It’s not what you do, it’s whom you serve

I’m getting ready to spend some time at Yaya‘s house, so here’s one from the archives. It was originally published on September 25, 2008.

iStock 000007886788XSmall It’s not what you do, it’s whom you serveOne day this summer one of my special friends from the neighborhood stopped by during the kids’ naptime to talk with me about something that was on her mind, and caught me at a particularly busy time. As we sat there, drinking lemonade over ice at my kitchen table, me listening to her discuss the details of a problem she had with one of her friends (instead of doing what I had planned for that hour), it occurred to me that this is the sort of situation that would have led me to feel deeply conflicted in my old life.

Sure, helping these girls is nice, the thinking would have gone, but what about me? I’m trying to work on that article I’d like to get published, and that is an important goal for my personal fulfillment. I like to help the girls, but…do I really have the time if I’m going to be serious about developing a writing career? Is it worth it to spend so much time with them if it means stymieing important personal accomplishments?

Over and over again, the same scenario kept playing out: I’d follow my heart and get myself in situations that required selfless giving (say, getting married or having kids); but then logic would kick in and I’d realize that too much selfless giving was going to get in the way of meeting my personal goals, the pursuit of which I “knew” to be the meaning of life from the values I’d learned from our culture. I’d end up stressed out about how I was going to balance it all.

The main problem was that the prioritization was not clear at all. If I set aside some of my duties as wife and mother to focus on pursuing my own projects, that would be good, because the meaning of life is to do stuff that’s fulfilling to you personally…right? Yet my heart kept pulling me in the direction of focusing more on motherhood and family, which was odd since obviously I’d lose my whole identity and have nothing to show for my life if I wasn’t accumulating bullet points for my resume. I was confused. There was a constant tug-of-war between my brain and my heart, and I didn’t know how to get out of it.

This is one of the biggest areas where the Christian worldview changed my life.

A couple of years ago some Catholic readers responding to this post introduced me to the concept of “vocation,” that every single person is called to one of the vocations that God has given us — the most common being married life, the priesthood or consecrated religious life — and that each of us is to discern to which vocation we are called. What I found most interesting about this whole concept (and, frankly, shocking and slightly disconcerting at the time), is that your life’s vocation isn’t as much what you do as much as it is whom you serve. This worldview basically said that each of us is put on this earth to serve others, and your vocation is simply a matter of discerning whom you’ll serve and how you’ll serve them. In other words, there is no living for yourself. There’s no optimizing your entire life around what you feel like doing.

“WHAT?!” I thought. “But I like optimizing my life around what I feel like doing!” This was a major, cataclysmic change in thinking for me. And I wasn’t sure I was on board with it.

I thought that what was being pitched here was a life of drudgery that would quickly send spoiled, lazy people like me to the mental hospital. I took it to mean that you literally can’t have a moment to yourself, that you must turn all your hopes and dreams over to the dustbin and work yourself to exhaustion to do whatever other people want you to do.

What I realize now is that I completely misunderstood the concept. I came to see that this worldview is not an expression of absolutes, but of prioritization. To live a life of service does not mean that you never take time for yourself; it means that taking time for yourself isn’t the entire meaning of life. It does not mean that you turn your hopes and dreams over to the dustbin; it means you turn them over to God.

It was only very hesitantly that I put this concept into practice in my life. Slowly I began to embrace the fact that the defining purpose of my life is to be a wife and mother, that to serve my husband and my children and my parents and the world around me was what God wanted me to do…that it was even what he wanted me to do far more than write great articles or books or blog posts (even if those articles and books and blog posts were in an effort to bring glory to him). It was one of my first big exercises in trusting God to accept this premise that selfless service of others is objectively a higher life priority than seeking personal gain.

I tested the waters hesitantly. Ever so slowly, I deprioritized the activities that were all about me — not cutting them out entirely, just recognizing their proper place in my life. When I found myself in a situation where I had a choice between doing something for someone else and doing something for me, unless there was a good reason not to (e.g. if I were feeling run down and genuinely needed a break), I began to choose service. All the while I worried about was that this would be the end of my hopes and dreams, that all the little hobbies and projects I’d so enjoyed would fall by the wayside as I gave and gave and gave with nothing left for me. Once again, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

What I found was that God always, always gave me what I needed to feel personally fulfilled. Sometimes it was just barely enough, but it was enough. I found that when I was finally willing to admit that my personal goals like writing or getting published were a lower priority than my call to marriage and motherhood (not unimportant, just a lower priority), that’s actually when God really began to bless my efforts in those departments. Though I had less time for it, the time I did spend on it bore fruit like never before.

So as I would spend those days this summer listening to the girls talk to me about whatever was on their minds, for the first time I really felt the peaceful order the Christian worldview has brought to my life. The conflict was gone. I didn’t have to wonder if my time would be better spent trying to get something published as opposed to listening to a little ten-year-old tell me about her worries about the fifth grade. Though sometimes it was a painful exercise in trust, I knew that God would help me make up time “lost” talking to the girls if that’s what I needed. Finally, I had a clear prioritization that put an end to that tug-of-war between my head and my heart, and I realized that my heart had been right all along.

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Enter the Conversation...

12 Responses to “It’s not what you do, it’s whom you serve”
  1. Abigail says:

    I LOVE THIS POST! I'm living that change in old/to new Catholic thinking also!

  2. daisy says:

    Lately I've been willing to admit that I've been sucking at living my life as a deeply committed spiritual Catholic. I'm a stay at home mom of 3, and I've let my prayer life fall to the wayside. My life is chaotic, and my thinking has been along the lines of, "I should be DOING something with my life. I mean, I know I have kids and I'm tied down here, but I should be able to find some free time to serve others and be a good Catholic." But as I've begun to pick up my prayer life and rediscover communication with God, I feel like God has been telling me in prayer, "You're already where you need to be. You just need to start doing." This is not so much the usual tagline of "your vocation is motherhood, be content with that", but more like, "hey, you're not really doing the best you can here. THIS is what you need to be working on." I can be a better mother and wife in a lot of ways, and that's where I need to focus my energy, and make these things get back on the right path before I can even think about directing my energies outside of that. Anyway, all that to say…yes.

  3. Barb says:

    You have no idea how meaningful your post is to me due to circumstances in my life at the present time. Thank you for making things clearer and helping me see the path I need to follow.

  4. Rachel Gray says:

    Thank you very much for this post. I'm also in circumstances that will require re-prioritization of goals, and it helps to read this.

  5. Just a Girl says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, thank you.

  6. Ellen says:

    Wonderful post. Thank you for this.

  7. Dawn by Design says:

    Jennifer – this is so meaningful for me right now as I am at a significant crossroads with certain decisions, the tension behind those decisions being the same as you've mentioned in your post.

    Yesterday, even, I posted this status on FB and Twitter:

    The first step is to find in your soul a respect for your vocation. -Holiness for Housewives

    As a reminder to myself.

    Recently, I was describing this struggle to someone and coming up with all those worldy reasons you mentioned (because they are what others keep telling me) and my Catholic friend mentioned the word "vocation" and my eyes lightened up and I snapped my fingers and I was like "YES!" that's it.

    Just the word alone includes all the layers of understanding that I needed to see what I am choosing is right, even if hard and everyone else thinks I'm a bit "off" for choosing such roads.

    I cling to the hope of Jesus's words that say if we lose our life for His sake, we'll find it.

    Thank you for your post.

  8. Rachel says:

    This is totally unrelated, but I got this "factoid" in an email today and thought of you: "23. A tiny amount of liquor on a scorpion will make it instantly go mad and sting itself to death."

  9. Anonymous says:

    "[...]unless there was a good reason not to (e.g. if I were feeling run down and genuinely needed a break)[...]"

    It's one of the sentences that most caught my attention.

    Yes, it is very noble to serve others, but I am a mom with no family or help available to me, and I constantly feel run down.
    I can barely find the energy to be a mom.

    I have no idea what God wants me to do. I was hoping your post would inspire me, but I just don't see myself helping others. I feel like I'm the one who needs help…

  10. Dawn by Design says:

    Anonymous: I just received the Small Steps for Catholic Moms book and companion journal yesterday. The virtue for August is charity and on p. 77 of the journal is says this,

    "There are stages in our life where we are able to perform great works of charity outside our homes and there are stages in our lives where the greatest need for our time and attention is within our homes. … Ask God to keep you quiet, content, and charitable at home if that is where he is calling you to be right now, and to nudge you toward greater charity outside your home if that is where you need to grow."

    Hope that helps. You ARE serving others by being a mom.

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    Do you have a spam problem on this website; I also am a blogger, and I was curious about your situation; we have created some nice practices and we are looking to swap solutions with other folks, be sure to shoot me an e-mail if interested.

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  1. [...] heard on this subject is from my spiritual director. She pointed out that our primary vocations are the main way God wants us to serve others, and therefore he would never call us to something that would detract from our work in that [...]