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lEtting GO

June 3, 2018

But the other part of our dilemma is to confront the monstrous self that occludes our vision, separates us from other beings, and makes death such an intolerable prospect.

Barbara Ehrenreich pens these words in her new book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. An underlying thesis of the book is that we are so obsessed with ourselves—with our own health, success, and happiness—that our egos end up dominating our lives. If we are not attempting to control others, most of us are at least guilty of attempting to control every aspect of our own lives, from our schedules and expenditures to our diets and appearances, often to the detriment of the health and happiness we seek. We chide our children and others by reminding them that the world doesn’t revolve around them while simultaneously living as if the world revolves around us.

In her book, Ehrenreich quotes Susan Sontag, who wrote the following in her personal journal as she suffered from cancer: “Death is unbearable unless you can get beyond the ‘I.’” Life too, I believe, is unbearable unless you can get beyond the “I.” I remember a time in my life when my personal desires were a significant source of anxiety. I would get frustrated and cranky when plans didn’t pan out—even short-term ones like getting to bed by a certain time at night—and I held tightly to my money, doling out only tiny percentages to programs or charities I wanted to support.

Despite priding myself on volunteering my spring breaks and other weeks during the year to sacrifice my time for good causes, I eventually came to realize that my commitment to making a difference in the world was limited to times and places that were convenient for me. Sure, if a friend or family member needed me in the middle of the night or in the middle of a workout routine due to an emergency, I wouldn’t hesitate to interrupt my activity for them—but to be ready and willing to live my life for others in a way that might compromise my ability to maintain a type-A schedule on a regular basis? Certainly not.

I first realized how self-centered I was when I read Kisses for Katie, an autobiography by a young woman who gave up her college plans and settled in Uganda after being moved by the poverty she witnessed there during a post-high school mission trip. She ultimately adopted 13 young children and became a mom while founding a non-profit that ministers to thousands of people each year. Whoa. I was doing nothing like that despite the fact that my desire to change the world was strong. For the first time in my life, I realized I had a significant deficit as a Christian and as a citizen of this world: I was only willing to sacrifice myself when it worked for me.

I had a strong desire to grow beyond my self-centeredness and learn how to find contentedness and even joy—rather than frustration—from living a life devoted to the needs of others rather than my own. God answered my prayers, but not in the way I expected: he didn’t send me to Central or South America, which would have been my preference, but instead granted me two consecutive unplanned pregnancies. I think God knew that if he sent me to a third-world country, I would still end up finding a way to do His work on my terms; the only thing that could force me to truly live my life for others was to have children, whose needs I couldn’t escape at the end of the day.

My daughters are a gift from God not only for the typical reasons we consider children to be gifts—they bring giggles, joy, and unconditional love into every day of my life—but also because they finally released me from myself and enabled me to realize that it is actually quite freeing to not even have the option of fretting about my sleep or workout schedule. I still fit these things in when I can, but I’ve learned to just let go when I can’t. I’d always found joy in helping others, but until I had children, I’d never found joy in letting my time, energy, and money be dictated in large part by others and not by me. It was a big step I needed to take in my growth as a Christian and as a person, whether Christian or not, who desires to make a difference in the world. It’s difficult to make a difference when the number one priority is self—even when we delude ourselves into believing that we place our ideals above ourselves. How willing are we, really, do to dirty, tiring, tedious and self-effacing work for the sake of others?

I have a picture of Libby in a frame that reads, “While we try to teach our children how to live, our children teach us all about life.” What my children have taught me is that real change happens within the mundane and often boring day-to-day work of caring for each other. This is where people learn to trust, learn to love, and learn to let go of themselves. I firmly believe that these three qualities—trust, love, and selflessness—are a prerequisite to any sort of grander change those of use “movers and shakers” wish for the world. We can’t change the world if we can’t touch individual lives, and we can’t touch individual lives if our ultimate priority is the self.

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