Monday, July 22, 2013

Regarding What We Do on Airplanes

This morning's reflection on Martha and Mary acquainted me with an idea that, I confess, was wholly new to me--that the story is in fact controversial, that some find the praise of Mary, at the apparent expense of Martha, unfair and dismissive of the contributions of women to hospitality and domestic life. Given my profound ignorance of this debate, I cannot presume to adequately represent the nuances of this criticism. But I would like to consider one version of it, which I take to reflect a nearby complaint that I can certainly understand.

Let us suppose that the complaint goes something like this: Martha's activities in this story reflect true charity. In keeping with her role in this society, and reflecting a deep commitment to neighbor love, she works to prepare her home as a welcoming haven for an honored guest. Meanwhile, Mary selfishly lets her sister do all the work of this preparation, while delighting in the company of this guest. Martha sacrifices for others; Mary satisfies her own desires. Why, then, has Mary chosen the better portion?

Does this gripe sound familiar? Does it not ring the note of ressentiment that we all sometimes feel as we work to maintain our homes, our workplaces, our cities, while others engage in activities that we claim we would like to be doing--as soon as that work is done which is never done? 

The problem with this other-self interpretation of Martha's story, however, is that Mary is not actually focusing on her self. She is listening to a beloved friend, soaking up in rapt attention what he has to teach her, perhaps simply marveling at the peace that he seems to carry with him. This friend tells Martha, in response to her complaint, that she is fragmented by many things. Mary, on the other hand, has focused on the one necessary thing.

Might part of the point be that Mary is focusing on one thing?

Perhaps the divergence here is not between selfish isolation and altruistic sociability, but between dedicated vision and anxious fragmentation. Such fragmentation can make one feel alone when engaged in social activities, or destroy the genuine goods of solitude. Often, in solitude, we can hear the better voices in our heads, or access the well of our creative potential, or feel the resonance of the call of something higher than ourselves. We consume those opportunities when we fragment all our time alone, whether by our electronics, our busy work, or our anxieties. It is like setting fire to what Virginia Woolf called 'a room of one's own.' We must protect such rooms, even if doing so means leaving other rooms untidy on occasion.

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