to give. The point is creating a just world. Selfless actions which feel transcendentally good, but don't produce justice, are not tzedakah.

And I guess these are the kinds of actions that I worry someone less grounded and sophisticated than you, who tries to follow your recipe of "just love and give", might take.

Especially in a world where whole classes of people are indoctrinated to shut up, do as they are told, and give, in order that others may prosper.

Another way of approaching my qualm:

Why is love on that list? Is love a need? Without air, food, and water we die. Without shelter we get wet. Without love, we are really sad. It's not quite the same thing.

That's a devil's-advocate position, slightly, because I think we need love, certainly more than towels. But if we're going to put love on the list, it seems like maybe some other things belong there too, things the absence of which damages us much as the absence of love does. Like, respect. Clarity. Liberty. Work that needs doing.

Of course you can ask, which clarity? Which liberty? Just as you can ask which love? Of course, you yourself certainly *have* clarity and liberty (I can tell), and certainly these fit into your account in the sense that they, too, ultimately come from God.

So why do I note their absence? Because if God lives us, as well as love and abundance, also challenges, rules, limits -- justice -- then so too, we need to give these to those around us.

This you certainly know. You are my great teacher in the realm of parenting, and you certainly know, as a parent, that loving sometimes means saying no.

I can report from my own experience that this is also true of love in a wife; that very often the gift that Esther gives me which puts us back on God's path, which gives me clarity, peace, and freedom, is the loving gift of saying no. Saying, for instance, "I've done enough. Your turn."

When we were first talking about having children, Esther told me "I don't know if I want to turn my kids over to day care, and God made me to be a psychologist and heal people. So if we are having kids, you are staying home half the time."

This was a shocker. Nothing in my training as an upper-middle-class white Jewish man in late 20th century America had prepared me for the idea that I would have to work 20 hours a week instead of, say, 50. My initial reaction was resistance.

It was also one of the greatest blessings that ever happened to me, and has given me more joy in my life than I ever expected to have. We're about to move to Switzerland mostly so we can get back on that path, the path we should be on.

The indoctrination of the social system which wants us to consume, consume, consume, and not think too much, would have taught Esther that loving unconditionally would have meant not making that demand. It was a loving demand, but I don't think it felt like one to her at the time. Love is a slippery feeling. Sometimes (certainly in Esther's case) self-abnegation can feel like love, when it is only a kind of egotism.

I do the same thing; give things which are not necessarily wanted, swallow demands which would actually be sources of freedom, clarity, and peace, under the impression that I am giving, and being loving. When in fact I am just being a nice guy, avoiding conflict, breeding resentments within me, and ignoring a still, small voice which says "this is wrong."

This is why both of our traditions teach that love must be tempered with justice, and justice tempered with love.

Esther may not have felt that her demand was loving; she did know, however, that it was just. And so did I. And following that sense of justice has been our clearest guide.

"What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in the sight of your God?"

Ken B. said...


It must be fate that I found your blog at an obviously important moment in your thinking, and I spent some time reading about your family's recent fascinating history. You may remember me from college. I remember you well enough to know that you were just as spiritually grounded then (at least by the end) as you are now. Good luck on the rest of the journey!

Ken B.

Patti said...

Ken! What a wonderful surprise! I have wondered how (and where) you are all these years. I seem to remember seeing in BAM a note about you getting married to Sandy years back. No surprise there! :-) So happy you stumbled across my little journal. I'd love to catch up by email: joyfulmama @ yahoo .com

Jennifer said...

As a mum who is daily working to love sacrificially - thank you. I'm so glad that our journeys have crossed here at Holy Trinity and in Austin.