Sieger Koeder, “The Washing of the Feet”
Carmen, in her casually incisive way, responded to my last post on working as a nanny with the following:
My question for you is this: how does being an actual servant change the way you see the Christian vocational call to servanthood?
This made me realize two things. First, I’d done that thing I do where I talk around a topic, narrating all the peripheral events and the emotions it brings up, without, somehow, ever actually addressing what I’d set out to. And second, answering her question was going to require a new post of its own.
What has my experience as a servant taught me about Christian servanthood?
First off, I’ve learned a lot about the mutability of human power structures, about their underlying falseness and even absurdity. People react fairly differently when I tell them I’m a nanny, versus when I used to tell them that I was a Ph.D. student at a high-prestige school. It’s absurd. I’m the same person–at least, mostly–as I used to be. I still like knitting and sewing, cheap red wine and expensive beer, and talking really loudly about theology on the train. (Sorry, people on the Red Line who didn’t really care about Open Table at 10 last night.) There are some ways in which the Mary of today is fairly different from that of two years ago–I have a lot less data on languages and biblical scholarship at my fingertips; on the other hand, I’m better at cooking healthy meals quickly and with the minimum of pots to wash, and I know a lot more about the range of human responses to suffering. But when people first meet me, their expectations are set in clear ways by my job title. And sometimes (not always, but often enough) actually getting to know me isn’t enough to overcome that powerful image of what a low-income domestic employee must be like.
This should not be new information for me. There is no reason for me to be all shocked and pearl-clutchy that people might make assumptions about my intelligence, ambitions, and drive based on my work. This was something I thought I already knew. And yet, I myself bought into the system. I made being a scholar the center of my identity. I thought I was detached about the academy and my place in it, that it wouldn’t matter to me where I was as long as I was doing good work, but (I have ruefully come to understand) I was one of the least detached people I know. So it’s been very difficult, but quite salutary, to learn–with the intimate knowledge of experience–how fallible, arbitrary, changeable, and ultimately absurd all of these power roles are.
Second: I’ve learned that I actually do like taking care of people. I sort of knew this already–it’s why I applied for the job–but it’s not just that I like the kids. I like taking care of the family. I like that my role makes the kids’ lives better (caregivers are better at it when they have breaks! Who knew!) and the adults’ lives easier. Being someone who helps others become all that they might be–this is my vision of personal vocation, and it’s good to be doing it in this immediate and concrete way.
There’s a line from Gosford Park that I have been thinking of while planning these posts. At the very end, Helen Mirren’s character, Mrs. Wilson, is speaking to a young woman in service for the first time:
What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation. And I’m a good servant. I’m better than good. I’m the best. I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.
Without spoiling the plot, I’ll just say that this line is spoken in great bitterness and vexation of spirit. Mrs. Wilson takes pride in her skill, but you can feel, underneath the quiet resignation, rage that this anticipation of others’ needs has taken up her whole life. (Side note: Helen Mirren and everyone in that movie are SO WONDERFUL. GO SEE IT [again, if necessary]. It’s on Netflix!) But honestly, I don’t share her bitterness. I like being able to tell what people need, and being able to give it to them. And being good at this seems worth working toward.
Third: I think the difference between Mrs. Wilson and myself has to do with mutuality. My work is (at least much of the time) joyful, because the family I work for also takes care of me, in big and in small ways. They pay me a fair and steady wage that includes paid vacations and sick leave. They respect me as a person and, ultimately, as an equal. They have gone above and beyond in their support of me during my ongoing health issues. They don’t ask me to do work that they themselves are unwilling or unable to do. These things matter. And also: the kids love me. They are happy to see me, and they miss me over the weekend. They freely share with me what children have to offer, their goofiness and sly humor, their interminable and confusing stories, their hopes and fears, their desire to hang out with me, and their trust that I think they’re awesome. Which, conveniently, I do.
Mrs. Wilson is not so lucky. Her existence is wholly devoted to serving her employers, without their ever recognizing her humanity or caring about her well-being. Her sacrifices go unnoticed, taken for granted. Even that which makes her a good servant, her ability to anticipate what people will need, receives a cursory “I don’t know what we’d do without you” (a phrase which, it seems to me, tends to erase rather than recognize work). She is necessary but not appreciated. I’ve worked in these situations (cough *Starbucks*), where I was taking care of others without being taken care of in turn. No one knew or cared what it cost me to work grueling shifts at unpredictable hours, during a time when I was barely hanging on. I wasn’t being paid enough to support myself. Whether customers were polite or rude had, it was clear, virtually nothing to do with me. I felt trapped: I didn’t know how and when I would be able to find another job, but the work I was doing was physically exhausting and emotionally depleting. With mutuality of care, I find pride and satisfaction in taking care of others. Without it, I feel myself to be exploited.
Vermeer, “Diana and her Companions”
The passage I think of when I think of Christian servanthood is always the pericope from John 13, usually read at Maundy Thursday services:
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 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…
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, 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. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (John 13:1-5, 12-17, NRSV)
What I like about this passage is that Jesus isn’t erasing or eliminating or ignoring structures of power and authority. They exist. They are a fact, and he’s not trying to make them go away. He talks, indeed, about the ways in which his life has conformed (in some ways) to power roles: “‘You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am.’” The disciples are his true and intimate friends, but they are also his disciples, his students, and those divisions are real. Real, but, as he shows, not solid. Real, but not immutable. Jesus can be their teacher, the example they strive to emulate, and also the person who cares for them in these inescapably awkward and close ways. Jesus does not erase power; he plays with it, upends it, shows the gap between the roles we give one another and the true tender selves who inhabit those roles. In his hands, power structures become the very locus of intimacy, where before they were the barrier to it.