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What Can You Pour From an Empty Cup?
The witness offered by want and suffering
Every Monday, I share a new essay or conversation prompt with the 750+ members of Other Feminisms. On Thursdays, I share highlights from last week’s conversation. This Thursday, I’ll be sharing some of your comments on “Gift-Work Becomes Women’s Work.”
“You have to put on your own oxygen mask first.”
“You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
“If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
I’ve heard variants on all these sayings in women’s spaces. At their best, they’re a way of giving permission to treat ourselves like people, rather than caring for everyone but ourself. They speak to a real difficulty, especially for women, in knowing when self-gift becomes self-erasure.
But they can also come with a message of “no.”
If you’re too tired, too neglected, too ill, too weak, you don’t have anything to give until your own cup is filled again, by yourself or by somebody else. The world can feel divided into the helpful and the helpless.
I saw a countervailing idea when I was reading Robert Hugh Benson’s The Friendship of Christ for a Lenten book club. In his reflections on Christ’s last words from the Cross, Benson dwells on a different idea of gift when Christ tells Mary, “Behold your son,” and John, “Behold your mother,” as they stand at the foot of the Cross, unable to aid Him in His Passion.
Benson sees in this passage a call to unity that isn’t founded on strength. He writes:
Now the union of men with one another is, in one sense, the object of every human society. There has been verified gradually even in the most worldly spheres that fact which has always been preached by Christianity, that union is strength, that co-operation is better than competition, that to “lose self” in a Society of some kind is the only means of saving self; that individuality can be retained only by the sacrifice of individualism. But in practically all human societies that have ever existed, the bond of union is thought to be one of prosperity. “If we can rejoice together, win together, triumph together, we shall be able to love one another.”
Now Jesus Christ does something that has never been done before. He uses suffering as the supreme bond of love.
Sarah C. Williams saw another example of this kind of unity through suffering in the life of Josephine Butler, a turn-of-the-century feminist. In an essay for Plough, Williams wrote about how Butler “connected the experience of personal grief with the corporate grief of womankind.” Butler lost her daughter in an accident, and went out of her house to the oakum sheds where destitute women unravelled rope for meager wages.
For two years after Eva’s death, Butler wrestled with depression and despair. It was during this time that she first visited the oakum sheds. “I had no clear idea beyond that,” she writes, “no plan for helping others; my sole wish was to plunge into the heart of some human misery and to say (as I then knew I could) to afflicted people, I understand: I too have suffered.”
In the mid-nineteenth century there was nothing unusual in middle-class women doing “rescue work” among prostitutes or “fallen women,” as they were known. But Butler refused to call her visits to the Brownlow workhouse rescue work; instead, she talked about individual women with names, faces, and histories – women who were her friends. She refused to use the term “prostitute” or “fallen woman” and instead adopted the word “outcast” to describe the lives of these women.
There was no requirement that Butler become whole or healed before caring for others. She was bound to others not by prosperity, but by need and sorrow.
If we can give only out of our own abundance, only the comfortable and well can be generous. If our pains and crosses can be our gift, we are never left unable to begin friendships or care for others.
Have you ever found yourself dividing the world into givers and receivers?
Are there times when you could not care for yourself, but could care for others?
P.S. To my amusement, as I tried to track down a source for “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” Google suggested “you can’t pour from an empty cup bible verse.” I’m reminded of Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret, in which there is some confusion about the source of unsigned notes, but general agreement they must be quoting the Bible or Shakespeare.