I can’t say I ever planned on doing any selfless things in my life. When I was little I used to dream about being a nurse and working in distant parts of the world helping sick people. Then, when I was in high school, I volunteered on the weekends for three years as a Candy Striper at two different Army hospitals. Somehow those three years and the experiences I had in the Army hospitals taught me that I would not make a very good nurse, no matter how much I may have wanted to help people. Nursing just didn’t seem to be my calling.
Then I became a mother and “selfless” became a way of life. It never bothered me that mothering meant someone else came first in my life. Having four little people around me all day meant that my wants and desires simply came after whatever my little people needed or wanted. I happily did everything within my power to make sure my little people had all they needed to have the best childhood possible. Whatever I wanted was inconsequential. Parenting, by definition, includes a huge dose of selflessness.
Later in life when my little people were no longer little and I had gone back to graduate school, I did a lot of reflection on my calling. One day I was lamenting to my spiritual director the fact that I had never done any of the common “selfless” activities of life. I had never fed the hungry; clothed the naked; sheltered the homeless; visited the sick or lonely; and only once had visited a prison. My spiritual director, a very wise woman, responded back to me, “But, you’ve done all of these things.” How could that be possible? I wanted to know! Elizabeth Ann kindly looked at me and said, “You are a mother. If you had not been selfless, your children would have suffered all of these conditions and maybe many more. Every day you’ve fed the hungry, clothed the naked, sheltered the homeless, sat with the sick and the lonely . . . every single day.”
I was left speechless, but that conversation did not entirely erase my own personal questioning of selflessness in my life. Surely there must be more I should be doing for others.
Several years later I was at a lecture with an esteemed psychologist (who had been a professor of mine in graduate school) and he was extrapolating on the gospel where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Fr. John was describing how Jesus took a towel, wrapped it around his waist, leaned down and washed the feet of his own disciples. It had to be one of the basest activities of life – washing someone else’s feet, especially someone who had no notoriety or station in life. This was Jesus, the Christ, the same one who multiplied the loaves and fishes, and turned water into wine. What was he doing washing his disciples feet? “As I have done, so should you also do,” were Jesus’ instructions.
At the end of the lecture, during the question and answer period, an elderly woman raised her hand. She commented that she had never had an opportunity to wash anyone else’s feet – how did a person do that? How would a person have occasion to do that?
Fr. John kindly responded, “Are you married?” Well, yes, she was. “Do you have children?” Well, yes, she did. “Then I’m pretty sure you’ve washed your share of feet in your day. And, bottoms and diapers, and probably lots of other unpleasant things that go along with being a Mom. Am I right?”
There was a collective gasp among the many women in the room, myself among them, who suddenly realized that what Fr. John was saying was exactly correct. To be a mother is to live a selfless life, filled with washing not only feet, but bottoms and clothing. A life filled with cooking and feeding; sheltering and nursing; comforting and singing; teaching and playing. But also the most abundant joy in all the world.