And Mary said, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; / my spirit rejoices in God my Savior./ for he has looked upon his lowly servant. / From this day all generations will call me blessed: / the Almighty has done great things for me / and holy is his Name.”
Luke 1: 44-6
It well may be that nothing is more sought after and yet found more elusive than what we term “self-esteem.” It is psychologically understood to be our subjective evaluation of ourselves, and we have come to recognize it as a significant influence on a person’s behavior. In the Magnificat we hear Mary express a fulsome sense of what we call self-esteem: “From this day all generations will call me blessed. . . .” Yet, it is clear that her evaluation of herself springs in the first case from her deep and authentic humility: “. . . for he has looked upon his lowly servant . . . the Almighty has done great things for me.” As Luke tells the story of Mary, a true sense of self is a sense of call. It is a realization of oneself as a gift of God, whom God has done great things for in one’s lowliness.
One of the reasons that self-esteem is so elusive for us who seek it so assiduously is that we fail to recognize that it is dependent on realizing our very being as freely given to us out of love. As we read in the Xaverian Fundamental Principles, “In calling you God too was completely free.” It is no coincidence that Luke narrates the Annunciation to Mary and her Visitation to Elizabeth as a single story. In the scriptures the gift that is our life is a call and a mission. As Pope Francis points out in Evangelii Gaudium, “I am a mission on this earth. . . .” This being the case, I begin to recognize that my greatest potency as a human person is to serve the world as only I am able; it is in Francis’ terms my unique and God-given capacity to be “with and for others.”
Yesterday I was conversing with a friend around the question, “How do we maintain our sense of mission when we find ourselves still searching for and uncertain about the direction of our lives and the work we should be doing?” As we reflected on the question it emerged that our call, our mission is not merely the work we are doing, it is our very life. True self-esteem and self-satisfaction are really not the same thing. To realize our lives as a call and a mission from God, who looks upon us, a lowly servant, and yet does great things for us, will always contain elements of dissatisfaction. As St. Paul (2 Cor. 5:14) describes it, “the love of Christ compels us.” In whatever situation we find ourselves, we, in our deepest identity, are always a call to love. As St. John of the Cross puts it: “Where there is no love, put in love, and you will find love.”
When we seek what we call self-esteem in the hope that we will become satisfied within our own selves, we are seeking a mirage. Our true nature is that we are always in relationship with Another who is the source of our life and our call. We are, in our very nature, an active instrument of God’s love in the world. Interestingly enough, the more we understand and appreciate this truth, the more we can humbly bear with the truth of our inadequacies for the task in which we are engaged. The other day I was speaking with a young man who was relating to me his journey toward faith. At one point, he described it as a journey of “trial and error.” I could hear in him his appreciation and gratitude for that journey, and for how it would continue throughout his life. Too often we fear that it is making errors that will destroy our sense of self-appreciation. It is not the making mistakes, however, that is the problem, it is the refusal to try, to do what we can.
At the level of our pre-transcendent bodily and functional identity, we long to be complete within ourselves. We long to receive gratification and pleasure from the world around us. The truth is that the Almighty is always doing great things for us, but what God is giving us is call and mission. It is the gift that we are to be giving away. In every honest, humble, and sincere attempt to do this, whether it is successful or not, we realize our true value. When we do, it takes the form of gratitude: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior . . . .”
Pope Francis says that “once we separate our work from our private lives, everything turns grey and we will always be seeking recognition or asserting our needs.” When our life call, our life task, becomes only our work, then our “private lives” become only a search for recognition and gratification. For some “ministers” in the church, this has, at times, led to a compartmentalization of life that wreaked havoc on others and themselves. The life of Mary, her largely hidden personal and family life and the scripturally rare stories of her service to others, was always of a piece. She was a proclamation of the glory and mercy of God at every moment of her life. Whatever our own physical or psychological state, whatever our age and energy level, whatever our personal gifts and limitations, we are a task and a mission to the world. There is always a gift to be offered, a communication of love and mercy to be expressed in the present moment of our lives.
Viktor Frankl, as Nietzsche before him, pointed out that “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” We cannot accumulate for ourselves a sense of self-esteem. We experience gratitude and awe for our own being to the degree that, by trial and error, we do what we can to offer the mission we are to the world. Parents throughout the ages have told their anxious children who are about to take an important test in school that they need do only their best. Somehow, as adults, we forget that lesson for ourselves. As the call comes to Mary, she experiences that she must visit her cousin Elizabeth. It is not failing or making a mistake that erodes our self-esteem. It is not trying, not acting. The striking paradox is that realizing we are unable to be all of what we are called to be and to give all of what we have and yet doing what we can is how we come to truly esteem ourselves as the limited but graced bearers to the world of the great things God has done for us.
My mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off; it is not an “extra” or just another moment in life. Instead, it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self. I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world. We have to regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by this mission of bringing light, blessing, enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing. All around us we begin to see nurses with soul, teachers with soul, politicians with soul, people who have chosen deep down to be with others and for others. But once we separate our work from our private lives, everything turns grey and we will always be seeking recognition or asserting our needs. We stop being a people.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 273