Hello! This is corps member Elisabeth Ivey. I’m sharing a reflection I’ve had about my journey through a year of service. I want to make clear that my interpretation of the following Biblical passage is just that – an interpretation. I welcome dialogue about the passage and any part of this post. You can comment below!
A couple weeks ago, the Scripture reading came from Acts 16, telling the story of the slave girl possessed by a spirit that allowed her to prophesy:
16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.
19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
Though I’ve heard this story before, it’s been sitting with me these past several weeks. I’ve thought a lot about this woman and this: her healing resulted in a direct loss of value for the people who owned her and benefited from her.
I’ve often joked that I should add “anxiety” to my resume because it manifests in behaviors that benefit many workplaces. My anxiety means that I’m early wherever I go. The clock in my car is set three minutes behind so that I don’t show up too early. And before I even leave, an event will slip into my mind hours before it starts, ensuring that I can’t get anything else done for the day.
My anxiety makes me meticulous.
My anxiety pushes me to perform well.
My anxiety makes me want to please everyone around me with disregard to my own feelings.
I remember the first time I told someone “no” at the beginning of this service year. A friend asked me to speak on a panel for an upcoming event, and I hesitated because the request came on the tail end of a week that I’d already spent visiting and speaking to classes. I was exhausted. My fatigue came not just from the preparation but from the mental energy it took to overcome the intense and pervasive anxiety that accompanied me when I spoke in front of people. Throughout my senior year in college, I pushed through it. I wanted to grow, and so I shouldered the anxiety and exhaustion that came with these opportunities.
After graduating, I realized I could choose differently. While I still wanted to face my challenges, I realized that I could also choose to care for myself. Distanced from the intensity of academia, I gained enough perspective to understand and identify the unhealthy dynamics that pattern many systems, urging people to push themselves to the limit.
Still, I hesitated to say “no” because I respected this person. I cared for them, and I didn’t want to let them down. And even as I told them I couldn’t help them, I inwardly cringed as I opted not to make up an excuse (“sorry, I already have a meeting at that time”) but to deliver the news with the truth: I just didn’t have the energy to withstand the anxiety.
I fretted after sending off the email, convinced that my decision made me fall from this person’s good graces. In this past year, I’ve struggled with feelings of guilt as I’ve accused myself of being stingy with my time. It’s true – after saying no once, it’s easier to say no again, and sometimes I can veer towards the other end of the extreme where I’d rather isolate myself from the constant demands that wiggle into my life even after college. Balance is a process.
I also remember one of the first times I didn’t arrive to work exactly on the hour or half hour, but a couple minutes past. I’m fortunate to have a flexible schedule at my job placement (so I could adjust my schedule as needed), but I mourned what felt like the loss of perfection. I’ve felt that uncomfortable sense of loss in other areas of life, as I’ve eased my grip on the need to have everything ordered in a particular way. Even though it allows me space to breathe easier, I worry about losing my grasp on the “strengths” that helped me function in the workplace, gaining me praise even as I struggled with the burn-out.
I think of that girl, the one whose struggle looked like a strength, like an incredible ability that her masters exploited. I think of how her healing meant that according to her masters, she lost her value. And I wonder how she felt. Relieved? Afraid? Conflicted?
Through this year of service, I have struggled, healed, and struggled again. I’ve adapted to new situations and set boundaries to preserve my well-being. I’ve had to face a worldview that I’ve developed through my lifetime that service means self-forgetfulness. To serve others meant I couldn’t serve myself, that I must forget my own needs. As I continue to wade through these murky views, I keep urging myself to settle into the grace I need to acknowledge that my needs are a part of my humanity and my imperfections are not unforgivable.
These changes haven’t come easily, but even as I’ve experienced the growing pains of guilt (for not throwing myself into every possible opportunity) and shame (for failing to live up to a high standard), I’ve also been able to see that I’ve been healthy. In setting boundaries and pursuing healing, I may have limited my value to the world, just like in the story when all the masters cared about was their loss of money.
It makes sense.
The more we live into our healed selves, the less we’ll function in a broken world. Rather than making us worry about falling behind, perhaps the shift should rather incentivize us to invest in the healing of the world alongside ourselves.
Above image by halfrain, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.