May 29, 2009

Faith and Family / Sean Gallagher

Forget yourself in serving others

Sean GallagherMy family recently celebrated the seventh birthday of our oldest son, Michael, and the second birthday of our youngest son, Victor. Their birthdays are four days apart.

Grandparents, godparents and a few aunts, uncles and cousins were on hand for the party. After dinner, my wife, Cindy, cut up a cake while I dished out ice cream. Everyone gathered around the dining room table to get their serving.

At one point, as Cindy was handing out slices of cake, she asked, “Have I forgotten anyone?” In response, our 4-year-old son, Raphael, said, “You forgot yourself, Mommy.”

Now Raphael literally meant that Cindy hadn’t given herself any cake or ice cream yet. But although he probably didn’t know it at the time, he offered us an important spiritual lesson in his four little words, a lesson that runs distinctly counter to the wisdom of the world.

This lesson, rooted firmly in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is simple but challenging: true happiness is found not in “looking out for No. 1,” but in forgetting yourself.

Believe it or not, when you put the needs of others before your own, you don’t end up on the losing end. You discover a joy that you never imagined possible and learn that the happiness the world offers is short-lived, like a wispy cloud that fades away on a summer day.

Such a perspective borders on being viewed as absurd, perhaps even evil, by many in a society where wealth and fame are treated like idols, and freedom divorced from responsibility is its guiding light.

How else can you explain the results of a 2008 study by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert which showed that contentment in many married couples is high early on before children are born, takes a noticeable dip once children arrive and only increases once the couples become empty nesters?

If you’re a parent and you live your life with this mindset, you’re going to have a hard time making your own what Jesus said of himself: “… the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve …” (Mt 20:28).

No, the path to happiness that Jesus set before us is the way of the cross: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?” (Mt 16:24-26).

There’s the haunting paradox of the Christian faith: You find your life by losing it, by forgetting yourself.

We live in a culture where a different wisdom is trumpeted from the mountaintops of our media. It challenges us every day. Having to choose in the little and big things of everyday life, whether to follow the world’s wisdom or Jesus’, can be like standing on the edge of a cliff looking down into an endless abyss.

Jesus tells us to step off that precipice, and has promised that he’ll hold us up. But our minds tell us such a choice is madness, that it’s much safer to be on solid ground.

If you bring your reason and faith together, though, you’ll see that millions of souls before you have taken that step. They not only didn’t fall. They were lifted up by grace to the heights of happiness.

So take that step each day by forgetting yourself while serving cheerfully the needs of those around you. †

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