Why Have I Forsaken Me?
Reflections on relgion, Mother Theresa, and what they taught me about self-care
I was raised Catholic. Like most cradle Catholics, I was confirmed in my adolescence. For those non-Catholics reading, Confirmation is one of the Sacraments of Christian initiation. A minister, usually a bishop, anoints the candidate with oil, and there is a laying on of hands and a speaking of the sacramental words. Most basically, the sacrament puts spiritual responsibility into the candidate's hands.
In many English-speaking countries, a secondary part of the Sacrament involves choosing a confirmation name. Most often, this is the name of a saint, a holy person to identify ourselves with, to be a personal patron and guardian to us, and to act as a model for our behavior. When I received the Sacrament of Confirmation in eighth grade, I chose the name Theresa, for Mother Theresa.
I admit, at the time, I wasn't entirely clear on the meaning of the whole event. I had gone through religious education, discussed it with my parents and my sponsor, and been deemed ready, but there was still a lot involved that I wouldn't understand until later. I think the biggest item on that list is my confirmation name.
At the time of my confirmation, Mother Theresa had only been dead three years. She had not even received the title of "Blessed." In truth, I wanted her for my patron rather than another Theresa only because she actually spelled her name the same way my own mother spelled hers. Still, I knew about Mother Theresa's humanitarian work, and I admired it. I had always wanted to help the poor after all.
Since my confirmation, Mother Theresa's life and faith have become that much more significant to me. So much that even as my practice of my faith becomes a little less dogmatic, and my interpretation a little less literal, I still seriously consider legally changing my name to include my confirmation name.
Danielle Rose is a Catholic woman with the voice of an angel and the most sincere songs of faith I have ever heard. In many ways, her music helped steer me through the turmoil and rage of adolescence the way harder, angrier music does for other teens. And like me, Danielle Rose shares a particular spiritual connection with Mother Theresa.
In 2007, Danielle Rose released an album entitled "I Thirst," which was dedicated to Mother Theresa's life and work. It was when I listened to the album and read the notes that went along with it that I learned how much Mother Theresa's faith had suffered in her lifetime, how much she doubted and questioned, and how well she must have understand the words that Jesus cried in the ninth hour of His crucifixion: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?"
If you study the lives of the saints, you'll find that it is not at all uncommon for them to endure long periods of what is commonly referred to as "spiritual dryness," that is, long periods of time where their faith suffers, where they doubt and question, where they simply do not feel the same level of fulfillment in their prayers and good works that they once did.
Still, it moved me to learn that Mother Theresa had also endured this spiritual dryness. And in many ways, it was comforting, as I am sure you can imagine, to learn that even the saints and the blessed suffered doubts. Even the saints and the blessed are human and sinners. Even the saints are made of flesh.
Dying to ourselves
One message my religion has always delivered to me was a command to "die to myself." In other words, be unselfish. Put others before myself. Be generous and compassionate. For most of my life, I found nothing to criticize in this message.
Massage therapy is a profession which seems to attract those who want to serve others. People who want to put everyone else above themselves. People who would rather care than be cared for. Rather give than receive. For all that most practicing massage therapists you will meet are likely to lecture you on the importance of self-care, you may find it hard to believe how many of us were initially resistant to the idea of looking after ourselves.
In our third semester, my class was assigned a project dedicated to self-care. For ten weeks, we were told to take ten minutes out of every day to do something just for ourselves. We could do anything we wanted--as long as we did something different every day--as long as it made us feel loved and cared for.
I was actually surprised by the level of resistance from some of my classmates. One classmate responded with a loud and almost petulant cry of, "I don't wanna!" which seemed to me only half a jest. A number of my classmates actually seemed intimidated by the idea. Indeed, our instructor lamented that she assigned this project on self-care to every class she had, and ironically, it always turned into a great burden her students dragged around for eleven weeks.
But still, she kept assigning it. Self-care, she said, was vital to a profession like ours, one where we were ultimately isolated, kept in a small, quiet room with one other person for hours at a time, intimately sharing their energy, and the pains of their body. We are required to give a great deal of ourselves to another person, and unless we found ways to revitalize and renew ourselves, we would quickly reach the point where we had nothing left to give. A point where we would actually begin to resent the clients who came to us with pain they wanted eased, because we simply did not have the energy to care anymore.
A person who has given all they have to give and has nothing left to give is suffering from compassion fatigue--a state of mental exhaustion and emotional burnout brought on by too much self-sacrifice and not enough self-care.
And then I wondered something: could Mother Theresa and all the other saints and blessed persons who had endured long periods of spiritual dryness have actually been suffering from compassion fatigue?
The Well of Compassion
Mother Theresa worked closely with the poor and neglected. There is no question that she witnessed a great deal of suffering. There is no doubt she realized that no matter how much good she did, there would still continue to be suffering.
And unfortunately, I sincerely doubt she was ever taught to take ten minutes out of her day to write herself a love letter or indulge in a cup of tea or draw a picture.
The fact of the matter is that no one can save the world themselves. Every act of charity touches someone, but it cannot touch everyone. And when one works very closely with pain and suffering on a daily basis, that reality is a constant companion. This is as true for doctors, nurses, social workers, and even parents as it is for humanitarian saints.
God's well of compassion never runs dry. But a human being's does. When a person shows genuine compassion to someone who is suffering, that suffering is transferred onto the compassionate person. There is only so much misery and heartache the human mind can take before it will block out all feelings of empathy simply out of self-preservation, the same way a victim of abuse will be driven to a state of emotional death and numbness.
Renewing the well
There is nothing wrong with compassion. There is nothing wrong with making a sacrifice for the sake of someone else. These are good things to do that keep human beings connected to one another. But be mindful of the dangers of compassion fatigue.
Self-care tip of the day: Be adamant about your need for self-care. Sometimes, it is necessary to make sacrifices in order to be there for friends or family, but do not be afraid to say no to a project or non-emergency request if you know it will take away from your self-care time. Take time to think before saying yes to any new burdens. If you sense yourself resenting the person who asked you to take it on, chances are you shouldn't take it. Use discretion. You'll be better equipped to take on a new project later if you do.
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