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Giving the Widow's Mite
Your comments on being generous with brokenness, not abundance
Last week, we discussed whether “you can pour from an empty cup,” in other words, how you can serve others while not being whole yourself. Next week, I’ll share highlights from your discussion of “The Final Care Workers” and how we take care of the dead.
Rosemary shared a personal story that encapsulated the grace that can exist when we give in a time marked by our own need:
Sometimes giving to others has been the only way I’ve kept going at all, the only way I felt like I had value. My cup was empty for me, but full for others. And I think....that’s ok? The demand that women give to the point of self-sacrifice can be toxic for sure, but yes, I have often found myself giving from my brokenness, not from my abundance.
I’m sharing just a fragment of her story below, which came in the midst of a low point of an abusive marriage. You can read her whole reflection at the link above.
On the day I am thinking of, one of my patients was being worked up for a new and life-threatening diagnosis. There were all sorts of challenging logistical problems at play, largely because his care had taken place over multiple hospital systems. I must have spent at least four hours (probably more) phoning multiple hospitals and specialists, getting them to phone conference with each other, transferring imaging studies and lab reports from one system to another, and calling various family members to talk them through everything.
It’s always meaningful to me when family members thank me, but my patient’s daughter thanked me that day, and only the fact that I had made a fairly recent stairwell visit stopped me from crying, heh. Knowing that I could still give even when I had absolutely nothing was a gift I have never let go of.
I attribute this not to me but to grace, to be fair; I think when we give from our emptiness that’s often because, hmmmm, sometimes the times when we have absolutely nothing are the only times when we are able to get out of God’s way and let Him fill us. Thinking back on it now, I think one of the most important lessons from that day is that it’s never really me who is giving anyway; it’s always God’s love working through me.
When I think about the phrases mentioned in the beginning of this essay (oxygen mask, empty cup, loving self), I think about very basic needs being met: every person deserves to live knowing his/her dignity and worth. Every person deserves to live as though they are worth being cared for. There are ways in which this knowledge erodes over time, in probably every life! But I see this erosion go unchalleged too often in professions and vocations often occupied by women. It's almost as if the message is that you know you're giving enough when you're too tired to care for yourself.
I have seen many people give and love in solidarity when they are tired, ill, weak. Is it always true that exhaustion, weakness, and illness mean one has an "empty cup"? I love the essay on Josephine Butler, learning about how she lived in solidarity with women who were struggling. It may be that she was weary with sorrow and exhaustion, but also that she was passionate about this part of her calling, which gave her the ability still to go out among these women and perhaps find herself in this giving. Butler seemed to see and honor the innate dignity in the women she served - did she see and know this dignity because she also believed it about herself, in the midst of her great suffering?
When I was in high school, I read Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain trilogy, a scifi story studded with brilliant people where the world is ultimately saved by the abject, needy, and humble. As a bright teenager, I took umbrage at the ending, but I hope I’m growing into it.
One other work that took on this theme of redemptive suffering was Heroes of the Fourth Turning, a play about four relatively conservative Catholics struggling to find their place in the age of Trump. Barbara McClay has an appreciation of the work here, my very different reading of the play is here. (For the record, the playwright agrees with Barbara).
Amy spoke about a moment when a medical crisis made her reexamine who she was able to be dependent on.
These two thoughts, "God has not made us to be wholly self-sufficient" and "Our need connects us to each other" are really helping me process my current struggle with loneliness. It's been around for a long time but there was an incident nearly three years ago now that really crystallized it—I was pregnant with our third and having severe abdominal pain at about 20 weeks. It was a Thursday evening and my midwife group doesn't have clinic hours on Fridays so they told me to go to the ER rather than wait until Monday.
The problem was we live 2 hours from family and we couldn't think of anyone we could call to even sit in our house while our 2.5 year old twins slept so my husband could take me to the hospital. So we all got in the car, my husband dropped me at the hospital doors, and he spent the next 3 hours driving around in the dark while the boys slept in their car seats and I was alone waiting to be examined (they could find no reason for the pain so they just sent me home - healthy baby girl arrived 4 months later!).
Afterwards I kept asking myself, "How could this have happened? How, after 3 years in this neighborhood, in our church, in our house, how come when we need help we have no one to call?" I now know the fault was ours because it wasn't that those around us were unwilling to assist, it was that we were unwilling to ask. I'm far, far more comfortable with giving than receiving, and it's not possible to find the friendships and community I so long for without letting others into those vulnerable moments.
There were more thought-provoking comments then I can really fit in a single newsletter, so I’d love to return to this topic some other week. Please let me know if you come across an interesting reading or story that would be a good prompt to continue the conversation.