Why do so many women feel obliged to put other people's needs first, even when they don't want to? The self-sacrificing impulse comes from women's history, not their nature. Drawing on conversations with experts, extensive research, and a diverse group of women, this book examines the dichotomy between selfhood and sacrifice. It helpswomen become conscious of self-defeating behavior, while reclaiming the original meaning of sacrifice as an act that can transform and empower.
Stephanie gives an overview of the book:
I first confronted the question of self-sacrifice years ago, when I began volunteering at a shelter for homeless women, run by nuns. The atmosphere there of intense Catholic spirituality, which amplified ordinary altruism to extreme levels, precipitated a crisis so disturbing that it sent me on a quest to understand the complex implications of sacrifice in our culture: how it bears upon our individual lives and on our social acts.
The affair began innocuously, soon after the arrival of a new volunteer named John. One day, as Sister Elizabeth stood in the living room doorway, eating a piece of dried fruit and watching several residents sitting together, John came up behind her. "I believe so much in self-discipline and fasting," he remarked. "Look at these broken women, look at their faces. Couldn't you give up eating sweets out of love for them?"
"Of course I could" was Elizabeth's immediate response. "I love sweets," she explained later, and the idea of giving them up for the sake of the homeless women "was part of my whole spirituality--denying myself so others might benefit." Besides, she said, John's challenge played into deep-seated, pervasive feelings of guilt, of never measuring up to her own expectations, never believing she had done enough.
Talking among themselves shortly after this incident, the five sisters who ran the shelter discovered that John had been speaking in the same way to each of them separately. To Sister Catherine he suggested that everyone stop eating meat and fish, because killing animals was an act of violence; the shelter, he said, should be totally nonviolent, dedicated to creating peace in lives that were victimized by violence. He asked Sister Monica if she couldn't finally quit smoking. Each day he would take one of them aside and harass her about some issue that pressed on her own weak point.
Thus began an insidious campaign to gain control over the nuns, a relentless siege of psychological manipulation and coercion. John was forever preaching at them, two sisters complained to me at the time; he always had the last word and had to be right. His "first victory," as Elizabeth viewed it, was prevailing on them to make the house vegetarian. On the surface this change seemed benign, for the food served to the homeless women suddenly improved drastically. But the underlying issue was "who was oing to have power," and in pursuit of this end John eventually pushed the nuns themselves to the point where--in the middle of a very cold winder--they were subsisting on nothing but fresh fruit and water. ("I was ravenous all the time. I could never eat enough, I was so empty," Elizabeth recalled.) This diet--touted by John as both healing and more spiritual, and accepted by the nuns as a form of fasting--weakened them mentally as well as physically, diminishing their resistance to his continued assaults.
Once, after they had made a painful decision to force a violent, uncontrollable woman to leave the shelter, John painted her as Jesus Christ and Sister Monica as Pontius Pilate. "Don't you realize it's bitter cold out there?" he repeated over and over, wearing them down until they questioned a decision they had originally felt quite clear about. In the same way he criticized every other decision they made that signaled an unwillingness to give without limits. He told Catherine, for example, that she wasn't really living in poverty and never could, especially because she wouldn't give up social work school and her goal of becoming a professional. Heaping psychological abuse on them when they questioned him, sowing doubt in their minds about one another, he broke down their faith in their own perception of reality, and within a few months had created a virtual mini-cult within the shelter‑-which yet remained invisible to most everyone else, including me.
I had no inkling that something strange was going on until the day things actually came to a head. Late on that typically chaotic Monday, when the constantly ringing phone and doorbell vied with the endless demands of the shelter residents, I was waiting impatiently for the nuns to emerge from a meeting upstairs. They were still the fountain of strength I depended on for practical advice and also for the moral energy it took to respond to the desperately needy homeless women. But the sisters had been mysteriously absent all afternoon.
When they finally appeared, each vanished into the swirling needs of the residents and other volunteers wanting help. Seizing my chance, I cornered Sister Sara at the foot of the stairs. But for once she didn't give me all her attention; her eyes had a faraway look.
In their meeting, she confided, the nuns had reached a momentous decision. They had founded the shelter out of a mission to aid the most outcast members of society, whom they saw as the shopping bag ladies camped out on the sidewalks in their neighborhood. In accordance with their vows, the nuns lived in the shelter with the homeless women, ate (until John changed their diet) the same food, and wore mostly the same donated clothing.
But now, Sara informed me, they had decided to go still further in order to truly "become one with the homeless." They would renounce absolutely everything that differentiated them from the homeless, or that prevented their being able to give themselves totally to the homeless. This meant vacations, except the kind that, as she put it, "fill us up again for more giving"; it meant friends; and it meant families.
"I've been loved, and I'm not poor," declared twenty-eight-year-old Sara fervently, explaining her decision to say goodbye to her family and separate from them forever. "Instead of writing to me," she would tell her mother, "write to someone who is poor and love them."
For a moment I was speechless. "That's a lot to ask of someone," I said finally.
"Yes," she responded, "but how else are people going to really help the poor? There are so many poor." Sara seemed to feel that by removing herself from her mother in this way, she was leaving a space that some homeless person could fill‑-and that by this act she was leading others toward similar acts. "Instead of standing on the sidelines and talking about it," she added, "why not do it?"
Why, indeed? Sara had touched a sensitive spot in me. Was I doing all that I could do for the poor? I came to the shelter once a week, but the rest of the time I led my regular life; I hadn't taken a vow of poverty. Yet every Monday I saw women in desperate straits that tore my heart out. How much should I be giving? More time? More money? Part of my apartment? I had been struggling to find a line beyond which I didn't have to give more; and now Sara had wiped all the lines away.
Yet I found myself resisting her logic. "What you're doing is really kind of inhuman," I told her, "though I can see how you feel it's necessary. But do you realize what an extreme act it is?"
She shook her head.
"When I leave here in the evening," I went on, "I always ask myself how it is that I'm going to a home and these women have none. I've always felt that conflict, but I can't do what you're doing."
"Until you do you'll always feel that conflict," Sara answered.
I hesitated. For a split second I felt a vacuum in the air, like an indrawn breath. "Then I might just have to feel it the rest of my life," I heard myself saying. My vocation, I added, was being a writer, for which I needed solitude; and there were other things I wanted and couldn't give up. It was as though another part of me, with a knowledge the first part didn't have, had decided to speak up.
I have never forgotten the disturbing, even horrifying experience of looking into Sara's eyes as she told me how she planned to cut herself off from her mother. They were impersonal, as though she had passed beyond the everyday human realm of family feeling. For Sara, however, this renunciation was simply the next step in the spiritual path the nuns were following.
By definition, nuns embrace sacrifice: they take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. And for this group, creating the shelter was not just a form of social service but part of their spiritual vocation. Since their goal was to "be with" the homeless women, inviting them into the shelter also meant inviting them into a spiritual community in which the nuns and the homeless were one. To Sara it made sense to renounce everything that stood in the way of this oneness.
But I went home that night and cried. In part, I believe, my tears were a compensation for Sara's own failure to feel the pain of what she was doing (I kept thinking of how her mother would react when presented with the instruction to love some poor person in Sara's place). But they also represented relief‑-at having found out that for me, at least, there was some sort of line.
I wrote this book in order to understand an intense, disturbing experince as a volunteer at a shelter for homeless women run by nuns. It took me into wide-ranging realms of history, sociology, mythology, and psychology. Best of all is that quite a few people have told me it made a major difference in their lives.
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