I used to have this long spiel where I explained how having a kid is basically an immersive learning experience on the subject of putting someone else’s wants and needs before your own. It would take me about five minutes to get my point across until one day my friend Jolene cut me off and said “It’s like selflessness school.” and I said. “Uh, yeah. That.”
So yes, Jolene, having a kid is like selflessness school. You get constant practice at not doing what you want to do, but doing what your child wants to do. You don’t go to the bathroom or get a drink or eat a snack or pick your nose when you want to. You do it when the kid is ok with you doing it. Or when they are napping.
Replace “kid” with “patients” and that is also an accurate summary of what it’s like to work at 12-hour nursing shift.
Which is more or less the point I’m getting at. It’s slowly dawning on me that while becoming a father has been a rather jarring shift into care-for-others-with-the-bulk-of-my-time-and energy-mode, the selflessness training that I’m going through is not unique to the parental role.
I experienced a similar shock when I got married and realized that my wife was there ALL THE TIME and would probably continue to be for quite a while. I couldn’t just do what I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it – and it turned out I was deeply attached to that mode of living. Margie took three days to find a full-time job after we moved into our first apartment; I took nine months. I am convinced this was because God wanted me to spend my time and energy on becoming a better and more loving husband and not on starting a career. Those nine months were also like selflessness school, if not selflessness bootcamp, and while they were very hard and involved a lot of fights and tears, I grew into a much more loving and much less selfish husband through them.
My friend Nick and I should not be friends. We like to do similar things, but we do them in completely opposite ways that tend to aggravate each other. We don’t see eye to eye on a number of important political, social, and aesthetic issues. What we do share is that we love Jesus, and we were both leaders in our college Christian fellowship. (OK, we also both love nerdy board games). After being friends for a little bit in college, we got to the point where we discovered all the things that really pissed us off about each other – the friendship was not fun anymore. But over the course of my junior year we eventually decided that we were not going to stop being friends just because we now found it hard. What we had in common and what we cared about together were more important than what we despised in each other. We were going to work on our friendship and by God’s grace, we were going to make it work.
Today, Nick is my best friend after my wife. Not because I get along with him most naturally or because I’ve known him longer than anyone else or because we have the most in common. We are best friends because we went through selflessness school together and we survived.
In a certain sense, doing selflessness school with a baby is easy. The baby makes you do it – she will literally die if you don’t make radical changes to your life and care for her constantly. There’s also a lot of social support and reinforcement for new parents as well. It’s generally acceptable to take extended time off from work to be a new parent. You will probably go to jail if you neglect your child.
My wife, however, will not starve to death if I don’t feed her. If I don’t keep up my part in caring for her she will be deeply hurt, but she will survive. On a day when I just can’t stand my wife, nothing and no one forces me to do selflessness school with her except the extent to which I feel bound by my marriage oaths. I have good friends and family who support our relationship and will correct me (sternly, if need be) when I am being selfish towards her, but I could theoretically get divorced and no one would die or go to jail.
It takes the most initiative of all to enroll in selflessness school with a friend. They will “do fine” without you even if you completely neglect them. It is more or less socially acceptable to let a friendship that has become difficult wither away. Friends are, after all, supposed to be there for you, right?
If we took notice of all the opportunities that exist around us to go to selflessness school, we would not just call parenting and marriage hard work. We would be willing to call friendship hard work. We would be willing to call living in the city hard work. We would call doing your job rightly hard work. But we would consider it hard work that is worth doing because of the impact it has on our hearts.
So all that to say – I think going to selflessness school is probably the most important thing to do in life, but it is also the very hardest thing to do. Jesus said “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Christians tend to romanticize the image of the cross because of what Christ did with it, but to first-century Jews under Roman domination, this is the same as Jesus saying today “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, strap himself into the electric chair every morning, and follow me.”
To really love my child, my spouse, my friend, or my neighbour, I have to put to death my willful self that wants what I want when I want it. This is extraordinarily hard. It feels like I am dying a little bit inside every time I do it – probably because I am. But I take Jesus at his word that as every bit of my selfish heart is executed, it is replaced by a bit of heart that is like his – loving, wise, kind, and selfless. Ready at all times to care for the needs and wants of those that he puts in my life.
Mr. Rogers used to ask his viewers “won’t you be my neighbour?” And that was a very good question. My question for you – my friends, family, and coworkers who read this – is “won’t you go to selflessness school with me?”
I mean it.