I’m not an outwardly emotional type of person. I’m very laid back, not much ruffles me. So, you can imagine how undone I was when about a week ago I became very obviously depressed because of my first sense of detachment from my son, Phillip. This wasn’t physical detachment. I’ve already experienced that and it was nothing compared to this. This was emotional distance! I had been noticing for a few days that Phillip was being extra grumpy. At first I brushed it off, telling myself that he must be teething or that he was sleepy. However, with each passing day and more frequent episodes of hysterical crying I had to face the truth: Phillip just wanted his mommy, and he wanted only her! Having been reared by a single mother, and experiencing distance from my own father, this really unraveled me.
Later that week I was completing a homework assignment for my church history class. Ironically, we were studying the birth of the monastic tradition. I was captivated by Basil the Great’s commitment to living in community: “that community life was essential, for one who lives alone has no one to serve, and the core of monastic life is service to others.”¹ Basil’s belief in service was such that he committed to taking on the most disagreeable of tasks within the community.
It doesn’t take long after living in community to discover that service is part of our life together. We all serve in ways that are public, that are noticeable, that are agreeable. That’s the easy part! It’s the bit about serving in the most disagreeable of tasks that is difficult. These are tasks that are not immediately noticed, that often go unnoticed, tasks that any of us could easily choose not to do. And, of course, these differ depending on the person. What’s disagreeable to one of us, may be pleasant for another. It’s messy, it’s risky.
And yet, in the midst of one of my debbie-downer moments, one of those moments when I told myself I wouldn’t pick up another dirty dish that wasn’t mine, I remembered Phillip. I remembered that in the crucible of my feelings, feelings of rejection, feelings of guilt, feelings of anger, of recalling over and over in my mind this or that instance where I had failed to be present with him, that I faced a decision. That intimacy, that love is ultimately a choice. During one of Phillip’s fits later that week, I told Erica to give he and I some time together. It was tough. We obviously had good moments, but at some point he would inevitably want only Erica. I have been more intentional lately of spending extended time with him, playing on the floor longer, changing more diapers than usual, reading to him more often. In these small tasks, these mundane acts of service, many of them more disagreeable than others, I choose the risk of intimacy, I choose the risk of loving Phillip not knowing if it will stick, not knowing if he will reciprocate in a way that will give me the emotional and spiritual satisfaction that I crave in the moment.
God would use a baby to teach us about community, huh? That we must be willing to serve each other in the most disagreeable of tasks, the least of tasks, the tasks for which reciprocation is not a guarantee. And that is hard! That is scary, it is a risk! But that is the only way, any other way isn’t community, any other way isn’t love!
1. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 211.