No One’s Indispensable

It didn’t take much time into my 14-day quarantine to realize that I was about to relearn an invaluable lesson I was taught years ago. Due to a potential contact with a person who tested positive for the Covid-19 virus, I was encouraged by my physician to go into quarantine so as to protect anyone around me, in case my negative test results were inaccurate. I got this news this past Saturday with Vespers scheduled just a few hours later that evening. Oh, and this was the same evening during which our bishop would arrive. And he was coming for a funeral that I was to serve with him—the funeral of one of the longest standing members of the parish, who also happened to be the father of not only a brother priest, but a good friend for the past 40 years. I needed to face that everything that needed to happen should–and indeed would–go on just fine, and all without me.

And you know what? They did. The church services went fine, the visitation before the funeral held at the church amid all the restrictions of pandemic went fine. The Bishop was received and cared for, the funeral was served, and everything went fine, thanks to those who stepped in and did what needed to be done (and for whom I’m VERY grateful). Literally everything for which I assumed I was needed went fine…without me.

While I was, of course, very happy that things went well, it also brought a challenge. When something goes so well in a situation in which we are normally integral, perhaps we could all be tempted to think that our importance is just a little less, and that perhaps we aren’t quite as needed as we once thought. In a word, we can find ourselves dispensable. I certainly flirted with that thought. And I don’t think I’m alone. 

My guess is that every one of us has faced a situation in which our own sense of importance is challenged. Some of us, advanced in our careers, see young employees enter the company, doing very well, and we wonder how long until the company decides it doesn’t need our “valuable experience.” Others find themselves in a marriage where a once-dependent spouse discovers a new-found independence. Some have a circle of friends where a newcomer to the group seems to get the attention–and the sense of being needed–that we used to enjoy. And a large percentage of our retirees struggle with depression as they face lives that too often seem devoid of being needed by anyone. Lots of aspects of life show all of us from time to time that it all goes on fine…without us.

In these moments, we learn what can be a hard truth: that in many ways, we’re not as indispensable as we once thought. At first glance, coming to terms with the truth of not being as indispensable as we thought seems sad and depressing. Shouldn’t we all feel wanted and needed? That’s not wrong, is it? Well, the not-so-simple answer to that is yes…and no. And this is where that lesson learned long ago–in the midst of my own struggle with not being indispensable this past weekend–came back to me.

The lesson came from Father John Namie, who directed the Antiochian Village for its first 10 years. In almost all ways he was the most unlikely of candidates to be the director of a summer camp directed for children. He was tough and gruff. He was a straight talker formed in the stress of the crumbling economy of Western Pennsylvania as the steel mills closed. He was toughened by a stint in the Navy, and forged by a relentless dedication to the truths of Orthodox Christianity, no matter the difficulty in accepting those truths.

I got to know Father John when he hired me to be camp counselor in the summer of 1986. He would hire several dozen staff members each summer, knowing that he was “inviting” us to a summer of low-cost, government-surplus cafeteria food, non-air conditioned, mice- and spider-infested rustic lodging in which to spend a long, hot and humid Western Pennsylvania summer. We would spend 22 of 24 hours a day either working or being on call, and doing fairly demanding work, whether that was consoling homesick nine-year-olds in the middle of the night, or trying to keep a cabin of eight rebellious teenagers in line. We were hired to guide our campers through a day which began at 7:00 a.m. (in the summertime!), and included such highlights as scrubbing toilets, sweeping and mopping floors, making one’s bed, and all so that we could get out the door before 8:00 a.m. for the first of two 1-hour daily church services. We received almost a full day off every week before the next group of campers would arrive, and at the end of two weeks, we received our salary which almost totaled $1 an hour. Yes, we knew we were there to serve, and serve under difficult circumstances. And yes, we knew it was a blessing for us. But because of all of the sacrifices we were called to make, we would sometimes be tempted to think that we were pretty important. Even, perhaps, indispensable. And that’s when Father John would remind us, in his deep and gruff Western Pennsylvania drawl, “No one’s indispensable.”

In today’s day and age, with the rampant insecurity that has infected us all (for a multitude of reasons I won’t get into now, but maybe in a future post), thinking of our contributions as being dispensable is a huge challenge, and potentially sad and depressing. But Father John wasn’t being insulting or demeaning; quite the opposite. He knew that if we saw our contributions as indispensable we would be tempted to find our value in our contributions, what we could offer. This can have two potential bad outcomes. On the one hand, we can become prideful, overstating the value of our particular contribution in any given situation. On the other hand, we can risk despair which could creep in when those contributions weren’t needed. Father John taught us the skill of how to traverse this tightrope suspended over both of these bad outcomes. That most narrow of ways is called humility. Humility, as we learned from Father John, is not looking down on oneself, nor minimizing one’s worth. It is realizing both the limits to and the extent of one’s worth, and the proper Source for calculating our value. 

Ironically, what allows us to accept that limitation on our value–and do so securely and without sadness and depression–is the extent of our worth, which has nothing to do with what we produce or the contributions we make. It is none other than God Himself who sets the extent of our value. He does so by valuing us with the limitless value He has decided to place on us, simply by being the people He has created us to be. Humility does not tie our worth to the rising and falling value of our contributions–sometimes we’re needed, but most times we are much more easily replaced than we would like to think. We can accept that we are, in fact, dispensable in what we offer the world, because we can know we are indispensable to God, just by who we are, and not what we do.

So, yes, I’m learning an old lesson, and I hope it’s one you’ll learn along with me. Do you feel like you’re indispensable? Take a walk through a cemetery and see how easy it is for the world to forget one’s contributions. Feeling like you’re dispensable? Read what God says about us in the Holy Scriptures, listen to the words we say about Him in our worship of the “lover of Mankind”, and observe what a marvelous world God has given us, surrounding us with beauty, comfort and love. He shows us that without doing a thing to earn it, and while it is very true that “No One’s Indispensable,” we are as indispensable as they come.