Mother Theresa is a Servant

And a hero.  And a saint.  You never hear anything bad about Mother Theresa. [1]

And if you were waiting for me to say that I am going to stand up and start criticizing, you will wait for a long time.  So I’m not criticizing.  On the other hand, I think a great deal of what she has to say in her well-known “…do it anyway” sayings,  (see below) has limits that the sayings themselves do not recognize.  Maybe she did, they they don’t.’

anyway 1I want to say three things in general and then I plan to cherry-pick among the sayings.  The first is to unpack “servant” a little.  Mother Theresa served many people for many years so there is no question of her being a servant in that sense of the term, but I want to contrast it to “steward.”

Servants and Stewards

You can be a faithful servant and you can be a faithful steward, but sometimes you have to choose which is more important.  A servant does “the right things.”  A steward tries to do whatever will produce the best outcome.  

Mother Theresa advocates the right things.  She is in favor of forgiveness, kindness, honesty, happiness, doing good, and doing your best.  If you look at the names of those actions only—that is what a servant would do—you can find no room at all for criticism.

If you look at is like a steward, you see different things.  One of the nasty things that is said about wives who forgive their husbands more than they should, is that they are “enablers.” [2]  What they are doing is generous, maybe even heroic, in each and every instance, and the result is a disaster.  There is a lot of disagreement, of course, about what such a woman should do rather than forgive, but all the things that are proposed are proposed on the grounds that the outcome will be better if they do that.  It is proposed, in other words, on the grounds of stewardship.

Stewards look for ways to achieve good outcomes.  When the master returns from his travels, he is not going to ask whether the person he left in charge hired too many laborers or two few or whether he paid them on time or not.  He is going to ask whether the harvest was what it should have been and whether it is now safe in the barn. [3]

My all time favorite “stewardship” story is Russell Hoban’s A Bargain for Frances.Mother T 6  Frances’s “friend” Thelma is a consistent abuser of the relationship and we can see, in retrospect, that Frances invites her to do that to her.  The center point of this story is that Thelma cheats Frances and then Frances cheats Thelma in return.  Not the servantly style at all.  And Thelma’s response is “Oh.  I had no idea you were capable of playing this game.  Will we be competitors now?”  And Frances’s response is a triumph of stewardship, “No,” she says, “let’s just be friends.”

Thelma had no idea how to be a friend to someone who was begging to be cheated.  Frances had no idea how to stop inviting abuse without violating her own personal norms.  What Frances did, in the terms I am using, is to upgrade the norms from those of a servant to those of a steward.  She gave Thelma a problem Thelma knew how to solve and when she solved it, Frances offered her friendship, a status that years of victimhood had not produced.

You can see why I like that story so much.

Reading the cues

The second thing I want to say before I get to the cherrypicking is that Mother Theresa does not believe that the world is giving cues.  The world is falling short.  It is failing.  Sometimes.

Sometimes people are unreasonable and self-centered.  Yes they are.  People who don’t understand that your motives are pure, will accuse you of having impure motives.  Yes they will. [4]  People will cheat you if they have the chance.  Thelma, pay attention.  They will be jealous of your happiness.  They will quickly forget the good you do.  It doesn’t matter.

But now we come to the crucial one.  Do your best.  Always.  I suspect that Mother Theresa means that you should forgive even when it is hard to forgive, because that is “your best.”  In the world she has constructed, “best” means “most completely forgiving.”  Mother Theresa is a servant.

But “do your best” might also mean “bring about the best outcome.”  Do the thing that will benefit everyone, including your enemy.  If it is easy to do, do it anyway.  If it is hard to do, do it anyway.  If the rewards are immediate, don’t let that dissuade you.  If they are remote, buckle down to work.  Those are steward perspectives.

What the world is like sometimes

Mother T 5One can imagine that “the world” in behaving the way it is behaving, is giving you cues you would do well to pay attention to.  What do you do with someone who will not get the cues?  The dating context is often played for laughs.  The overconfident guy just keeps coming on and the girl finally has to say brutally, what she had been hinting at for awhile.  It would be the parody of a parody to imagine that the clueless pursuer is “forgiving her” for her unresponsiveness over and over until she finally gives in.  She shouldn’t give in.  He shouldn’t be “forgiving her.”  He should, instead, be paying attention to what she is trying to tell him.

That example is there only for clarity.  I don’t mean to imply that the traits Mother Theresa is talking about are all like that.  And yet, I think it would be unwise to ignore the information that comes as signals, rather than as clear communication.  If we ourselves were perfect and if the actions of others had only one meaning, we could afford to ignore all the cues.  The parody on the other side of the spectrum is provided by C. S. Lewis, “She is the kind of woman who lives for others—you can tell the others by their hunted expression.”  All you have to do to get what Lewis is talking about is to imagine the series of actions from the standpoint of the woman and then from the standpoint of “the others.”

The last of Mother Theresa’s proposals is the only one I think we can afford to take at full strength.  Doing your best is always the right thing to do.  Loving others is always the right thing to do.  But loving others, seen from the perspective of the steward, means doing whatever is necessary to achieve the good.


Forgiveness in a situation where forgiveness is only encouragement for continued misbehavior is not loving.  Love will require sterner stuff in that situation, as any parent of teenagers already knows.

Kindness is always good as an intention, but sometimes it is hard to know what kindness requires.  It isn’t always being nice.  If we knew everything and knew that our motives were always pure, we might take a chance on the action that seems kind to us at the moment.  But that is setting the bar very high.

If the kind of “honest” you are practicing works as an invitation to others to cheat you, maybe what you are currently regarding as “honest” requires reconsideration.  And I’m not just talking about lying to the Nazis about the Jews in your basement.  I’m talking about organizing the information situation so that a person who is always hesitating between cheating and not cheating, will be helped to understand just what “cheating” is in this situation and to refuse to do it.  Whatever behavior on your part does that is a kindness you have offered.

Paul had an inkling of this kind of difficulty when he advised, “Do not let your good be evil spoken of.” (Rom. 14:16)  I think that to bring that text into line with today’s essay, I would paraphrase it, “Do not let what seems good to you, be rejected by everybody else.”  Of course it seems good to you, he says, but you need to understand that it isn’t going to seem good to everybody else and in deciding what to do, you need to take that into account.

That sounds like a good idea to me.  It is, maybe, a little more complicated but it is more likely, too, to take you where you feel called to go.

[1]  My own mother, whom we all called “Mother,” rather than any of the more modern terms, was a wonderful person, but she was not wonderful in the Mother Theresa mode.  My mother was strong-willed and opinionated, as well as being loving, generous, and kind.  Quite a few people in the little town where we all lived had had occasion to run across both sides of Mother’s personality, so when I had the honor of giving the eulogy at her memorial service, I thought of a line that I treasured for months before I had a chance to give it.  The line was, “To tell you the truth, when I think about her and Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the similarity that really strikes me is that they have the same first name.’

[2]  What has happened to the wonderful word, “enable” is one of the real disasters of the 20th Century.  I regret it deeply.  On the other hand, it is a very servantly thing to say that “enabling” is good without saying just what it is that is being enabled, so the long downhill slide of “enabled” is understandable.  I still regret it.

[3]  Inevitably, stewards say nasty things about servants and vice versa.  If I gave you “robotic” and “devious” as two of the terms, you would know which one to put where.  It is an argument not worth having.

[4] And the number of times they will be right is truly distressing.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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