Diane's Voice

On Martha and Mary

My goal for 2021, after getting everyone in my life vaccinated against the coronavirus (including myself) is to figure out the answer to this: Will I ever truly accept that I am worthy of love and belonging even when I’m not serving others?

A group of my Catholic mom friends deprecatingly call ourselves “Martha”s. In the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament, the siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are dear friends of Jesus. He stops by to visit them with seventy-two of his disciples. Martha, seeing a horde of people descending upon her home, rushes around doing all the hospitality work. Her younger sister, Mary, sits at Jesus’ feet as he speaks. Luke writes: “Martha, burdened with much serving, came to [Jesus] and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord said to her in reply, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.'” (Luke, 10: 40-42).

Every time I read that passage, I hear Martha’s name replaced with my own. “Anxious and worried” are probably the best words to describe me, especially this year. Not only did we have a pandemic which caused me to worry about the health and survival of every family member and friend in my life, but there were even more immediate threats. Two of my friends were diagnosed with breast cancer; about seven of my friends lost at least one parent–and not even to Covid. There were riots in the streets. People were truly hurting. And I couldn’t help them the way I usually would, with Martha-tastic acts of service like bringing food, water, or even giving a hug.

This year, all my opportunities to serve were forbidden, with good reason. We couldn’t have Vacation Bible School this summer. While we are fortunate that our school is open, no parent volunteers are allowed in and there are no in-person events, so my hospitality committee can’t do much. If a friend is ill, I would normally organize meal trains or at least contribute a meal, but with my husband working in medicine, I couldn’t risk exposing my friends to the virus. I couldn’t even go to most of my friends’ parents funerals to offer comfort, because they were held elsewhere or not held at all because of Covid.

So what is a Martha do to when tending the disciples might infect them all with a deadly virus? Well, Jesus said Mary had chosen the better part, so I tried to imitate Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet. I tried to enter into a contemplative life. I read about my faith. I started meditation and mindfulness practices. I tried to take long prayer walks, which is a hard thing to do on a treadmill but is easier than walking in the sauna that is Florida summer. I prayed . . . a lot. Some weeks, I only knew what day it was based on which mysteries of the Rosary I was praying (joyful? It must be either Monday or Saturday. Sorrowful: Tuesday or Friday. Glorious: Sunday or Wednesday. Luminous: it can only be Thursday!)

I’m not saying that the contemplative life wasn’t enough. If I had to continue it for the rest of my life, I would do so to keep my loved ones safe. Focusing on detachment–accepting there are no guarantees; that life will be what it will be; that I cannot control circumstances, only my response to them; that I am ultimately powerless over anything but myself–became soothing rather than terrifying. It led me to the Catholic sense of surrender–giving myself over to God’s will, trusting that He’s got this, and being okay with that. After all, what choice did I have?

But it never became easy. I’ve read that it takes 30 days to form a habit, and 100 days to make it automatic–that if I exercise at 3pm every day for 30 days, on day 31 I will have no trouble getting myself ready, and by day 100 I will find myself on the treadmill without any conscious thought. I started practicing mindfulness, meditation, detachment, and surrender in March. It’s December. That’s way more than 100 days–and it’s not automatic.

I have to push myself to open my meditation and prayer app, to say my Rosary, to pray an act of surrender, to read a few chapters of the Bible. I have to push myself to write and even read some days. I almost didn’t send out Christmas cards this year. What was the point? It wasn’t until my friend told me that by not sending out cards I was depriving people of joy that I was inspired to do so–because there was an act of service I could do in a socially distanced way!

Putting together those 160 Christmas cards–designing them, having them printed, stuffing the envelopes, putting on the labels (total Martha tasks) was the most fulfilling thing I’ve had in a long time. Yet now that they’re out and I’m back to my routine of prayer and contemplation, I long to plan my neighborhood Christmas party, buy cookies for the school’s college night, work on the school auction, plan and teach Vacation Bible School.

My eldest daughter recently analyzed Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” to compare her description of madness with that of Opehlia in Hamlet, and it inspired me to re-read Gilman’s short story. I was shocked at how easy it was for me to understand the narrator’s descent into madness. Sitting in a room all day, staring at the walls, with nothing to do, no mental or physical occupation . . . it could too easily be me during this plague year, even with all the praying I was doing.

Part of going mad is losing one’s sense of self. I define myself by acts of service. If I am not serving, who am I? If I am not helping others, then why am I here? If I am not giving, what purpose do I serve? Some days it feels like I’m just taking up air that should be reserved for someone who can be of use. My daughter got really angry when I told her that. She asserted, “You do not have to be ‘of use!’ What even is that? This idea that you have to earn the right to be alive on this planet? The idea that if you can’t serve you’re not worthy of love and belonging? Mom, we love you because you’re our mom. Your friends love you because you’re you. Anyone who loves you because of what you do for them isn’t really someone you want in your life, is it?”

But here’s the thing: I don’t love myself if I’m not doing something for others. As a matter of fact, I hate myself if I’m not serving. And I don’t know how to change that. I don’t know how not to be a Martha. I’ve tried. 2020 has given me so many chances. But nothing is sticking. If anything, the longing to get out and help others is becoming like an itch under my skin that never goes away. Fortunately, I have no wallpaper to worry about.

I have so many plans. I want to teach English to at-risk teens (teaching college didn’t pay me anything anyway; I may as well really do it for free). I want to teach more in my church’s faith formation program. I want to help at a soup kitchen. I want to help fundraise for a number of different charities. I want to help, to give, to work to make this world a better place.

Yet, at the same time, I have to separate this desire to serve from the estimation of my self-worth. I have to love myself even if I’m not serving. I have to believe I am worthy of love and belonging even if I am not being “of use.” So, if anyone has any suggestions on how to do that, let me know.

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