Service with a Smile

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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.”

12 Replies to “Service with a Smile”

  1. I’m reading through a book on character building with my kids. We’re working on one virtue/month. Anyway, I was surprised to find out that part of being “generous” was allowing people to do things for you.

    For someone who’s ultra-independent, this was a really good insight and one I’m going to have to work on.

  2. Your post really struck a cord with me. I was very independent not needing anyone including God, self reliance was my motto. I learned a hard lesson. I fell down the stairs one morning on my way to the dentist’s office and shattered my right ankle for the second time. It was destroyed, a trimalleolar fracture, I had to depend on paramedics to carry me and care for my kids. I had to learn how to ask for and accept help from everyone. I was completely at the mercy of everyone around me, I couldn’t even get to the bathroom myself. I was drowning, I learned to depend on God for everything. May we all learn to accept help and learn it is not weakness to accept it.

  3. Dori, for me it was developing a chronic pain disorder called fibromyalgia that left me riddled with agonizing back and hip pain and unrelenting fatigue. I’d prided myself so much on being independent, but suddenly I could do little more than hobble around the house. Sadly, my pride kept me from asking for help until our family fell apart, but since then, I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not afraid or embarrassed anymore to ask for help. I don’t hesitate to ask a friend to come help me with laundry or clean the house when things get out of control due to me having a fibro flare. I also try hard to help other women see they don’t have to be supermom to accept my help. I have had a few women who have been on the phone crying because they’re so overwhelmed, but they REFUSE to allow me to help them. I just feel sorry for them. This is a serious lack of humility, to believe you’re strong enough to do it all without the loving assistance of others.

  4. This is an awesome post. Thank you. I have had terrible morning sickness lately with my third baby, and a friend with three children called yesterday to see if she could bring me lunch and watch the kids for me. I knew it was a little bit of a drive for her, and it was close to lunchtime for her own kids, and despite being desperate for help, I turned my sweet friend down.

    Thank you for this post–God sent me over just when I needed to read this and let down my pride and fear of weakness.

  5. ‘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.’ <-- this says it all! I, too, have had to humble myself after the indignity of a bilateral mastectomy/tram flap reconstruction. Others had to help me with my most basic needs. I'm ashamed to say that I did not take some of my loved ones up on their offers for help. This is something I now regret. With that being said, I will take a cue from you, and make my offers less off hand and more lovingly given. Great food for thought all around!

  6. Beautiful! Exactly my thoughts as I raise my 3 boy but also have a desire to help my friends with theirs sometimes. I do it because I know ow great it is to have help!!!!

  7. I, too, strive to be hyper-independant while be available to others but this post has really given me something to think about. Great post.

  8. Beautiful post Misty!

    9 years ago I sustained a serious arm injury and one friend offered to help with laundry or grocery shopping & I turned her down. I felt like I was expected (by everyone else) to fight through it & accepting the help would show my weakness. It’s only been recently that I’ve come to realize that many of my struggles during that time were of my own doing AND the offer of help wasn’t out of pity.

    I’m not used to being on the receiving end of help. I’m great at being the servant, but I’m rotten st being the served. I’m a work in progress.

    I emailed that friend after that revelation and apologized for refusing her assistance. She’d been so surprised that I apologized that she said it helped her accept help a short time later from her MIL. So her gift (the offer) helped her in the long run.

    Lots to think about here. Thank you.

  9. This is a great post, really important for both the giver and receiver to understand this fully. I had an emergency C-section with my fifth child and was forced to accept help from the homeschool community of which I knew very little. I had to allow them into my home to help me clean floors, cook for me, and even scrub my toilets. The women that gave themselves and their time to come in and help are my heros. The love that they gave me, practically a stranger, is the love that Christ speaks of when He commands us to love one another. Love in action. Thank you Jennifer, Katy, Katie, Betsy, Liz, Stephanie, and Kristy for all your love for our little family when we had no family around; you where there to be our family, in Christ! WOW, yet another reason I love being Catholic!

  10. For me, I hesitate to accept help because when I was young, help always came with strings attached; at some point, I knew I would hear something like – and all the things I did for you and this is how you treat me – that sort of thing. So I learned not to accept help if I could avoid so that I wouldn’t “owe” anyone and I certainly wouldn’t accept help if I couldn’t “pay it back” in some way because then it would hang over me. It’s a surprise even now that people want to help me just because they’re kind. God was wise (of course) and sent me a spouse who is a joyful servant and expresses his love through service. So I’m learning that not everyone expects something in return for their service!

  11. This really helped put a lot in perspective. I’m the kind of person who offers help but gets turned down frequently; I’m also the person who doesn’t even receive offers of help to turn down. Either people don’t want me around and/or they’re afraid of having someone sacrifice for them, as a previous commenter said, because they fear the possible attachment of strings.

    Jesus experienced both these types of rejection. How often do we reject His help? How often do we just not want Him around? If He, Lord of All, accepts those kinds of sufferings, the least I can do is offer it up.

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