This time last year, I had just relocated to a new city and was weeks away from getting married. A mentor of mine orchestrated a gathering so that I could meet several young Catholic mothers who might help me transition to the area and to married life.
She introduced each woman by describing her educational and professional background and family makeup. She ended by mentioning one personality trait or talent that each woman possessed.
When the host introduced the last guest at the table, she described her as having the “charism of availability.”
“She has this ability to make herself present to you, even if she has a host of pressing things to do,” my friend said. It was obvious from one glance at her children’s calm and collected manner that they were beneficiaries of that gift.
That description stayed with me over the course of the year. For starters, it made me think of two saints: first, St. Edith Stein, who wrote extensively about how women are particularly attuned to the emotional, physical, and psychological needs of others. When writing about women who are teachers, she claimed, “children … do not need merely what we have but what we are.”
Second, I thought of St. Francis de Sales, who counseled his spiritual sons and daughters to meet the demands of the present moment, even if they interrupted other vocational responsibilities. “Not only is God always in the place where you are,” he wrote, “but God is in a very special manner in the depths of your spirit.”
The description also stayed with me because it struck a chord: I do not naturally possess such a charism, though I very much wish to have it. I often joke that while there exists a “Type A” personality, I could easily be described as “Type A+.”
My mind is always going; I am constantly thinking several steps ahead. I keep a running checklist of things that I can accomplish or achieve, from mundane household chores to new skill sets. I have a list of books to read and recipes to master. I see the day in terms of blocks of time that I need to utilize efficiently to maximize what I can get done. In sum, I can’t sit still.
Some blessings of this personality type include being adept at anticipating people’s needs, keeping an orderly home, and meeting my professional goals and responsibilities on time. But the downsides are that I tend to associate my value and worth with my productivity and efficiency, not with my person.
Maintaining such a high output means being tethered to email, social media, and a to-do list. And it means that I sometimes miss the cues of friends and loved ones who need my presence more than my productivity, who need me to sit with them or listen to them instead of providing something for them.
I know I’m far from alone in struggling with this. A recent piece in The Atlantic entitled, “Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore,” outlines how our current economy is designed so that whether we are salaried or do shift work, we are more in demand than ever before and less available to our loved ones.
The author makes the case that the pressure starts too early, and that the societal cost for such an arrangement is ultimately too high:
“Even if you aren’t asked to pull a weekend shift, work intrudes upon those once-sacred hours. The previous week’s unfinished business beckons when you open your laptop; urgent emails from a colleague await you in your inbox. A low-level sense of guilt attaches to those stretches of time not spent working. As for the children, they’re not off building forts; they’re padding their college applications with extracurricular activities or playing organized sports.”
Throughout my life, God has provided me with invitations to trade doing for being. But when I fail to learn a lesson over time, he replaces gentle promptings with more extreme interruptions and disruptions to the status quo.
That’s what he’s done with me this Advent. In this season of silence and stillness, a season in which the Christ Child literally breaks through time and history to meet us, I am caring for my firstborn child who is a mere 5 weeks old.
This time of transition has rendered me completely unproductive, at least in the ways I was accustomed to. I am confident that any new parent can sympathize. On the days I plan to go for a walk or run an errand, my baby is ravenous, confining me to my rocking chair for hours on end.
When I want to make a home-cooked meal, my baby wants to be held, so I eat what I can with my one free hand. There is simply no way to stay current with news, email, or anything else for professional purposes.
I am training myself to accept that the most valuable thing I can do for my son is to be present to him, to meet his needs when they need to be met, to study his profile, to learn his personality, to marvel at him while he is sleeping, to delight in each new developmental stage he hits.
It’s been a time of unlearning and unknowing, as the mystics say. It has been a time to think about what really matters in the end.
I continue to contemplate the quotation often attributed to St. Teresa of Calcutta: “It is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing.” I have stopped asking myself, “What did you accomplish?” at the end of the day and instead ask myself, “Did you love today?”
Advent is the season in which we are all invited to make space and time for the Christ Child, in whatever way or form he comes to us. Maybe we can all make a New Year’s resolution to accomplish less and love more this year, to cultivate a “charism of availability” by giving the gift of ourselves to those who most need it.
If the Child Jesus is anything like my baby, he will delight in such a gift.