Sunday, April 13, 2008

35. Do nothing for people that they can do for themselves.

Happy Sunday! Here is Monica:

This maxim elicits a flashback to the distant past when I used to wait for one or another of my three sons to tie his own shoes with tiny fingers or to come up with an answer to “What color is the elephant (or apple or car) in this picture?” – although it would have been expedient simply to resolve the situation myself. I realize, however, that I am involved in a similar task nowadays as I stand beside my frail, nonagenarian mother with arms outstretched to catch her in case she falls as she struggles doggedly to move from wheelchair to bed by her own power.

These situations are the unambiguous ones, in which it is easy to discern the best course of action -- or rather, inaction. In other cases a certain amount of agonizing occurs. If I offer money to a needy relative or friend, will this person develop a dependency on me and thus lose the motivation to discover his or her own survival strategies? Will our relationship be irrevocably altered? More importantly, will I diminish this person’s sense of dignity? Of course, these questions are echoed in the public arena by debates about charitable giving or tax-funded assistance. Sometimes the arguments in favor of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency can serve merely to disguise a lack of generosity, but sometimes they do not.

On the emotional level, it is natural -- especially for women, I think -- to feel an urge to “be there” for others who need a listening ear. We respond to another person’s pain with a reflexive impulse to do whatever it takes to alleviate that pain. But this kind of assistance, too, has the potential for transformation into a relationship that harms more than it helps, especially by tempting one or the other of the two participants to exert some form of control over the other, often in subtle ways.

In light of the pitfalls involved in helping another, it is a serious challenge to decide what to do. I think that each situation is unique and requires prayerful discernment. One guideline that persists in my mind is based on the blessed Augustine’s thoughts about friendship, which appear most explicitly in his book ON CHRISTIAN TEACHING. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) makes a distinction between “use” and “enjoyment”: that is, we are to “enjoy” God alone, because to enjoy anyone or anything else would amount to idolatry. Everything else that we experience should serve as something that we “use,” or that we offer to be used by another, in the journey toward complete communion with God.

Even friendship comes under this latter category. According to Augustine, a Christian friendship is a relationship that contributes to the spiritual progress of the partners. Two streams flow together in a common current channeled towards God. Attachment to another person for the satisfaction of one’s human desires for comfort or praise leads only to a dead end and therefore must be abandoned. In applying this thought to today’s maxim, I can resolve never to encourage another person to develop such a fruitless attachment to me, but instead to nurture a friendship that facilitates his or her growth in the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23), whether it feels comfortable or not.

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The Forty Maxims

  • 1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  • 2. Pray, fast and do acts of mercy.
  • 3. Read the Scriptures regularly.
  • 4. Read good books, a little at a time.
  • 5. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  • 6. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  • 7. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  • 8. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  • 9. Be honest, first of all with yourself.
  • 10. Be faithful in little things.
  • 11. Do your work, then forget it.
  • 12. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  • 13. Face reality.
  • 14. Be grateful.
  • 15. Be cheerful.
  • 16. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  • 17. Never bring unnecessary attention to yourself.
  • 18. Listen when people talk to you.
  • 19. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
  • 20. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  • 21. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  • 22. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis.
  • 23. Flee carnal things at their first appearance.
  • 24. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  • 25. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  • 26. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  • 27. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  • 28. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  • 29. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  • 30. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  • 31. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  • 32. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  • 33. Be strict with yourself.
  • 34. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  • 35. Do nothing for people that they can do for themselves.
  • 36. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  • 37. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
  • 38. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.
  • 39. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  • 40. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.