Putting our lives on hold

When I first started exploring Christianity, one of the teachings that was most surprising and counter-intuitive to me was the notion that we are called to live other-focused lives.

A product of secular culture, it seemed obvious to me that the way to find fulfillment and meaning in life was to be self-focused (not necessarily selfish, but self-focused). The way I used to see it, serving others was only one of a variety of good and worthy a person might choose to do with his or her free time. By default, you made your life goals based on pursuing personal interests and maximizing comfort; if possible, you would try to find some ways to give back to others, but to do so for any extended period of time would be to put your life on hold.

When I first heard that Christianity taught that our lives are not about ourselves and our own wants, that we are to look to serve God and others before serving ourselves, it was a radically different message than anything I’d ever heard…so radically different, in fact, that it sounded crazy. I resisted it. Wouldn’t spending too much time focusing outside of ourselves lead to misery? How were we supposed to accomplish all our big goals and do all those fulfilling things we planned to do if we never optimized around our own desires and wants?

Yet, in the process of resisting this teaching, I began to take a second look at the self-focused philosophy I’d had all my life.

I began to realize that introspecting and focusing on my wants never brought me lasting peace, and that it didn’t seem to work for anyone else either. I began to notice that as I started accomplishing some of those big goals that were going to bring me so much fulfillment…I didn’t feel as fulfilled as I thought I would. I’d heard before that this Christian teaching about living to serve God and others was not the personal philosophy of the religion’s founders, but an objective truth. I’d heard the claim that this, like all the other Christian teachings about moral law and how we are to live, was an articulation of the law that is written onto every human heart by our Creator, a statement of truth about what is best for each individual and for the world as a whole. When I first heard these claims they sounded like so much grandiose religious posturing. Yet more and more I realized that my way wasn’t working, and I started to wonder if these Christians might be on to something.

I decided to give it a try. I’d make an effort to spend a whole lot less time searching for meaning and answers within myself, making all my plans for the day, the year, and the rest of my life based on what I felt like doing. Though I would set aside time for prayer and time to myself to recharge my batteries (as religious orders do in their rules of life), I would start to think of my purpose here on earth as nothing more than to serve God and others. Honestly, it kind of sounded like a recipe for misery. But I had learned over and over again that every time I thought I knew better than God and his Church…it turned out that I did not know better than God and his Church. So I gave it a shot.

Almost immediately, I began to see the power of this teaching.

Even with my halting, far-from-perfect efforts, things began to change. For one thing, ironically, I found that everything I sought by focusing on myself and my own needs — peace, joy, fulfillment, direction, feelings of security about the future — I began to find only after I stopped looking inward and started looking outward.

The biggest thing I noticed, however, was that to be other-focused is to create an economy of love. Every single time we set our gaze outside of ourselves seek to serve others, whether it’s something overt like volunteering at a soup kitchen or something more subtle like simply saying a sincere, kind word to the checker at the grocery store, we add a little bit of love to the world. Through these actions there is more love in the spiritual economy than there was before. The other-focused life is, ultimately, a life of love.

I’ve been thinking about the power of this teaching a lot lately, noticing how differently I see the world now that I understand that serving God and others is not one of a variety of nice options we might pursue with our free time, but is actually our very purpose for existing.

All of my scattered thoughts on the subject were brought into relief the other day when I had a conversation with an immediate family member (whom I don’t want to identify directly). He seemed depressed and uneasy about something, and when I asked him why he said it was about his retirement account. He’s deeply distressed that he won’t have enough money to afford anything other than a government-run nursing home in his old age. I reminded him that my husband and I would love for him to move in with us when it gets to the point that he doesn’t feel comfortable living on his own. We weren’t even talking about a situation where he might need intensive medical care, yet he flatly refused to even consider the notion.

“I would never do that to you,” he said. “I would never have you put your life on hold like that.”

We’ve had this conversation many times before, yet this time, the first since my conversion to Christianity, I was hit by just what a profoundly sad worldview this reflects. I’ve always wanted this family member to live with us when he can no longer live on his own, and he’s always refused on the same grounds. That part is nothing new. Yet this time I saw clearly that the situation goes beyond an unfortunate refusal of help: it reflects a worldview in which well-meaning people like my relative believe that the best thing they can do for their loved-ones is to not burden them with their presence, where the very meaning of life has been twisted to suck love out of the world.

One of the logical results of the self-focused worldview that is so common in the secular world is that, if we assume that the best use of our lives is the unfettered pursuit of our personal goals and interests, we therefore don’t want to get in the way of others doing the same. It creates a situation in which we’re all constructing our own little self-sufficient desert islands, not wanting others to get in our way but also not wanting to get in others’ way. It leads us to believe that if we were ever to lose our self-sufficiency, our presence would not just be an annoyance but would in fact prevent our loved-ones from fulfilling their very purpose in life.

When I compare my life with the self-focused worldview to my life with the other-focused worldview, the difference is striking. Not that I am anywhere near some saint-like level of always seeking to serve others before myself, but simply understanding that that is the goal, that my own life isn’t about me, has changed everything. It’s counter-intuitive, it requires sacrifice, and it isn’t always the most comfortable path. But it is clear that, truly, this is how we were designed to live. After all these years of trying it my way, it’s like I’m finally operating my life according to the instruction manual. And it is ultimately a manual for how to live a life of love, written by he who is Love itself.

UPDATE: A Part II to this post is here.

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19 Responses to “Putting our lives on hold”
  1. Abigail says:

    Wow! Another Holy Spirit inspired post!

    My husband and I have the exact same situation with every single one of our parents. My maternal grandfather is currently living with my mom & dad, in what could not be a more “optimal” living environment. They even found a senior retirement center two blocks away which cares for my grandfather during the day and happily will let him spend the night anytime my parents need to travel for business, or even if they want a night off.

    Sadly, my Dad has gotten even more hardened from this experience. I had this surreal discussion with my Dad as he heatedly told me that never, ever wants to go on living if he’s in “that” condition. I started out the conversation totally confused. My grandfather is 92, but he’s completely coherent and in very good health. He’s not on life-support or anything.

    Then I realized my Dad basically thinks that physician assisted suicide is necessary option if he can no longer go to the bathroom alone! I was so stunned and sad. As the mother of three young children, I spend most of my day cleaning up bathroom type emergencies. It is such a small, small thing to do for someone you love. On the other side, what a gift it would be to have my Dad still with me & my children at age 92! Sadly, because of the baby-boomer mentality, we might not be able to enjoy his company in my house when he and mom grow old.

    Very upsetting, but things will turn around soon. I’m busy having lots of babies instead of “wisely” working to support my own IRA. I figure the more kids I have the more places I have to visit when I’m 90!

  2. Thomas says:

    This is such a good post.

    I myself have repeatedly noticed God gently trying to deconstruct my oh so American need to be entirely self-suffient.

  3. Veronica Mitchell says:

    I think in part this might be why Bill Maher and some other baby-haters claim that having children is “selfish.” They assume a self-focused life, where the creation of children must only be to satisfy some personal desire. The possibility of an others-focused life, where children are created as another “other” to focus on, doesn’t seem to occur to them.

  4. Sarah says:

    thank you. perhaps this isn’t entirely the point you were getting across, but to me it was a good reminder as to why i’ve felt beaten down lately and feel the tightening in my chest again. i slipped into my old habits of focusing on the things i “need” to get done, my to-do lists, and let myself get frustrated and sink into that frustration b/c i haven’t had “time for myself” lately. thank you. thank you so much.

  5. The Koala Bear Writer says:

    Great thoughts here. It made me think of a few things…

    I realized in the first few months of marriage that a “me-focus” wouldn’t work. In fact, it caused huge problems. I had to learn (and am still learning) to have an “other-focused” approach, putting my husband ahead of myself. That may sound very backwards, but everything works better that way. Now we have a baby, and I realize that this “other-focus” will just keep growing, as I’m now third on the list of priorities! Her needs are so much more demanding than mine, and I have to put everything on hold to take care of her. Yet it’s so rewarding! Her smiles, her joy, just her…

    I’m very sad your relative feels that way. I’ve always thought that when my grandparents are unable to live on their own (which they are now, though they’re almost 90), I’d rather they were with family than in a home. It’s sad to see older people so alone in homes, abandoned by their families. I live 3 hours from my grandparents and have always regretted that I can’t see them more. I’ve heard of others who’ve had a grandparent or other relative living with them, and how blessed they have been from that.

    Yet I can also understand the “I don’t want to be a burden” mentality, as too often I fall into that. I’m very independent, and often find it hard to accept the offerings of others who are “other-focued.” So not only are we called to be “other-focused,” but also to allow others to be “other-focused.” Hmmm. :)

  6. SuburbanCorrespondent says:

    All these things that God has slowly, patiently been teaching me over the past 16 or so years of raising children, all these things you articulate so well. I can’t tell you how surprised I was to finally realize that wanting to nurture someone and needing to help people did not mean that I was a pathetic parasite who could not make it on her own. And I was even more surprised to learn that it was okay for me to need people also, that it gives them an opportunity to be more fully human.

    Love, love, love your blog.

  7. lyrl says:

    Even for a secular thinker, a self-focused life is illogical. Not just our closest evolutionary relatives (chimpanzees, orangutans, etc.) but the whole primate family are intensely social beings, whose happiness depends on constantly adding love to their society (as Jen so eloquently put it). (The writings of Frans de Waal are fascinating insights into the evolutionary advantages of this.)

    A belief that humans are exempt from this fundamental drive – shared by all our relatives up to 63 million years back – would not be consistent with a belief in evolution. Primate psychology is not something most people are exposed to in everyday life, though. So it’s good to see alternate reasonings to the same beautiful conclusion expressed in this post.

  8. Anonymous says:

    This is a good opportunity for me to say how much I loved your post during Lent on the machine and the instruction manual. You said you thought it wasn’t the best analogy but I really liked it — and I love this post. It made me want to cry for some reason.

    Jane M

  9. SteveK says:

    it reflects a worldview in which well-meaning people like my relative believe that the best thing they can do for their loved-ones is to not burden them with their presence, where the very meaning of life has been twisted to suck love out of the world.

    When people I know and love offer to help me I try (keyword) to remember that ‘no thanks’ isn’t the best response. I don’t want to be responsible for denying them the joy and blessing they would have received by helping, and I don’t want to miss out on loving them all the more for helping me. It’s a win-win for everyone.

  10. Tertium Quid says:

    After Russell Kirk died, his daughter was asked about the “burden” of taking care of her sick father. She replied that it was not a burden but a privilege.

  11. Amber says:

    This reminds me so much of my Grandmother… last year she was quite ill and in it my father and uncle pretty much forced her to sell her condo and move into an assisted living place. The place is nice and all, but it isn’t her home. She recovered perfectly well, and while she needs a little help here and there, it is more care than her sons are willing to give her… and she doesn’t want to be a burden on anyone so she doesn’t want to ask for any help. Not long after this all happened she was talking about how guilty she felt that we all helped go through her condo and move her into the new place – but we all did it out of love of this wonderful woman, not out of anything else. She even said that she sometimes wished she had died during her illness to save everyone the bother of having to do all that they do to help her. Not that this is even all that much…

    And then on the other hand you have my mother’s parents who were perfectly happy to become as much of a burden as possible on anyone who would take care of them. There was no sense of gratitude either, just pickiness, grumpiness, and general whining about everything. My mom tried to have them live with her for several months, but there was such a lack on their end to try and make anything easier on my mom that in the end she had to find somewhere to have them or go off the deep end. I’m not sure what I would have done in her place, but it seems that a relationship like that needs some gratitude or something from the person being cared for if it is going to work at all.

    Both my parents and my in-laws talk about not wanting to be a burden on anyone as they get older, but I hope that they will let me help them and not push me away. At least they are all nicer people than my maternal grandparents ever were!

  12. Jackie B says:

    Beautifully put… helps me deal with my own father in law’s attitude towards this same situation. “No, no”, he says, “just stick me in a home somewhere; take care of your mother, though.” What???!!! He doesn’t understand what it would do to my conscience to “stick him” anywhere! Makes total sense though when you take into consideration that he is very much a “me” guy.

  13. Jen says:

    I cannot even tell you what this post did for me. As a convert, and a woman who has grown up in this secular world and lives according to it’s rules and promises, I have asked God for the grace to understand this “dying to self” and “vocation of love.” Through my children and husband, I am understanding it bit by bit, day by day, but in small pieces. Your post said what I’ve been trying to wrap my brain (and heart) around for almost ten years. Your family member feels the way I’ve often felt. I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. I don’t want my kids or my husband, or mother, father, sister, brother, to ever feel that way. I want them to know that they are loved. It’s so very hard to think of others and not yourself. It’s a hard balance to make sure you take care of yourself so that you can take good care of others, and not become to self focused, or self centered. May we all pray for the grace to find that balance.

  14. lp says:

    What a wonderful, thoughtful post!

    It made me think of a couple of things:

    First, I can remember the day I consciously decided to stop worrying so much about myself and start taking care of those around me. I was at my grandparents’ house for a get-together with our extended family, which I usually enjoy greatly.

    However, our first baby was about 6 months old and was being quite fussy. (He still doesn’t like large crowds of people, several years later!) So while everyone else was catching up with the cousins, aunts, and uncles that we don’t see so often anymore, I was spending the day jiggling the baby on my hip and having occasional snippets of conversation when I wasn’t pacing outside, where it was quieter and my little guy was calmer.

    After several hours, I was feeling quite sorry for myself, and was feeling very burdened by the fact that *I* was the only one who had any chance of keeping my son calm. I was half-wishing that some fairy godmother would swoop in at that point to relieve me, or at least reassure me that some day the baby would grow out of this fussiness.

    And I suddenly realized that of course there would be no fairy godmother, but that there was . . . me. That I could continue internally moaning and complaining, or I could do everything in my own power to make the day as comfortable as possible for my baby. And as soon as I decided to focus on him instead of on me, the whole day went more smoothly.

    Eventually, I realized that not only could I do this for my kids, but for my husband, extended family, acquaintances, passing strangers–everyone, really.

    It wasn’t until my third son was born this past summer (yes, I’m pretty slow at figuring this out!) that I realized that although I have very little control over what happens in the course of the day, I have complete control over how I respond to those events.

    So, in those first few months of infancy, when I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had more than four (nonconsecutive) hours of sleep, but that didn’t stop my two preschoolers from waking up energetically with the dawn, I had two choices. I could grumble, complain, and snap at them . . . or I could smile and try to make the day as pleasant as possible for them (and brew a strong cup of coffee!).

    The thing that was really a revelation to me last summer was that this decision had absolutely nothing to do with my emotional state. I was free to decide to act cheerfully no matter how grumpy and exhausted I felt. My free will was not at all subject to my emotions.

    And, predictably, I found that when I stopped thinking about how tired *I* was and how everyone seemed to need *me* to do things for them, and focused instead on how to make the day as fun as possible for *them*, I found that my emotions followed along, and soon I was feeling more cheery myself. That’s what was counterintuitive about the whole thing–the only way I could cheer myself up was to stop thinking about . . . myself.

    I hasten to add that I am still really, really bad at remembering to do this on a daily basis! My default setting is still to go with the emotions.

    Second, and on a completely different angle, this post reminded me of the discussion about communities a few weeks ago. Perhaps we have all become so self-reliant that we have come to view communities as superfluous. We don’t want to “burden” others with our troubles, so we hide behind a veil of privacy. And because we all protect our own privacy, people don’t want to invade that privacy by offering help. Somehow we have lost the rituals, the etiquette, the art of sharing life’s burdens together.

    I think part of the problem is that we all know people who complain too much–with whom you can’t have a conversation without hearing a list of ailments and family troubles–and we fear becoming “like them.” However, I think there must be a way of sharing troubles humbly, not in a “woe is me” way, but in a “life is hard for everyone” kind of way.

  15. Karen E. says:

    Beautiful post, Jen.

  16. mamazee says:

    My parents and inlaws are the same, despite our continual reassurance that we would love to be their home when the time comes (which won’t for quite awhile…)…
    On the other hand, one thing my mom and sisters (i have two) are practicing saying to one another is “I feel blessed” – this is instead of “you shouldn’t have!” or “no, i couldn’t possibly…” :) – it’s sooooo hard to let someone else bless you, but it is good for us to bless others, and good for others to bless us, too… :)… so we are practicing “I am blessed” as a more gracious way of just giving thanks and allowing others to do the thoughtful things they have in mind…

  17. Christi says:

    I’m a frequent reader of your blog and must’ve missed this one when you posted it–just came across it now.
    I just wanted to say a few things.
    First, I think by allowing ourselves to be served we’re allowing others to do what they are meant to do.
    About the topic of when people begin to age and need more assistance: My grandmother has been ill with alzheimers for the last ten years. She lived with my parents for about 8 years (before the onset of her illness) after my grandfather died. The last two years she lived there, fluctuations in her personality made the situation very difficult. In retrospect my parents realized that it must’ve been the beginning of her illness. After an accident and needed surgery she was no longer able to live in my parents home, because proper care was not available. She then moved into an assisted living facility. A few years later, she needed more care and was moved into a catholic nursing home. All I can say is that all these painful decisions were made with love, always thinking ultimately what would be the best for her. During all these years, I have been able to see a side of my grandmother that never emerged before her illness. She became very affectionate and very smiley and happy. ALthough she lost her memory and eventually her ability to speak, all the visitors knew her by name because she became so social. Not only has this process given us as a family another side of her to experience but has also allowed us to fulfill our duties as children of God, Christians, to “serve” our neighbor. She has NEVER been a burden to me. Now that she has been in hospice care for two months and I know her days on earth are numbered, I am grateful that I have been able to be there and care for her all these years. It’s only natural to serve those we love!

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  1. [...] control over my life to go do it, I’d finally have lasting happiness. I was shocked when I found out that that assumption was wrong. I was more shocked when I realized what is the path to lasting happiness: serving [...]

  2. […] [This is a Part II to the post Putting Our Lives on Hold.] […]