October is, as we all know, Respect Life Month and the emphasis on protecting the lives of the unborn is an important focus for all of us who work in ministry. But as I was looking out my window in one of those picture-perfect October mornings, when the slant of light gives a crisp clarity to every edge, the flowers are still overflowing their pots and there is just the slightest hint of color behind the green of the tree leaves, I began to think about other lives that may need saving in addition to those still in the womb.
Oh yes, you may be thinking, there are poor people all over who need our help and we are doing all we can to assist them, too. However, they aren’t the ones who have come to mind. The lives that may need saving are closer than that; they are yours and mine.
We all know the airplane admonition to put on our own oxygen masks before helping others, but how often do we really do that in ordinary life? I don’t know about you, but all too often, I feel like it’s really rather selfish of me to put me before others — the value of self-sacrifice, taking up the cross and all of that is deeply engrained in my Catholic soul. Having been raised on stories of saints who tended plague victims until they died themselves, I feel like I need to give to others first and then take what’s left over for myself — if there is anything left over.
However, as I grow older and hopefully wiser, I’m beginning to see that’s not really what we are supposed to do. Let’s start with the foundational commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We get the “love your neighbor” part, but a lot of the time we gloss right over the second half. If we stop to analyze it, what it really says is that we are supposed to love ourselves. Not just ignore, overlook or berate, but love.
If we really treated your neighbors the way we treat ourselves what would that look like? Would we overwork them, deprive them of rest and decent food, keep them up too late and force them out of bed too early, pile more work on them, set impossible standards and then berate them when they failed to do even more? Would we insist that they be perfect spouses, parents, employees, lying in wait to pounce if they make a single mistake? So why do we do that to ourselves? It seems to me that a lot of the time we love others a whole lot more than we love ourselves, which clearly is a reversal of what we are actually commanded to do.
Then there is the pesky example of Jesus. While he did spend his ministry healing the sick, preaching the good news, and ultimately dying, he didn’t spend ALL of his time doing that. He went off into the hills by himself to recoup, he took naps (even when his disciples really needed him to calm the storm), he visited the homes of friends, attended parties, visited his mother, and even had a foot massage with expensive oil! If he made time to take care of his own needs, even while presenting his world-changing message, then why don’t we do the same? Is it because we are trying to be holier than Jesus? (Note: That isn’t possible, so we might as well give up that goal!) Or is it because we aren’t really willing to follow his example? Or could it be that we don’t believe our lives are actually worth as much as the lives of others?
Both the commandment and the example of Jesus tell us that we cannot serve others, we cannot bring them life unless we take care of our own lives first. Of course, that doesn’t mean becoming selfish hedonists, but it does mean that we must make sure that we respect our own “one wild and precious life,” as the poet Mary Oliver says, as much as we respect the wild and precious lives of everyone else.