Generosity of Self

I never loved nobody fully, always one foot on the ground.

-Regina Spektor

Generosity usually conjures up ideas of sharing money or material goods, but recently I’ve started thinking of generosity more in terms of sharing myself. In counseling psychology, resistance is conceptualized as being uncooperative with change. I think it could also be described as psychic stinginess – an unwillingness to open up and share our selves. Either directly or indirectly the individual pushes back against the therapeutic goals in order to avoid the work they probably most need to do. Resistance in therapy can take on many forms including being late to or missing appointments, incomplete homework, finding excuses for being unable to do something, being unwilling to talk, or flat out refusal to change. It isn’t necessarily intentional – in the example of incomplete homework, the individual may not have had much time and so didn’t complete the task, but that still reveals something. Perhaps it wasn’t a priority, or something else is taking up a lot of time, or maybe they were afraid of what the work would reveal and decided to do the laundry instead. In whatever forms it takes, our resistances reveal our secrets.

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Family life has a way of pointing out our resistances, the parts of ourselves we hold back or are unwilling to change. Most of us are good at loving until the beloved comes up against one of our resistances. When I’m asked to give something I don’t want to share I tend to pull back and keep a little something for myself. In a Catholic marriage we believe in not holding back any part of ourself, which is one reason that we don’t use birth control. It’s an interesting dynamic in which to explore a relationship because using contraception doesn’t allow a fully self-giving marriage. In our culture we think of contraception as smart and practical, and the point here really is not about contraception, but how much of ourselves we’re willing to give to someone else. The idea of not using contraception at first filled me with panic (and often still does), but when I started understanding the reasons why, this reason in particular struck me as beautiful.

In secular psychology most clinicians and researchers would suggest there is a point at which we should hold something back for ourselves. After all, if you don’t hold on to yourself you won’t have anything left to give, they might argue. But the idea is more nuanced than it appears; of course we should have healthy boundaries and learn appropriate self-care, but that is different than being stingy with ourselves. We have to be careful what ideas we adopt about love and self-giving – there are a lot of misguided ideas that promise fulfillment, but really only lead to isolation and the building of walls between people. It’s this idea in our culture that self-actualization should be prioritized above self-sacrifice.

But doesn’t God also ask that of us? Doesn’t he ask us to give our whole selves in loving trust to Him? And then, if marriage and parenthood are our vocations, then doesn’t he also ask us to devote our whole lives to those people? This is how God works – he always asks us not to hold back any part of ourselves, only so that he can give us something better in return. If we’re holding onto something then our hands don’t have room to hold what he wants to give us back. And that’s the example he has set for us. The Trinity is the complete self-giving of three divine persons. And Jesus, one of those persons, gave himself fully in service to the Father, and fully in Love to us. Many people believe that the path of self-actualization and self-sacrifice diverge, but in truth they are the same for the Christian because total self-sacrifice (without gain) is the height of self-actualizaton.

Even many of my favorite psychologists would say that at a certain point relationships should be sacrificed for self-actualization. Love is more important, and a higher calling, and the true path of sanctification. The tragic thing is that these writers don’t understand that self-sacrifice is the highest form of actualization. Looking at Christ as our example, he died a tragic death that appeared to be a failure. But it wasn’t a failure at at all, and was the height of love. Sanctification and self-actualization are the same path in the Christian life.

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It’s an incredibly seductive idea, that we have to prioritize our personal improvement, and has all the airs of being mature and wise and prudent. But it will lead to an empty life in which you are living only for yourself. I don’t think most people really, truly want that. I think most of us have this holy longing to be in a total self-giving, loving relationship with ours spouses. Most of us, on our good days, want the community of family and tolerance to have children and parents and friends closely involved our lives. The problem is not that we don’t want these things, it’s that in practice maintaining close relationships is really hard. So we give up on it, and we tell ourselves we’re “growing”, and instead of taking a look at what we’re unwilling to give up for others, we pack our bags and head off on our own. Or we close off part of ourselves, maintaining physical proximity but emotionally going on alone.

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And so we have to learn how resistance clothes itself, because we will run into it in ourselves and those whom we love the most. Resistance is not something to be feared, but it is something to respectfully dialogue with. We must pay attention to our resistances, and then, challenge them. Whether it is a doctrinal issue, a relational issue, or a matter of taste even – get curious about it. It can usually be reasoned with, so long as it understands that the end will be better if it cooperates. It clothes itself sharply with all the tools of our defenses: rationalization, sublimation, denial. It might look like “how I grew up” or “just the way I am” or “I’ve been hurt before” or “I’m too tired” or “that’s not my personality”. Resistance has a large wardrobe. We must face our resistances so that we can be generous with ourselves without hindrance and can follow the path of sanctification into greater unity with one another and God.

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