A few years ago, my family and I arrived just after the opening hymn on First Communion Sunday. In our large, vibrant parish, arriving a little late usually means sharing a pew with another family, but with a comfortable space in between. On First Communion Sunday, it means you are shoulder to shoulder with your neighbor.
My son was probably two years old at the time, and had a cold. I was busy trying to keep him quiet, wipe his nose, and listen as best I could. My husband took our son outside after the Gospel, and I sat down for the homily, ready to give it my undivided attention.
As I sat down, the young woman next to me offered me a tissue. I was confused for a moment. She had to have seen me wiping my son’s nose, so she knew I had tissues. Plus she must have seen him leave just a moment before.
Suddenly it occurred to me that I had been sniffling the whole time I was in Mass and didn’t even notice! Because I was so preoccupied with my son and trying to pay attention at Mass, I did not even realize that my own nose was running. Offering me tissue was probably this young woman’s polite way of saying, “Hey, lady, aren’t you going to do something about your own annoying sniffling?”
Selflessness or Deflection
I have thought a lot about this incident and what it means.
I could pat myself on the back. I could say this is an example of how I’m a selfless mother who doesn’t even think about her own needs, let alone put herself first. It just didn’t occur to me to think about myself.
I could also just as easily say that this is a classic example of how I tend to focus on other people to a fault. I let myself become so preoccupied with the wants, needs, and (especially) flaws of others that I forget to examine my own wants, needs, and (especially) flaws. I fail to look at myself critically, and I trick myself into thinking I am noble for doing it.
When I am totally honest with myself, I know that situations like these are really a combination of the two. I have consciously pure motives with underlying selfish ones.
What’s the harm
Some might ask, “Well, what’s the harm in putting others first, even if my motives are not 100% pure?”
Sometimes there is no harm. Someone gets help, I get to feel superior, and everyone in the situation is happy.
As in my sniffling case, sometimes the harm is minor. I worry so much about my child disrupting others, I fail to recognize that in neglecting myself, my sniffling might disturb others. My neighbor is temporarily annoyed and loses a tissue, but no major harm is done.
There are times, though, when this sort of self-neglect can be downright dangerous to ourselves and others. We can make ourselves emotionally, spiritually, and physically sick when we fail to acknowledge our own needs. Then we are no good to anyone, including ourselves. We can become self-righteous, joyless, irritable hypocrites who repel others rather than attract them to our way of life. Jesus did not say, “Everyone will know you are my disciples by the way you fail to take care of yourself.” He said “Everyone will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Please understand me: I am not advocating we all go around neglecting our responsibilities and always put ourselves first. Quite the contrary. After all, Jesus tells us what we do to others we do to Him (Matthew 25). He even tells us we need to deny ourselves to be His disciples (Luke 14:25-28). Certainly, though, we can do the right action for the wrong reason.
With this in mind, let us ask God to help us honestly search ourselves. Are we serving out of love of God and neighbor, or because it makes us feel good and look good in others’ eyes? Do we put others first as a conscious sacrifice or as a way of distracting ourselves from our own problems and flaws?
Once we recognize when our motives are not as selfless as they may seem, we can then open ourselves to God’s grace. Now I find myself praying a variation of Psalm 51, “Lord, create in me pure motives; give me a willing spirit.”
Copyright 2019 Monica Portogallo