Since starting this website I have been asked several times if I would start a podcast or do a YouTube channel. I have been hesitant – I don’t have a lot of time, I like the anonymity of writing, and I think my voice sounds strange. However, I was recently asked to do a presentation on Devouring Mothers for a small conference so I am sharing that video here. If this is a format that proves helpful or interesting I will try to produce quality videos as often as my schedule (kids) allow.
The Devouring Mother is a topic we could write many articles on; I have written a few already, and have others in the works. This, however, is a quick overview of some of the iterations of the Devouring Mother we want to avoid, as found in literature. Below are some resources with more information on the topics covered. Thank you.
“Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people wanting to be important.”
We all seek to be a positive influence on others. But motivations matter. Often as we seek fame or praise, we lose goodness, we shift our focus from others to ourselves. In this shifting we will compromise morality for power, we will justify sacrificing others for our benefit. We use our short time on earth in shallow ways. This painting of Lady Macbeth reminds us of the ways our powerful feminine nature can be twisted by self-interest. What a force for good she might have been! But she choose to seek importance and twisted her own potential.
“I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God’s thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking.”
As our world becomes secular we are making ourselves into our own God. But a world of little gods, worshiping themselves, becomes a dark place. Our followers on our Instagram may grow, but our sense of worth will not. We are made for a much more glorious purpose than self-worship. Our children need a mother that seeks to discover the precious purposes He has for her and accomplishes them. A woman who uses her passions and talents to bless the lives of others – in unseen or visible ways – is truly glorious.
So when we stop and introspect about our daily motivations, I hope we can honestly ask ourselves – “Am I doing this to be important and admired, or am I doing this so I can be God’s hands?”
“If you make it a habit not to blame others, you will feel the growth of the ability to love in your soul, and you will see the growth of goodness in your life.”
The other day my little girl came crying to me, “Cameron yelled at me!” I went to Cameron to get the full story. Turns out, after an independent fact-check from my oldest daughter, that she had stolen a pink monster truck out of his hand. She declared, “It’s mine, it’s my favorite color!” Then, to prevent any such insolence in the future, she gave him a little push on the way out. He, in response, yelled, “You are so meeeeannn!”
As parents we see similar situations play out multiple times a day. What I have come to notice is that in all cases – the offended party sees themselves as completely guilt-less. They seem incapable of seeing their part in the matter. They don’t see their actions, only others’ reactions. I don’t think we ever fully outgrow this. Our tendency to see ourselves as the innocent party makes it difficult to discern the truth of a situation.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
We are all victims of circumstance, of others’ poor choices, and of society. This is part of the struggle of life. We should speak up when others’ actions harm us. I certainly want to know when my children hurt each other.
However, as Tolstoy expresses, when we are stuck in blame – when we seek someone to accuse for every difficulty of life – we start to see our fellow man as opponents, rather than fellow-travelers in this difficult life. So often in our finger-pointing we are blind to reality. We see malice where there was none. We see willful action where there was simple misunderstanding. Our blame makes matters worse. My son just picked up a lonely-looking truck, look how it ended for him.
Thankfully we have more self-awareness than my 4-year-old. We can look to ourselves. So when we are seek some to blame, let’s first consider ourselves. We may find that rather than being burdened with the realization of our own folly, we will experience an increase in love for others and a corresponding strength to overcome our weakness.
“To recognize that we are to blame, is to say that we ought to be better, that we are able to do right if we will. We are able to turn our faces to the light and come out of the darkness.”
Ain’t that the truth? From where I stand, it seems us humans have been stuck playing a rather unproductive game of ‘tit for tat’ for far too long now. Within our highly politicized society, the idea of traditional gender roles and responsibilities has progressively become more and more offensive to consider, let alone talk about. So, let’s stir the pot for a moment, shall we?
The word ‘feminism’ has a lot of different meanings and therefore evokes various connotations, depending on the person you talk to. A political activist and journalist by the name of Gloria Steinem said, “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of men and women”. The majority of us can agree with this statement, as it validates equal human value and promotes the dignity we all inherently possess.
The next word that comes forward in today’s society is the term ‘equity’. This has become a relative term with a confused conclusion for most of us. The dictionary’s definition is: “The quality of being fair and impartial”. So, we then begin to ask ourselves: what does the word ‘fair’ really mean? Does it mean that we treat everyone the exact same? Does it mean that if we did treat everyone the exact same, we’d see perfectly even results across the board in regards to areas such as gender representation and salary?
The above questions have us then stumble upon the ‘gender pay gap’ study. The findings of this study are based on the average difference of workplace earnings between the sexes. And naturally, some will attribute men making more money than women to sexism. But, do these findings actually represent gender discrimination? On a side note, women are currently over-represented within post-secondary institutions, which tells us this gap is certainly notdue to a lack of access to higher education.
So, does this study take into consideration personal/lifestyle choices each gender group generally makes throughout the span of a lifetime (e.g., hours worked, parental leaves, field of work, qualifications, ect.)? Could it possibly be that men and women make different choices in various areas of life, which in turn affect the differences in pay? It is definitely a complex situation with many different variables at play, which begs the question: can a general statistic like this one ever thoroughly and accurately explain its findings?
“Men and women aren’t the same. That doesn’t mean they can’t be treated fairly.”
— Jordan Peterson
I distinctly remember learning the proper definition of the word ‘equity’ when I was in college many moons ago. We were taught that everyone has equal value and should have the same opportunities in life; however, there was the acknowledgement that each individual has a unique set of needs that require varying approaches and result in varying outcomes. The same is true of parenting.
A couple of years ago, my husband and I were visiting another couple who also have children. We got on the topic of parenting styles, and how drastically different each child can be compared to his/her siblings. Our friend jokingly said, “I just treat them all equally the same”. I piped up and playfully responded with, “And now, they’re all equally screwed up!” We all laughed and then the conversation progressed to what specific strategies work best for each of our individual children. We didn’t discuss which one of our kids was our favorite, or which one we treated better than the others. We all would have wholeheartedly agreed that we love each of our children equally, and we have their best interest at heart even though we do treat them differently based on their specific needs in any given situation.
“..if you leave men and women to make their own choices you will not get equal outcome.”
— Jordan Peterson
This brings us to equal opportunity versus equal outcome. If we believe that equal outcome is indeed possible through the means of fair treatment, then we have completely missed the boat. Society’s obsession with obliterating differences between the sexes has enforced an impossible mission that won’t rest until a 50/50 gender quota has been reached in any given vocation. My husband and I are a perfect example of how sexism is not driving these pay differences. I am a qualified elementary school teacher and my husband works as a full-time pastor. If I had chosen to become a full-time teacher shortly after graduating university, by now my salary would definitely be higher than his. However, because I decided not to follow a full-time career, my husband makes significantly more money than I do each year; so, is this sexism or is it equity? On paper, it could look very much like sexism, but if you actually sat down with me and asked for clarification, you’d find out that I had all the same opportunities as my husband; but I chose differently, based on my own set of needs and desires as a woman.
“Feminism is doomed to failure because it is based on an attempt to repeal and restructure human nature.”
— Phyllis Schlafly
Is it just me, or is extreme, modern day feminism trying to bury the differences between men and women in order to convince the world that women can instead be just like men, or wait for it… maybe even better? We are fooled into thinking that whoever brings home more “bacon” wins the superiority contest. North American society has lost sight of our God given responsibility to work as a united front within the context of marriage; we all have a different part to play. Sadly, greed and society’s power hungry definition of ‘success’ has and continues to consume each and every move many of us make.
“Men and women have roles – their roles are different, but their rights are equal.”
— Harri Holkeri
Well, where do we go from here? How do we navigate through a world that tantrums like an unruly two year old when things aren’t perfectly cut down the middle every time in every scenario, especially in areas such as the workplace? When will society wake up and start realizing (and even celebrating) the differences between men and women? When did it all become about the money? Why do most women not feel validated unless they have (or are striving towards) a career? Why does motherhood seem to be the very last item on a young woman’s to-do list?
“Children are not a distraction from more important work. They are the most important work.”
— C.S. Lewis
Now, do I think that women shouldn’t have careers? No. Do I think that women shouldn’t pursue higher education? No. Do I think that all women should have children? No. What I do think is if a woman and her husband eventually decide to start a family, her priorities have a good chance (but not always) of changing in regards to her previous involvement within the workforce. She might want to scale back on hours, extend her maternity leave, decline a promotion, or she might even quit her job altogether. There are so many things she might actually want to do that will inevitably reflect poorly on the all too powerful ‘gender pay gap’, which assumes women must be oppressed if the numbers are not equal in terms of workplace earnings.
“Motherhood can also lead to interruptions in women’s career paths and have an impact on long-term earnings.”
I understand that it is very difficult these days to get by on just one income within the household; my family is no exception. I am required to work part-time in order to help support my family. Most women are sitting in this same boat with me, while many others are required to pursue full-time employment. This is life, this is reality. However, it troubles me when our society seems to think a woman earning and/or working less than her husband is somehow unjust. What a potentially damaging mindset — all in the name of money and workplace status. We wouldn’t bat an eye if the husband decided to cut down his hours at work to help take care of the kids; but, when a woman does it, statistics will enthusiastically proclaim from the mountaintops, “Gender discrimination!!”
“Women leave the labour market during crucial years, setting them substantially back in labour market terms. They decide to take time out to have and raise children … perhaps moving to more flexible work or less demanding jobs.”
— Ben Southwood (Adam Smith Institute)
With all that said, I believe in order to achieve true gender equality, we must first acknowledge that gender differences do indeed exist. Then we must accept the fact that men and women often make different choices, as both groups carry varying responsibilities throughout life. This in turn will affect many facets, including earnings at work. Now, are there ever exceptions to the rule? Of course. After all, we are complex beings with some wiggle room in regards to roles and preferences. However, my point here is that the overall pay difference is not a result of gender discrimination, but rather the result of different paths taken between the sexes.
“When men and women are able to respect and accept their differences then love has a chance to blossom.”
— John Gray
“Life is not a competition between men and women. It is a collaboration.”
— David Alejandro Fearnhead
At the end of the day, let us begin to lean into this reality, and start validating the hard work many women tirelessly demonstrate outside of the workplace. May we bring dignity back to humanity, and start affirming the things that really matter in this world. Let a pay check be a pay check; a means to feed and clothe our family (a noble task in itself, no doubt). Once and for all, let the gender wars end, and may both sexes come back to the table as true partners in life.
“The love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self.”
What a blessing our little neighbors are! Our sons and daughters – who push us out of the door of self-interest and into the world of others. We are more free, more empathetic, more virtuous because of the love we have for our children.
What does it mean to be strong? To be weak? Today we are more accepting and empathic of what was once called weakness, such as mental health problems, limited capacity, and sensitivity. This is a good thing. However, the postmodern viewpoint wants to do away with any criteria or judgment that might label one character trait as weakness and another as strength. Our relativist culture says that all things are equal and truth adapts with each person. Judgement, however, is always bad and stigma and intolerance must be eradicated. Who are we to call one attribute a weakness and another a strength?
How does this new philosophy affect our view of motherhood? While I do agree that mothers are often misjudged and we need more cooperation between women with less fault-finding, the truth is this – mothers need to be strong for their children. So we need to know what strong means and what weakness looks like. We want to be the hen that gathers her chicks under her wings – not the hyena that runs at the first sign of danger, and certainly not the storm our children must shield themselves against.
A few years ago, after having my fifth baby, I went for a hike with my Dad in the mountains behind his house. He is an accomplished mountain-climber so the hike was nothing for him. I, on the other hand, was huffing and puffing my way up that mountain. I did quite a bit of complaining. My Dad is not the kind to turn-back so I knew my complaints fell on deaf ears. Yet I am sure I succeeded in ruining the hike for him. To anyone witnessing the scene, my halting steps, frequent stops, and endless groans of agony compared to the stoic demeanor and effortless climbing of my father would have obviously noticed that there was a real difference between the two of us. I can make all sorts of excuses about why I was weak (I have at least five good ones). But when we dwell too much on excuses, we tend to forget the core of the matter – it was a struggle for me, and it wasn’t for him.
There is one thing we should all be able to agree on – no matter our religion, culture, gender, or age, suffering and hardship should be alleviated as much as possible. Yet, our sufferings may point us to knowledge, if we let them.
Yes, I had reasons for my weakness, but it was weakness nonetheless. That doesn’t mean I am of any less value than my Dad. I have skills he doesn’t, (empathy comes to mind) yet, it would not be wise or compassionate for me to ignore that I was suffering, and my Dad was not. Suffering cannot always be alleviated, and there are certainly reasons why I probably will never get up that mountain as effortlessly as my Dad did (he seems to have superhuman lung capacity). However, after that climb, I had two choices: avoid hiking at all costs or prepare myself for the next one. I decided on the latter. The next summer, I visited my dad again. This time I was ready for our hike. In the intervening year I had exercised consistently and eaten well. It paid off.
The truth can be hard to take: we are weak in some areas. I know I am. But as mothers, we have profound motivation to face our weakness and attempt to overcome it: our children. There is a false idea thrown around these days that children are naturally resilient – they will be fine despite my temper, despite my selfishness, and despite my moodiness. We can certainly try and help them learn resilience, but we are all born with varying capacities to bounce back from difficulty and to handle stress. As millions of therapists around the world know well – mothers can do a lot of damage. The lack of resilience displayed by a mother will increase her own children’s lack of resilience.
(I have noticed the phrase “kids are resilient” is often used to justify some policy or decision which is harmful to children. Case in point.)
Our actions, or lack of action, have consequences – and a mother’s actions have compounding consequences. Parents do much of the “turning” in determining how our kids “turn out”. Of course children make choices and parents are not totally responsible for those choices. We are not the only influences on our kids. However, our children experience reality first through us – we are their reality. If we mess up and don’t attempt to do better, the resulting chaos can echo through a lifetime. These aren’t easy words to write, or read because we are all imperfect, but if we want to raise healthy kids, we carry the burden of our awful and wonderful responsibility.
Today we will examine a “weak mother”, one lacking resilience – the ability to bounce back from adversity or stress. Sometimes it is easier to learn from a bad example, so we can see what we don’t want to be like. It is also nice to learn from fictional characters. As a writer, I am grateful I can judge the following woman harshly and pick apart her behavior without being critical of a real person.
Miss Havisham: A Weak Mother
In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, we meet a mother, who even the most post-modern among us would have to agree was “weak.” Miss Havisham was jilted at the altar by her lover. She couldn’t get over it. In fact, she wore her wedding dress for the rest of her life and decades later she still hadn’t cleaned up the dishes from the wedding party. (Now I don’t feel so bad about taking six days to fold laundry.) She decided to torment any man she ever met from that moment on. Perpetually mourning over her misfortune, she became stuck in her vengeance and resentment.
“The agony is exquisite, is it not? A broken heart. You think you will die. But you just keep living. Day after day, after terrible day.”
She seems to be receiving some secondary-gains from her misery. There is something “exquisite” about having a perpetual excuse for fragility.
She decided to adopt a little girl, who initially she seemed sincere in desiring to help. But eventually she poured her weakness, her anger, her envy and resentment into that poor little girl. She saw that through her beautiful adopted daughter, she could reap her revenge against men.
“Believe this: when she first came to me, I meant to save her from misery like my own. At first I meant no more. … But as she grew, and promised to be very beautiful, I gradually did worse, … I stole her heart away and put ice in its place.”
Miss Havisham was consumed with her own emotional turmoil. She completely ignored the needs of this innocent child, Estella. The child became just another outlet for her misery. Rather than attempting to cope with her trauma, to alter her perceptions of the world for the sake of her daughter, she pulled her into the darkness of her own world. She twisted the innocent and pure heart of Estella and made her a co-conspirator in revenge.
Estella didn’t have inborn resilience to resist the onslaught of a broken mother. She was tutored in coldness and apathy. She felt the lack and knew she was twisted, but she did not know how to untwist herself.
“I have a heart to be stabbed in or shot in, I have no doubt, and, of course, if it ceased to beat, I would cease to be. But you know what I mean. I have no softness there, no—sympathy—sentiment—nonsense.” “I have not bestowed my tenderness anywhere. I have never had any such thing.”
The time came when Miss Havisham saw the damage she had done. Estella stopped visiting her; she resented and hated the woman that had been too weak to overcome a broken heart. Then she turned her revenge toward her mother. When Miss Havisham complained of Estella’s uncaring nature, Estella cried,
“You should know,” said Estella. “I am what you have made of me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the success. Take all the failure; in short take me.”
First See: Confronting Our Shadow
While surely none of us reading this are as bad as Miss Havisham, we can see in this extreme example glimpses of how our own weakness and inability to confront the monster of our “shadow” – can inflict suffering upon our child. And we don’t want that.
“Confronting the shadow means to stop blaming others”
We are all tormented by our weaknesses but acknowledging them is the first step. This step can be impeded by such ideas as “You are doing the best you can,” and “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Personal honesty is necessary, however, crippling guilt isn’t gonna help. We have to have grace for ourselves. We acknowledge we have made mistakes but we are learning and can move forward.
One easy way to see what weaknesses we have as a mother is to simply ask our kids. My friend, Susie, did a brave thing one day. She felt that God wanted her to work on a weakness, so she gathered her children and said, “I do not want you to hold back and I will not be offended or angry but, what would you change about me as a mother?” The answers came fast and hard. They have a great relationship with their mom so they were honest with her. Brutally so. Their main complaint was that she has the tendency to overreact. “You get too upset when bad things happen.” “You get too worried and too angry, it stresses us out!” She could tell that this was a genuine issue with them.
Susie said hearing her children say these things was tough. She was aware of her propensity to overreact, but hearing how it affected them was very difficult.
“Falsehood is easy, truth so difficult.”
When we think of Miss Havisham, wearing that filthy wedding dress with rats eating a 40-year-old wedding cake, we see that she is stuck. She can’t let go of the wickedness done to her, but she also can’t face the misery she has caused. She can’t forgive herself so the reality of the havoc she created is too much, so life simply drains from her.
“Forgiveness is the giving, and so the receiving, of life.”
In 2nd Corinthians 7 we read that Paul is happy for the “godly sorrow” that has led his friends to repentance, which replaced the “worldly sorrow” they had been struggling with.
Yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us.
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
Miss Havisham needs to dump her worldly sorrow – it keeps her in rags. She needs another kind of sorrow – the Godly kind that can lead to change. This sorrow leads to truth and forgiveness, not revenge and misery.
“Nothing makes one feel so strong as a call for help.”
We all need help. As mothers we must seek help so we can be strong for our children. It is not our child’s role to help us deal with our emotional turmoil. To our children we must be an example of emotional resilience, fortitude, and overcoming struggles – not ruminating on them. Sure they will see us have a bad day – but they need to then see us have a better one the next day.
The Light of Truth
There are times in motherhood when I have felt everything was dark – the responsibility too much for a woman as imperfect as myself. This is just what Miss Havisham felt. The difference between us and Miss Havisham is that we will not stop seeking the light.
“In shutting out the light of day, she had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural healing influences; that, her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker.”
Great Expectations can be a frustrating book to read. You just want her to open her eyes to the horror she is creating! You want her to loosen her grip on her grief and hug her beautiful daughter! You want her to show mercy, and to laugh with Estella and Pip as they play together! But she never does – her walls are up – she cannot see.
Christ says, “Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear.”
We can’t chip away at our weakness if our eyes are closed. We need to open our eyes and be grateful they are open. Open eyes will reveal painful truths about ourselves, but they will also reveal great joys and potential.
Healing With Open Eyes
“The whole trouble is that we won’t let God help us.”
I firmly believe that God will help us overcome if we are open. If we do not let the guilt of having made mistakes close us down, we can learn how to do better. Help will appear – books, podcasts, scriptures, art, friends, etc. will fall on our path to give us insights and answers.
Susie said an amazing thing has happened since she heard those difficult truths from her children. Now she is hyper-aware of her propensity to overreact. When an experience presents itself in which she would typically “freak out” – she slows things down. She can now read her lines before speaking them. Rather than declaring, “Are you freaking kidding me!!!!” She plays it differently, she more calmly says, “Hmm, you’re kidding me.”
We might not be able to control circumstances but we can control how we act. If only Miss Havisham could have noticed the power she had over her reactions – over her grudges.
By the end of the book, Miss Havisham begins to see, and she seeks forgiveness.
“What have I done!… My Dear!”
What if we didn’t realize what we were doing and the time seems past when we can undo the damage? What if it’s too late? It is never too late. God never stops striving with any of His children. I have seen parents of adult children come to awareness and ask forgiveness of their grown children – relationships heal. It is never too late to see.
Miss Havisham was a Weak Mother. We all are. But we, in seeing what Miss Havisham did not see, can avoid her mistakes. We can be bounce back despite hardship and weakness – by opening our eyes, forgiving ourselves, seeking help and hope, and altering our behavior. We can be strong for our children.
“Our strength grows out of our weakness.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
If you enjoyed this piece, please share it with others.
Devouring Mother Series:
I have written previously on the Devouring Mother – the mother who destroys her children’s potential and stifles their progress. This term was first used by Carl Jung and often is used to represent an overprotective mother. However I want to examine several incarnations of “Devouring Mothers” in literature and culture over the next few months.
I am no expert on Jung. I have studied a bit of his work and find him quite difficult to unpack, but I do think he is a genius. I am using his ideas and terminology to suit my own, less-sophisticated, purposes. I want to use the deeper wisdom he, and others, have brought us, and make it more accessible to you and me. Basically I just want to learn how to not be a crappy mother, and maybe even a good one.
Another example of a “Weak Mother” in literature would be Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. A great example of a woman of resilience and emotional maturity is featured in the book and film, The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio.
Being a mother is a battle. Being a wife is a battle. Some days not eating the entire pack or Oreos is a battle. Anything difficult, or worthwhile, will be a battle. But the battles in our mind must be won first. First we must notice the battle – the choice before us. Should I get snippy at my toddler for dumping water in the kitchen floor, or should I stop and teach? Should I let-go of this minor aggravation that is driving a wedge between me and my husband or continue my tactic of silent resentment?
It was Joan of Arc who spoke of this battle in the mind. A peasant girl of no influence, no pathway to heroism – who nonetheless went on to lead armies and inspire millions. She won her internal battles of self-doubt. She followed the voice that said she could overcome. She didn’t retreat to instinct or an unchangeable nature. There are many who claim we cannot change. We are determined, free will is an illusion. I have a bad temper and always will. I am sensitive so will always be easily-offended. What a hopeless doctrine of misery! And it’s rubbish. We can change, we do change. That willful change happens in our own mind.
“We are what we repeatedly do…excellence, therefore, isn’t an act, but a habit and life isn’t a series of events, but an ongoing process of self-definition.”
We may think we are incapable of feat rivaling Joan of Arc. Our insignificant “battles of the mind” will have little impact, ultimately. And yet, it was in small battles of the mind that Joan of Arc became capable of the confidence, faith, and determination required to lead armies. If, through our “battles of the mind”, we could rule ourselves – overcoming impatience and petulance by repeatedly, through numerous such incidents, teaching our child rather than yelling, communicating with our husband rather than resenting – what could stop us from becoming a Joan of Arc in our own right?
When I was 19 I traveled to a remote village at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. My fellow student and I lived in a small Catholic mission with no running water, no electricity, a hole for a toilet, and a bucket for a shower. For 4 months we did research, getting by on our very rough Swahili and interpreters, speaking with farmers, mothers, community leaders, and school children. These few months enabled me to experience, in a small way, the reality of life for millions of people. When I returned home from that first summer in Africa, nothing looked the same.
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
After returning to college, I remember walking into my kitchen to get an apple – something I had missed in my travels. I got a peeler out of the drawer – a utensil I had never been mindful of before – never really seen. But now, I saw it – the incredible blessing of a peeler! In Tanzania, Eliza, a young woman of about 20, did all the cooking. She only had a simple knife to do all the food preparation. She sat on the dirt floor and peeled and cut potatoes, tomatoes, and onions – all into her lap. She would prepare the stew and cook it on a small fire for hours. Despite her life of toil, she was a joyful woman. She didn’t complain; she was generous to all.
I remember watching Eliza work. It was a frustrating experience for me. How could she prepare all these meals without a table?!Surely there has to be a faster method to make meals! As soon as she finished lunch, she had to start on dinner! But most of all, I kept wishing I had left clothes and books at home and instead brought 100 peelers to hand out to the women. Eliza seemed oblivious to all the peeling, but to me it was a problem with a simple solution, and a symbol of the unfairness of life.
And yet, I lived happily among these humble villagers who were generous, resilient, and joyful. My African friends smiled, laughed, sang, danced, and generally seemed to enjoy life more than many of us “rich” Westerners. They were living abundantly with the little they had. This is not to downplay the true suffering accompanying a life without proper medical care, nutrition, or education – these things matter. Yet somehow the poverty was not as stifling as I had imagined.
“Experience is the teacher of all things.”
The Complexity of Life
After returning to my life of ease, my new eyes saw much more than just never-ending reasons for gratitude. They also saw many reasons for guilt; they saw my own and others’ selfishness, materialism, and shallowness. Why did I have so much and others so little? How could I complain about not having a car when so many souls had never even been in one?Why are we, the affluent, so stingy while they are so generous? These are questions I still grapple with.
I am sure if someone gave Eliza a peeler, she would be grateful. She was not ignorant of her poverty – she certainly would have appreciated more material blessings. However, she didn’t waste her days in envy or resentment. She had work to do.
My experiences replaced the stereotypical caricature of “Africa” and “Africans” into something real. In order to develop a real picture of the group, I had to connect with “the one”. It was Eliza that helped me see. The complexity, majesty and humanity of that one woman enabled me to empathize in a much more genuine way than I had when I was “concerned with the plight of the poor”. I saw that it is no longer a simple matter of “us helping them”. But perhaps I could help her, and she me. We practiced her English and I did what I could to help with her many duties. She taught me Swahili and introduced me to the villagers. She was my mentor and eye-opener.
“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Living in a world so drastically different from my own shifted my perspective and brought me some depth of compassion and understanding, which I desperately needed. Seeing the harsh realities of everyday life in a poor African village had ignited empathy, which my selfish nature was incapable of conjuring on its own. Eliza showed me that happiness is not a consequence of what we have – but who we are and how we view the world. My discussions with farmers, school children, and community leaders revealed cultural advantages as well as deficiencies – and the similarity of all human hearts.
Harming Through Saving
Before I left for my trip I remember saying I “want to save the world”. After my return, I just wanted to mail Eliza a peeler.
In a nearby village there was an old water pump, installed by a Scandinavian NGO years before. They had spent a week installing it for this “poor” village and the villagers were very grateful. They left, without leaving tools or teaching any locals how to repair it. It broke after a few months and has never been used again. I am sure the NGO was very proud and probably used this “good deed” as evidence of their positive influence – but they had done little good. Perhaps if they had connected with a villager like Jose, or Bahati, or Muhammad and trained them how to repair the pump, they would have provided a long-term solution to their problems rather than short-term satisfaction. The empathy that comes with friendship would have made them more concerned with their long-term good than short-term righteousness.
For the world to become “real” to us, we must encounter it. Young people are full of hope, idealism, and a desire to make the world a better place. How wonderful are these instincts! Yet, often these instincts are ill used. Without accompanying experience, knowledge, and empathy, an idealistic young person can damage more than repair.
For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.
H. L. Mencken
While we might appear compassionate when we say we “want world peace”, blanket compassion and tolerance for groups of people rarely turns out well. It must be made real by living it out, by focusing on the individual. The world is not the flat, one-dimensional place, composed of victims and oppressors, rich and poor, educated and uneducated – the world portrayed in our Sociology textbooks. Throwing money at a problem will not solve it. Applying the same methods in a small village in Tanzania as those used in Texas will not work. The intricacies of life only reveal themselves when we encounter the world in its specificity and complexity.
“There can be no such thing as a “global village.” No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality.”
I have to admit it is endlessly frustrating for me to see people (often young and naive as I was), in their arrogance and ignorance, who claim to care about a particular “community” – yet when asked for solutions they point out “systematic problems”, not real-world solutions. Do they really care about the beautiful little boy in the inner city that is statistically likely to be neglected and lead a life of crime? His problems are urgent. They can’t wait for a reshaping of the world. If they cared they would want to actually help that boy – they would want to encourage him, rather than discourage the world. But they don’t know him – they think they do – but they have never met him. And because they don’t know him, they don’t look forward to his long-term good. Their ‘help” is likely to harm. They make the world seem unsafe, rather than making the boy strong.
We are Insignificant
Perhaps the important result that first exploration in Africa had on me was a sudden realization of my own insignificance. I dropped the naive idea that I was going to “save the world” and realized that was far beyond my grasp. That was an important truth for me to learn. As parents, we want our children to know they are loved and capable of great things. This is important and right. Yet, we must not forget to help our children see the realities of the world. While they are unique and significant, so are billions of others. Ours, and their influence can be significant – but not typically by grand gestures, but the small and steady actions of a life well-lived. Eliza helped me see that.
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” –
Henry David Thoreau
Upon my return to America I found myself longing to go back, away from the negativity and materialism which was so common in my own culture and my own heart. (I did return and spent nearly 3 years in various parts of Africa and China during my college years). By the end of my travels I had gained a new perspective. I remember after my first trip, I was annoyed by my “rich American” roommates that cried over a breakup. How could they complain when there were so many children living on the streets? By my last trip to Africa, I had realized that pain is pain and we all need compassion. We need to get beyond our habitual, ordinary life, and seek to discover the reality of other’s lives – our annoying roommate, and a child on the streets of Dar es Salaam. If we seek the adventure of “walking around in someone else’s skin”, we will gain new eyes, only then can they open to true compassion. Only then will we see the best way we can serve our fellowman.
Exploring with our Children
We, as parents, are tasked with preparing our children for life. We must supply the knowledge and experience they will need. They are here to make the world a better place – in small ways or large. But, if they have never seen poverty up close, if they have never honestly examined the positive and negative effects of differing cultures and traditions, if they have not experienced the complexity of human interactions – they are ill-equipped to join a crusade. Their knowledge and view are still shallow. As parents, it is worthwhile to use our resources and time to take our children to foreign lands, watch documentaries, and/or volunteer in poor or unstable areas. Through experience and exploration, we, and our children, will begin to see the realities of life and be properly oriented to our place in this world.
As a mother, in my often less-than-adventurous life, I often find my peeler in my hands. It consistently brings up memories born years ago in a small village. I am grateful for my peeler. I know that many do not have such a luxury. But I also know that it is not my peeler, or any material advantage, which brings meaning and joy to life. When I forget, and return to a shallow perception, which I often do, I need to close my eyes and return to that small kitchen where my dear friend Eliza sat preparing food, with a knife. I need to see things again, for the first time.
“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
We live in a self-obsessed world. We have to find ourselves, figure-out ourselves, express ourselves, empower ourselves, perfect ourselves, be true to ourselves – what does it all mean really? It means we think about ourselves constantly. What do I want? What am I feeling? How are others treating me? Do I deserve more? Our modern mindset prioritizes such questions above any other.
But are we happier as a result? The endless therapy sessions, numerous reinventions, putting ourselves first – doesn’t seem to get us any closer to contentment. But why? Surely to solve our personal unhappiness we we must concentrate on ourselves?
Corrie Ten Boom has a quote that comes to mind several times a week; usually when I notice myself clutching at injustices or dashed hopes.
Hold everything in your hands lightly, otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open.
We are holding too tightly to ourselves. God does not pry our hands open because He is vindictive – but because it is the firm grasp of the thing that keeps us from receiving it. And a clenched fist does not allow us to give. Our mind and will are tools to build a life of joy – that is only achieved by focusing our talents and thoughts outward. We are made to sow greater fields than the tiny patch of dirt under our feet.
As parents we must show our children what humility looks like – they will not find it in the world, it is a dying virtue. Below are quotes on humility and self-denial from wise, and humble thinkers. I hope they prove helpful in developing a proper humility – and bringing us closer to the joy which self-obsession may be blocking us from enjoying.
“One cannot be humble and aware of oneself at the same time.”
Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet
“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.
Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him
If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
“The door to happiness opens outwards.”
“Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.”
G K Chesterton, “The Hammer of God”
He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.
“It has been often said, very truly, that religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary; it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary.”
“Jesus tells us we must leave the self altogether-yield it, deny it, refuse it, lose it. Thus only shall we save it… The self is given us that we may sacrifice it. It is ours in order that we, like Christ, may have something to offer- not that we should torment it, but that we should deny it; not that we should cross it, but that we should abandon it utterly.”
“The love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self, where we mope and mow, striking sparks, and rubbing phosphorescents out of the walls, and blowing our own breath in our own nostrils, instead of issuing to the fair sunlight of God, the sweet winds of the universe.”
“Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One “settles down” into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness… Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do… For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.”
G.K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy
“A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
“[God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The enemy wants him in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.”
C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters
“No sooner do we believe that God loves us than there is an impulse to believe that He does so, not because He is Love, but because we are intrinsically lovable….It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realise for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us. Surely we must have a little – however little – native luminosity? Surely we can’t be quite creatures?”
If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud.”
“At some thoughts one stands perplexed – especially at the sight of men’s sin – and wonders whether one should use force or humble love. Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve on that, once and for all, you may subdue the whole world. Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.”
It is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another.
George MacDonald, Phantastes
“A great man is always willing to be little.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet it is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”
“Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.”
St. Vincent de Paul
“Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else.”
“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”
“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
This witticism has seeped into the consciousness of many young women since its first utterance in 1970. It may seem harmless, and even helpful in developing confidence in young women. However, this belief has, in fact, had a devastating effect on children. An independent young woman may feel she is getting along fine without a man – but if she has a child – she needs him, and so does the child. Single Mothers are capable of miraculous feats – but very few, in their honesty, would claim they wouldn’t welcome help from a loving and competent father of their child. Now, oftentimes that loving man isn’t a reality, and that is the fault of the man. However, it is important for young women to see that their future children do need their father and they should adjust their “fish and bicycle” view of the world. Men and women need each other, and what a beautiful thing that is, for we all crave connection and love.
This article from The Art of Manliness shows the harsh reality many fatherless-children face.