"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Freedom and Lack of Choice

Recently I've been drawn into thinking about freedom and choice. Well, ok, I'm working on a chapter of my dissertation on varying views of obligation, obedience, freedom, and responsibility. But this was brought home to me more practically just in my own daily life. To repeat the infamous Fr. Bob, to be free is to give ourselves away. The more we give ourselves away, the freer we become. We probably all can think of examples of people that just seem to give themselves away to others, whether through their work, their family, their neighbors, or however. These are the happiest people around.

Now, darn it, we all sometimes have to do things that we don't want to do. This is when we might feel that our "freedom" is being limited. Here I am having to do the dishes, sweep the floor, wash a load of laundry and do other menial house chores in addition to feeding and caring for three children when what I really want to do is to relax, read, exercise, attend parish Vespers, etc. and generally engage in Sabbath rest. In such a situation, we might have at least three options. 1. Don't do what we "have" to do. For the tasks listed above, this would really just be procrastination as of course the chores don't disappear, but rather increase. 2. Do the tasks begrudgingly or, if not begrudgingly, with a sense of disinterested resignation. 3. Do the tasks lovingly and with a spirit of generosity.

A great lie of our modern day society is that if our interior disposition does not perfectly match our exterior action we are simply hypocrites... or worse, we are "not being true to ourselves" and hence limiting our self-actualization. So if we can't do it #3 (lovingly and with a spirit of generosity), then we shouldn't do it at all. In certain cases, this may actually be the case. For example, if living in a service community where one housemate neglects washing her breakfast dishes, and you do them for her, all the while thinking negative thoughts about her and harboring anger about your doing her task, this could be harmful. Even when living with a spouse, if you pick up his laundry to put it in the hamper every morning, and do it in a begrudging nature, it is probably better, as in the other case mentioned, to address the conflict and clarify expectations so as to come to an agreement.

But on the other hand, there are times, especially in a marriage, where a spouse may be sick/injured or pregnant or out of town, and you may have to do a full day of both childcare and house care (sometimes to the detriment of your dissertation!). Obviously it would be great to do this with enthusiasm, love, and generosity - the quintessential peaceful attitude that we imagine the Blessed Virgin might have possessed. But with our human weakness we may find it hard to "bear the ills of life cheerfully," as it were. And we are not hypocritical, nor are we lacking in "self-fulfillment" if we embrace those crosses with resignation; rather we are staying true to our commitments despite what may seem to be personal cost. In some way, we are humbling ourselves by admitting that there is no "choice," no avoiding the tasks, and, rather than procrastinating, beginning and then beginning again (after changing that diaper). If we can do this, we will have earned the right to say, "We are unprofitable servants. We have done what we were obliged to do" (Lk 17:10).

True freedom - and we see it in the lives of the saints - is one step beyond this, however. It comes only when we are giving ourselves away in doing these tasks. It comes when we cheerfully (rather than reluctantly and with great annoyance) interrupt the typing of a blogpost in order to nurse a half-asleep baby. Obviously it is better to interrupt a blogpost to nurse a baby begrudgingly than to turn off the baby monitor and ignore the crying, but it is BEST to respond with a spirit of generosity. "Bearing the ills of life" is great, but what makes it penitential is "patient suffering" (BC Q.221) This intention is what supernaturalizes the ills of life, turning difficulty into opportunity.

Of course, we may intellectually understand that generosity, cheerfulness, patience, love, etc. are the best path, but we may find ourselves falling into resignation by the end of the day, especially when that day started before 6:00 a.m. and is now on its 14th hour. It reminds me of something I read in the Divine Office to the effect that virtue is best developed in the evening. It's much easier to be patient and kind disciplining a child in the morning than in the evening (especially when she's hanging from the handle of the brand-new refrigerator). So these failures are when we rectify our intentions, when we say an act of contrition, make a resolution, and make it specific, e.g. not just "I will be more patient tomorrow and not yell angrily," but "Tomorrow I will prepare dinner earlier so I can devote more attention to my children at that time of day when they are most likely to be difficult."

Even with such intentions, we will fail. But we cannot let the lack of perfection in our interior life allow us to give up trying out of a fear that we are somehow hypocritical or not true to ourselves when we perform unwanted tasks. Our freedom is at stake here. To be free is to give ourselves away - to want to do that and to do it lovingly. We start by doing what we have to do, but, with God's grace, we end with doing what we have to do in the way God wants us to do it.


Bill Orchard said...

Interesting question: Is there any "self to be true to" other than the "I" that is actualized by the engagement with reality, i.e. by the adventure of responding to all the twists and turns and complications and beauty of everyday life?

Theologian Mom said...

It is an interesting question, and it seems to me it could be answered in a number of ways. I think for stay-at-home moms who have given up careers and employed their (sometimes elite) education to wipe noses, cook meals, etc. it can feel like there is another "self" who is hibernating, or perhaps better said, "lying fallow." But of course, even the sacrifice of education and career is still an example of being true to oneself, though it may not always feel like it.

Heart and Hands said...

Love your post! I can definitely relate, as it reminded me of the first year and a half after E was born. What a shock, going from a person who frequently "did good" because I elected to rather than because I had to. Prior to becoming a parent, I fancied myself a "good" person, who volunteered in various places, spent time and energy caring for the poor, etc. However, when it came to staying up all night with my own sick baby or cleaning up her millions of messes, I found myself angry and annoyed. Never thought I could get so furious at such a defenseless creature, especially one who was my own flesh and blood! As time goes on, I find it easier, maybe because I'm further removed from the "freedom" to give on my own terms which I had in my early 20s. So I think there is something to that first step of accepting your crosses, so that eventually they won't feel like such heavy crosses anymore. That being said, I still hope your husband's back gets better soon and that things go back to normal for you!