A few months ago, I visited a friend, a new mother with a four-month-old baby. She talked about how stressed she was and how much she would love to some time with her husband, who works two jobs.
“Let me watch the baby for you this Sunday,” I offered. “That way, you can go spend a few hours together, just the two of you.”
I saw an almost imperceptible lightening of her spirit. Then she pushed it down.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Are you sure? You have a lot going on….”
It took a while for me to convince her I sincerely wanted to care for her son. She was so afraid it would be a burden on me, that she was imposing, that it was hard for her to accept my gift of time.
Why do we do this? Why is it so hard for us to accept help from each other?
For many of us, it started in childhood. We heard our parents lamenting the cost of raising us. Instead of hearing we were treasured, we heard how glad were they didn’t have to have more of us. We also live in a materialistic culture that insists a person’s value is tied to his ability to produce wealth. Those who can’t, such as the disabled, the elderly, and stay-at-home mothers, are drains on society. The only valuable work is work that leads to a paycheck, we’re told. I know women who make enormous sacrifices to keep their homes running smoothly and their family members healthy and happy. Yet they still feel worthless because they don’t contribute financially to the household.
We grew up hearing these messages and we’re overly sensitive to being perceived as a burden. We all know what a burden is: it’s a difficulty, a trial, an unwelcome encumbrance to our happiness. A burden is something no one wants. It’s easy to see why most of us are terrified of being perceived as one.
So we pretend we’re strong, when we’re really weak. We tell people we’re fine, when we’re really suffering and need help, comfort, or companionship. And when a person offers what we desperately need, the only way we can comfortably accept it is if we are convinced giving it will cost them nothing.
Perhaps it would serve our relationships better if when we offer a gift of ourselves to others, we stop assuring them it is “no problem” or “no big deal.” Because truthfully, sometimes it is a big deal. I’m a mother to four children and my time is precious. If I care for someone else’s children, I’m caring for their children plus mine, or I’m sacrificing time away from my own children and husband. This is the reality of my gift. Even if that cost is never discussed or fully articulated, it shouldn’t be dismissed or downplayed. Why? Because when we dismiss the sacrifice in the gift, we obscure the love that fuels it.
The ultimate example of love is the Cross, of course. Jesus laid down his life, in a very public and brutally sacrificial way, to save us. He didn’t do it that way to self-aggrandize, to call attention to his personal generosity. As with everything he did, it was about us, not him. Through the suffering and sacrifice, he was saying: “This is hard. But I still want to to do this for you. I want to because I love you.” It was a message, not a show.
By modern-day standards, however, this is how the conversation between us and Jesus might go:
Jesus: “Hey, I can see those sins have really got you down. I have some time open this Friday. If it would help you out, I’d be happy to die for you.”
Me: “Are you sure? I mean, only if it won’t put you out. No, come to think of it, you’ve got enough on your plate trying to deal with those Jewish leaders. Don’t worry about it. I’ll get by.”
Jesus: “It’s no trouble, really. I was going to be in Jerusalem anyway this weekend. It’s practically on my way.”
Me: “Well, if it’s not too much for you. It would be great, but don’t feel like you have to or anything. I don’t want to be a burden.”
Jesus was God; he could have snapped his fingers and redeemed us, but he didn’t. It was important to him that we be aware, even superficially, of the sacrifice he made out of love for us. Too often we want to sidestep the fact that the true measure of love is sacrifice. But only the person who is willing to suffer for you, who is willing to give up something they desire to serve you, can ever claim to truly love you.
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking the sacrifice has to be big or showy to count. It doesn’t. Anything we do for another person, even if it’s just listening to them talk about their struggles, is a gift of time and attention. As Mother Teresa said, we cannot do great things; we can only do “small things with great love.” Every gesture, no matter how small it seems, is an opportunity to convey our love for another person.
Most of the time, however, in our quest to assure the other person they are not a burden, we strip the offering of the very thing that makes it meaningful: its sacrifice. We trip over ourselves to downplay the effort we will put in to serve them. So that by the time the conversation is over, the gift is no longer one made out of genuine love for that person, but a mere favor we casually dismiss as effortless. “It’s nothing,” we say. Never considering that what the person really needs to hear is, “Sure, it may tough to watch six kids at once. But I want to do it for you. I want to because I love you. You’re worth it.”
We would improve our relationships if we took a more honest approach, and gave up this pointless dance around the truth about the inherent sacrifices in our gifts to each other. Our relationships would be more genuine, because the love between friends would be expressed in a plainer, more obvious way. Knowing the sacrifice the other is making for us would engender the desire to reciprocate. Love would beget more love.
We also need to give up the idea that we could ever be a burden to someone who loves us. If others in our past have made us feel that way, it says more about their own hearts than it does about our real value as a person. We need to shed the misguided idea that asking for help is a sign of personal weakness. It isn’t. It’s simply a fact of the human condition. We ought not to be ashamed when we need others. Especially since God made us for each other.
I have a dream that one day I’ll offer to care for a friend’s baby and she’ll look at me and just say, “Thank you. I really need that.” And I’ll smile and just say, “You’re welcome. I’m happy to serve you.”