Pictures of Two Women

I have for you today pictures of two women. It is not uncommon to find pictures of women posted publicly. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to go anywhere without seeing everywhere pictures of women: on magazine covers, billboards, in television commercials, on beer cans. But those images are meant to sell something. Often enough, they are meant to inflame the passions and appetites. These women represent commercial interests. The pictures I have for you are not like that at all.

The pictures I have for you are of two women as beautiful as any in those pictures, but who represent something different. They represent (because they embody) selfless love, dedication, service, strength, care, and wisdom. Many magazine covers blazon those words across their front, but it’s not clear they really understand what they mean. These women do. They are mothers.

The first picture is of the mother of an Honors student of mine. Her son is extremely bright and capable, but he needs certain kinds of help handling papers or turning pages during class. So she comes to class with him every day and patiently sits beside him, making sure he can turn the pages fast enough or pass the class handouts to the next person. I took this picture outside the university chapel where they both had been to daily Mass. She is quiet and rarely spoke in class, even when I would jokingly ask her, “As a mother, don’t you agree?” She would just shake her head knowingly and let the class move on. And yet, though quiet, one sensed that she understood everything going on in class, even when the topic was a more complicated text by one of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

The second mother is the wife of a friend. She is raising five children, including one with Down syndrome. She also has a Ph.D. in psychology and speaks regularly before large audiences and has testified before state legislatures. But do I really need to add those details? This is not a competition for a gold medal. And yet most of us would have to admit we are unworthy to untie their sandal straps. However, I didn’t include these photographs to flatter their vanity, although both are quite beautiful. The pictures are simply meant to show two women who, in their own way, represent all mothers: selfless givers of loving care.

Too much in our modern society encourages us to indulge the illusion of individual autonomy. This illusion is fostered by, among other things, modern “social contract” theories. A man can only assert something as foolish as an original “state of nature” where men come together to form themselves into a community if he forgets his own mother. But with all due respect to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, we do not enter the world as fully formed, rational, self-interest maximizers.

We are dependent rational animals who become who we are because people cared for us. At least one person cared for us enough to carry us in her womb for nine months and go through the painful labor of giving us birth. No one — not even God incarnate — came into this world without a mother. We are beings who draw our existence from others, and so we are called upon to learn to exist for others. Such is the life of a mother. And such should be our life, whether we are mothers or not.

So on this Mother’s Day, let us celebrate our mothers and all mothers. This is not to suggest that women who are not mothers are not to be celebrated. Lord knows, they are celebrated every day on the covers and in the pages of all those “women’s” magazines.

Mother’s day should remind all of us where we came from and what we owe, not only to our own mother, but to the community that provided us food, taught us to speak and to read, protected us with its laws, and gave us a social structure within which we had the peace to plan creatively for our futures.   It should remind us that we are not only rational animals, but dependent rational animals, in need of others as others need us.

And it should remind us as well that, as St. Paul tells us, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). We live in a world that values and valorizes strength, capability, and domination. That world, valuing the things it values, has often enough dismissed women as weak and worthless. And yet, the absurdity of this view is obvious: Where would we be without women — and not just women, but women with the strength to allow themselves to be more vulnerable for nine months, and sometimes for years afterward, so that we can be strong? We would not exist without them.

A society that resists the temptation to celebrate only strength and achievement, and that recognizes the need we have for those who work selflessly year after year to make possible so many of the things we take for granted — our life, our health, our ability to speak, our virtues, our knowledge of the faith — is helping to spread the leaven of Christ. It is for this reason I have always thought it appropriate that Mother’s Day so often comes not long after Easter.

Societies that preach the “state of nature” and think that we can depend upon some form of social contract often produce what they most fear: a society in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Begin with the wrong view of the human person, and you end up with in inhumane society of irrational self-interest maximizers and a dog-eat-dog world. A society that protects and values mothers, on the other hand, is sowing the seeds of charity. God help us if we forget mothers.

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.