“Jesus… got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’… He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you… Whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.’” ~excerpts from John 13:1-20
“Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.” These words by Richard Gillard are from one of my favourite* hymns, and have recurrently challenged me in my interactions with others.
The first part of the verse comes naturally to many Mennonites. From barn raisings to Mennonite Disaster Services, we love to help people; as Jesus was a servant to others, so shall we be. On the other hand, Mennonites can be stubbornly independent, actively working to not be a bother. The Protestant work ethic is in our blood. The second half of the verse is not so easy. Of course, this is a huge stereotype, but it is often accurate. It is much easier to serve than to be served. We may claim humility to explain our “selflessness,” but in fact, it requires much greater humility to accept help for oneself, and pride often stands in our way.
In John 13, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. I often find myself like Simon Peter in the above verses, adamantly refusing the assistance of others, believing myself unworthy of their assistance. However, after Jesus has washed their feet, he commands them to “wash one another’s feet.” He doesn’t say to only “Wash the feet of those who need help,” or “Wash the feet of the poor.” Jesus tells them to wash each other’s feet—to serve the others and accept help for themselves as well. As Mennonites, and as Christians, we strive to live as Jesus did. To walk in His way requires us to not see ourselves solely as servants, elevating ourselves as self-sufficient, but to have the grace to let others show God’s love to us. This also applies to our relationship with God, for when stretched too far, our love of action can prevent us from accepting God’s grace and love.
This refusal to accept help often transfers into my relationships with others. In many friendships, I have emotionally supported the other person, while not opening up myself. It is relatively easy—to a point—for me to support someone else. It takes considerably more strength, at first, for me to allow myself to be supported. I tell myself that people don’t care, that they have enough troubles of their own without my adding to the load. But the truth is, mutual sharing strengthens a friendship. My one friend recently commented in dismay, “You never tell me anything anymore!” I tried to shrug it off, though I knew it to be true. I was so caught up in helping her and listening to her, that my struggles hardly seemed worthy of attention. I didn’t want to worsen her pain by adding to it, but instead, I made her feel distanced from my life.
In some cases, fear of judgement prevents me from sharing. Though I try to remind myself that I would not be judging someone else for the same thing; that if they do judge me, I shouldn’t be investing too much into the relationship anyways; and that I would much rather my friends ask for help, rather than keeping their pain to themselves, I still tend to do just that. I hold everything in. I judge myself before they even have a chance to prove me wrong.
Where does this judgement come from? Throughout my life, I’ve built up a lot of self-hatred, fear, and shame. So much shame. These feelings have developed around a variety of factors, including my sexuality, body image, and a plethora of personal circumstances I won’t discuss here. All of this negativity directed towards myself convinces me that I am a burden to everybody around me. When people notice that something is off and try to help—”why are you scared of everything?”—”you should seek counselling”—”you don’t need to apologize so much!”—I brush them off and add my latest failure to be “normal” to my list of shame. Once I see myself as worthless, unloveable, awkward, and narcissistic for not being able to let it go, I am unable to accept the grace and love I feel I don’t deserve. I force myself into silence by the sheer power of self-doubt. Asking for help is nearly impossible.
Even when people come forward offering hospitality, I find it difficult to accept. I recently prayed for a chance to talk an individual I know, because I was hesitant to approach them directly. However, even when they explicitly extended an invitation, I panicked and turned them down. I lived for so many years training myself to be as private a person as possible. Think Elsa in Frozen: “Don’t let them in; don’t let them see. Be the good girl you always have to be. Conceal; don’t feel. Don’t let them know.” I love Disney, and cheesy as it may be, that line sums up my relationship with my emotions, sexuality, and other factors that contributed to the shame. I didn’t even want to let myself know! My tendency to hide from people continues to this day.
Of course, one can only hold ever-escalating emotions for so long until they turn into spontaneous midnight crying sessions on a bridge with your best friend. Which isn’t ideal, as you end up dumping years worth of emotions onto your friend, and concerned police officers come over to check in on you. You just wanted to go on a nice walk, and suddenly in an hour you’ve unloaded fifteen years worth of frustration, anger, and shame on your poor friend. Yet in reality, you’ve barely scraped the crust, much less the mantle.
Repressing things for that long also means that things take longer to deal with. Problems with simple fixes have become compounded under not-so-simple problems, and you end up figuring out many things the hard way. After sifting through years of convoluted crap, you finally acknowledge a detail of yourself that, had it not been hidden and tainted with so much negativity, could have been a relatively benign discovery twelve years ago. One’s sexuality, for example. Had I and the people around me been more open to conversations on sexuality; had I not been sneakily exposed to the idea that “homosexuality is wrong;” had society told children they might feel attracted to various genders and sexes, rather than perpetuating heteronormative images and assumptions, I might have figured things out at age eight, rather than age twenty.
I’ve over-apologized for years. Bump into a person—”sorry.” Bump into a table—”sorry.” “Stop apologizing!”—”sorry… Sorry!” Tonight it was the dishes dance: I’m using the sink to wash something that my housemates all use. My friend comes in wanting to wash a mug. “Sorry… sorry,” I sputter, awkwardly trying to move out of the way. She grabs some soap and heads to the other sink, reminding me not to apologize so much. “Sorr—” I was apologizing for being in the way while washing the house’s dishes. So essentially apologizing for fulfilling basic life tasks that in fact benefit the person I was apologizing to. Is this where my fear of being open has led me? To a place where my very existence becomes reason for apology? These types of apologies are a daily, sometimes hourly, occurrence.
Because of my self-shaming, I tend to doubt others’ sincerity. “Why would they care?” My mind mocks my emotions, telling me they are no big deal. Even writing this blog is difficult. I think it is important that people understand how people who struggle with anxiety experience life. The irrationality of its hold on our minds can be difficult to understand. At the same time, I don’t want to burden people with the words of yet another depressed writer. I recognize that this is ridiculous. I am not forcing anyone to read my writing, and people who are reading it are likely interested, or they would have stopped reading. Yet my mind still constantly doubts the legitimacy of this pursuit.
In this process of starting to come to terms with my sexuality, I have suddenly been forced to reach out to people as a tool of survival. God is using this unravelling of all the negative things I’ve told myself over the years to help me become more open with others, and more open to Him. My self-sufficiency and shame prevented me from fully forming relationships where I could be my truest self. Yet even as I learn to trust others as I trust myself, I continue to struggle. I remain closed off to my friends, though I am working towards openness. I’m willing to walk alongside them; I pray I can have the strength and grace to let them also walk with me.
*I have many, many favourite hymns—I’m Mennonite after all!—but the words in this one prove especially challenging. You can listen to it here.
Will you let me be your servant,
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I may have the grace
To let me be your servant too.
We are pilgrims on a journey,
We are trav’lers on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load
I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the night time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you,
Speak the peace you long to hear.
I will weep when you are weeping,
When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we’ve seen this journey through.
When we sing to God in heaven,
We shall find such harmony,
Born to all we’ve known together
Of Christ’s love and agony
Will you let me be your servant,
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let me be your servant too.
~Richard Gillard, 1977