Nearly fifteen years ago, Swiss analyst, Alice Miller produced a little essay that made a big impact, The Drama of the Gifted Child.
For her, the gifted child is not the kid with the extraordinary intelligence quotient, Einstein’s kid. In Miller’s view rather, the gifted child is the child who is, from the womb onwards, extraordinarily sensitive, the child who, among other things, picks up, internalizes, and lives out the expectations of others. Such a child, early on, becomes a pleaser and often goes through life renouncing his or her own needs so as to try always not to disappoint anyone.
Too often, however, such a child grows into an adult who, already in early mid-life, in her thirties or early forties, ends up complaining: “I’ve lived my whole life for others. I’ve never really made my own choices. First, it was my parents, everything I did as a child was to please them, to not disappoint. Then it was my teachers, my coaches, my church, my peers. Always it was a question of letting go of what I wanted so as to meet others’ expectations. The same thing in my marriage, my needs always got sacrificed so as not to disappoint my spouse. I’ve never been able to do things just for me. I’ve spent my life victimized by others’ expectations. And, through this all, I have become a timid person, good and virtuous, though not by choice but by conscription and weakness. I’m in mid-life and I’m like a child, not virtuous really, just lacking in nerve to ever do what I really would want.”
Whether these words are spoken on a therapeutic couch or at a friend’s coffee table, they get uttered a lot. This is a common lament, the complaint of a good person who, after years of giving, starts to feel victimized and begins to let bitterness seep into her or his life.
But am I a victim when I feel like that? Is the gifted child a victim or is she virtuous?
There are two ways of looking at this: On the one hand, if I make such a lament, I am confessing lack of nerve, lack of strength, a weakness – “I’m too weak in the face of the expectations of others to live out my own internal integrity.” On the other hand, I am confessing too to a certain selflessness: “I have been living unselfishly all these years.” Not a bad thing, viewed this way.
But is it selflessness or weakness? Can it be both? Where does the gifted child end and the sacrificing Christ begin? What is the distinction between victim and virtue?
That distinction is not so easily drawn. When is one a victim and when is one giving one’s life for others? At the level of outward appearance, simple phenomenology, this can be indistinguishable. Outward action is not the criterion, inward freedom is. I am victim when somebody takes my life and I am practicing selfless virtue when I freely give it.
Jesus illustrates this. As he sacrifices freely his life, renouncing consistently his own needs in the face of the needs of others, he keeps repeating, as if a mantra: “Nobody takes my life from me. I give it freely.”
Jesus was not a victim, he made that plain in the Garden of Gethsemane and again before Pilate. He chose to lay down his life. It was a free decision, made in love. Nobody can take by force what one gives for free.
It is from this, Jesus’ example of a love that freely sacrifices unto to death, that we must learn. The key to move beyond being and feeling the victim lies in this since all of us, like the gifted child, constantly find ourselves unfree in the face of others’ demands. Nobody escapes the unfairness of life and nobody, other than a complete monster, goes through life without ever putting other people’s needs ahead of his or her own. There are many places where life must be freely laid down or it will be forcibly taken. It I never freely give away my life, I will forever be victimized because, daily, someone will be taking it.
Hence my choice, at least in terms of choosing adulthood and morality, is not between being the gifted child who lives for others or living life for myself. My choice is rather between being the gifted child or the giving adult. The gifted child gives, not freely, but because he or she is too weak to resist the request. The action is unselfish, but the result is bitterness. The giving adult gives freely, not out of weakness, but out of strength. That action too is unselfish and the result is participation in the joy of Christ.
The challenge of the gospel is in the end the challenge of simple human growth, namely, to move from bitter victim to joyful giver, from gifted child to giving adult.
Hopefully at our burial, none of us will request that they play Frank Sinatra singing: I DID IT MAY WAY. Anyone who actually lives out that philosophy and forever insists on his or her own way will probably not have a very large contingent of family, friends, and community standing at his or her grave full of gratitude. Our family and friends will receive our lives in gratitude precisely when we do not always “do it my way”.