If you are a woman like me, you probably heard subtle and not-so-subtle messages growing up that your desires and interests were unimportant at best, and bad and wrong at worst. On the contrary, helping and serving others while you denied yourself, was not only expected as a female in this culture, it was faithful. We learned that God wants us to sacrifice ourself, our needs, and our desires in order to follow Jesus. If we ever did let our desires and wants slip out, we might have been told that we are selfish, pushy, bossy, or God-forbid, a “bitch.” At the Enneagram conference I attended two weeks ago, we learned that girls today as young as second grade are being labeled a “bitch” when they express their desires and demonstrate leadership skills so often admired in boys the same age (they are probably just an 8 on the Enneagram with a particular set of strengths, skills and weaknesses, like the rest of us).
I had been a pastor for over twenty years when a therapist said to me, “God works through your desires.” I was both surprised and comforted since for so much of my adult life, I have had an on-going internal battle with feeling selfish for having desires and aspirations. I don’t believe anyone intended to give me this message, but I received it, loud and clear. In the book, Holy Listening; The Art of Spiritual Direction, the late Episcopal priest, Margaret Guenther wrote, “women’s distinctive sin is self-contempt, a self-hatred often centered on the body. A lack of healthy self-love means that women can neglect their own inner growth because they are so busy serving others—as culture, society, and religion demand” (128-129). Does that strike a chord in your soul? It sure did in mine. Author Susan Rakoczy, writing in Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, adds, “Self-sacrifice freely chosen leads to self-transcendence; serving others because of cultural and religious norms leads to self-naughting” (Vol. 20.2, June 2014, 50).
How much time and energy have we, as women put into “self-naughting”—shutting down our inner aspirations and hopes because others’ needs (whoever that ‘other’ might include) are more important than ours? I would agree that mature spirituality leads us to self-denial and transcendence of the ego-self as we deepen our life and identity in God. But many of our spiritual and religious traditions have encouraged our self-denial before we have achieved “self-possession” (Rokoczy, 50) or ego-strength and identity. Fr. Richard Rohr identifies building this ego-self as the task of the first half of life (see his book, Falling Upward).
Despite it feeling selfish or myopic, our first spiritual task is to achieve self-possession. We might ask, “How is God working through our desires, our passions, our aspirations, and our hopes? What kind of contribution to the world do our skills and strengths lead us to offer? How is God calling us through our desires and skills?” We need to walk through this conscious self-development before we have anything to sacrifice or transcend in service of the reign of God.
I have felt this tension in the process of writing and publishing, Motherhood Calling: Experiencing God in Everyday Family Life. I felt a deep desire to write and communicate about God’s daily presence; yet it felt selfish to seek a publisher, and it still feels self-serving and “braggy” to tell others about it. But, if I don’t share it, how can it be used to help others see God in their daily lives--the whole purpose of the book? Even using this as an example feels uncomfortable! Aaaargh!
I don’t think this internal battle is what God hopes for in any of us! Today, I live in the tension while praying for how God desires me to resolve it, and trying to practice healthy self-love in the mean time.