I sat in his office, my body wracked with sobs. I went through quite a bit of Kleenex. Thankfully, he had a whole box. I couldn’t speak very clearly through my tears. Emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally – I felt like I was drowning. My husband and I weren’t communicating well. Someone I knew was about to make a choice that terrible for her soul. A fallen-away Catholic, she also put me in the incredibly uncomfortable position of explaining to her non-Catholic spouse exactly why it was considered sinful, and now they were both angry with me. My sister was in nursing school and was struggling to get good sleep and good nutrition. Her health has always been a challenge, so this was a lot for her body to go through. My brother was in his sophomore year of college, and still struggling to adjust to college life. Another brother was going through teenage challenges. My life at work was difficult due to a lack of direction and poor communication. I was a wreck, and I knew it, so I’d finally made an appointment with my pastor. Which brings me back to the sobbing.
He listened patiently. He waited for me to finish. He handed me a tissue. Then he asked me why I thought I was so emotionally invested, so focused on all of these people, when I had four (at the time) kids and a husband, who should be at the heart of my focus if I were striving to live my vocation well. I didn’t have a good answer for that, really. Growing up as the oldest in a homeschooled family, I became really attached to my brothers and sisters. I was like their Little Mama. And what mom wouldn’t be emotionally invested in her kids? OK, so maybe I had a good answer for why the decisions of all of these people had me so perturbed. I tried explaining to him why it all felt so…personal…to me. He listened. He nodded.
Then he chuckled, and pointed to a freestanding Crucifix on his desk. “Do you know why I keep that there?” he asked. In my head, I snarkily responded, “ummmmm, cuz you’re a priest?” Out loud, I said, “limited décor options?” Whoops. Not better. He chuckled again and said, “I keep that there to remind me that the world already has a Savior, and you know what? It ain’t me. Thank God for that!”
It was powerful, but so true. I didn’t need to be the Savior of everyone and their problems, even though I’d always been That Girl. I was the one people came to with problems, with emotional disasters. I’m an empath by nature, so instead of logically helping them through their troubles, I’d identify with them and feel their feelings so deeply that I’d take on their emotions. I took the sins, failings, and hurts of everyone around me personally, too. That was what left me feeling so exhausted. But I really didn’t need to be exhausted. In fact, I was likely keeping those in distress from crying out to Jesus by stepping in trying to relieve their suffering myself. That’s a heady thing to realize – that by shielding someone from the consequences of their actions – I was actually keeping them from effectively approaching the throne of mercy and justice. Yikes. This was made clear to me when, on the advice of a friend, I read Searching For and Maintaining Peace by Fr. Jacques Phillippe (affiliate link.) I highlighted a lot of that book, but this passage in particular seemed to really develop the idea that my pastor shared with me that day:
So, yeah. I’m not the Savior of the world. Of course, it’s still disheartening when people close to me make bad choices, but I try not to let it overwhelm me; I don’t feel personally responsible. I’m still available and willing to listen to people pour out their troubles, but instead of taking on the weight of their struggles myself, I try to point them back to Jesus in my counsel. My conversation with Father helped me realize, too, that I needed to begin tending to the necessary task of transitioning from Little Mama to Encouraging Sister. It’s been a long road, but I like to think I’m beginning to improve. I’m trying to be better about listening and not jumping in to solve problems right away. I’m trying to hold my tongue and only give advice when asked for it. When a potential choice appears to be harmful to someone’s soul, I still speak up, but I try to be more compassionate and understanding as I do. And then, I try to remember that if they choose to move forward, it’s not something I will be culpable for. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve also begun to focus more on my own sin, my own patterns of offending God, and work on rooting those out instead of spending emotional energy lamenting the choices of others. The rest – the emotional entanglement, the feelings of overwhelm, the discord in my soul? Over and again, I give it to Jesus.
Because the world already has a Savior, and it ain’t me. Thank God for that!