The word selfless appears to be an oxymoron at first glance, a contradiction if you will. We are encouraged through Scripture in both the New and Old Testaments on numerous occasions that, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love yourself too much, and risk being an egomaniac and your neighbor is literally invisible much like the “Rich Man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19–31). Love yourself too little and everyone wipes their feet on you and looks at your pathetically.
So where is the line if there is one? Does one need to be a doormat to be truly selfless? I wrestle with this from time to time as I seek depth in my understanding of authentic love. Loving my neighbor I barely know down the street is pretty easy. He doesn’t make any demands of me at all. At least not yet. That fallen tree of ours on the house next door a week ago was an act of nature still being worked out with our mutual insurance company. So far so good, it hasn’t gotten messy, so my love isn’t being tested.
Our Lord is asking something more from each of us.
Selflessness, I believe, is directed at placing others before myself, not just some of the time when it’s convenient, but all of the time. You before me. Always! Your needs above my own. All the time. I have heard it said that love is not give and take, it’s just give! Wow, that is demanding.
St. Teresa of Calcutta said this which rivets my attention every time I hear it, “Love to be real it must cost-it must hurt-it must empty us of self.” We can see this at work every time we look at a crucifix. Total, unconditional, unrestrained surrender for the good of another.
Being a wife, mother, and grandmother, has given me ample opportunity to place others needs before my own. When someone is puking, it doesn’t matter who you are on the phone with or what book you have just sat down to read. Yet, it only scratches the surface.
My work in marriage preparation dictates important focus and discussion on what real love is, and its selfless demands. Couples are often challenged when I ask them to “define” the love they have declared for their fiancé. It’s important to be able to put it into words. Words become actions. Actions change lives.
There has been a paradigm shift in my office recently and I am seeing more and more people who are in struggling marriages, dealing with infidelity, or just a spouse who has given up on the marriage. It is really hard to hear the stories, share their pain, and try to figure out solutions that can turn the tide.
Almost always the spouses didn’t share a faith or prayer life. Their communication was at an all-time low, and the priority on their spousal relationship fell well below kids, work, and other less important matters. Rather than a selfless focus on the other, their marriage had become a reckless focus on the self.
So-called friends and family members offered advice to end the relationship as their personal happiness should trump everything and everyone. Some have sought counselors and therapists only to find that they were counseling for a divorce, rather than trying to save a marriage and family.
A friend of mine, Leila Miller, has edited a very timely book entitled, Primal Loss, The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak. (LCB Publishing) Over one hundred adults share in anonymity the personal pain and ensuing familial anguish of their parents’ divorce which continues years into adulthood, further affecting families for generations. It is a book I find tremendously helpful in marriage preparation to those who come from broken families, and whose wounds if not healed and addressed, can poison their future marriage.
It is a book that I want everyone who comes through my doorway to read, whose spouse has given up believing the grass is greener with someone else.
It is a book I want all of the clergy to read who listen to the distressed and anguished souls in confession, who prep the engaged, and counsel those in fear of their marriage failing.
It is a book I want everyone to read who has ever been touched in any way by divorce.
For when we speak about the word selfless it must start with each one of us. You before me, no matter what the cost. For the wounded lay scattered all over the battlefield of selfish, and there aren’t enough band aids to stop the hemorrhaging. Selfless is the only cure, and it can be applied right now in every situation.