More on accepting sacrifices

In re the discussion of accepting gifts, a recent post by Eve Tushnet seemed apropos.  (Note, she’s discussing her experiences working with women at a crisis pregnancy center, and I would prefer any discussion not be derailed by an argument about crisis pregnancy centers, since that’s not the part of the story I’m highlighting).

I’ve been struck recently by how many of my clients are ashamed to go to their friends for help: both material or financial help, and emotional support, the love in time of distress which might be thought of as one of the key purposes of friendship. I’ve written before about my own struggle with the temptation to keep my troubles to myself and not seek help because I don’t want to burden others, so I totally sympathize with this dilemma. But as I’m trying to teach myself, love in a time of need is what you have friends for. St. Aelred’s emphasis on transparent honesty with one’s friends may be considered an antidote to the shame we feel at exposing our own needs and weaknesses.

One of the biggest tasks at the center, at least for someone with my style of counseling, is to help the woman find the sources of love and support already available to her in her own life and community. I try to help her identify and strengthen those connections. And I’ve been startled by how often people will identify a friend as a possible source of desperately-needed strength, and then admit that they’re ashamed to rely on that friend. “Well, if she were in need, wouldn’t you want to know?” I ask, and that helps a bit. But the tight old relationships–not only friendship but the fictive kinship relations of godparenthood and godsisterhood, and maybe even the extended-family relationships of cousinhood–seem to be weakening.

I thought Eve’s strategy of asking the woman to imagine that she and her friend’s positions was a good idea.  Most moral systems (solipsism excepted, I guess) assume that you don’t occupy a special place in the moral system.  Maybe we could call this failure to universalize moral geocentricism?

But since this is an error I fall into, of course I’ve got a sneaky way around it.  I am universalizing moral obligation, I’ve told my friends in debate, but you’ve misunderstood the nature of the universal rule I’m applying.  All I’m saying is: Everyone should give the actions of other people the most charitable reading possible and their own actions the least charitable interpretation.  After all, I don’t know anyone else as well as I know myself, so I must be unaware of some mitigating factors.

I don’t think this is a fundamentally bad approach, just that I tend to take it too far, and that it undersells the extent to which friends may know us better than we know ourselves.

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About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011 and lives in Washington DC. She works as a news writer for FiveThirtyEight by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Iota

    “[…] it undersells the extent to which friends may know us better than we know ourselves.”

    I say “This!” (as a person who has the same problem) . Recently I’m having a small crisis (an oxymoron…) and I’ve been genuinely surprised by how some (not all, but still) people close to me do notice things if I let them (in some sense).

    Also this:

  • Philosoraptor

    Interesting. I tend to agree.

  • deiseach

    Would it help if you got into the mindset that by accepting gifts from others, you are not incurring a debt for their kindness by receiving, but you are instead giving them a chance to show generosity and magnanimity?

    In other words, it’s a reciprocity of the kind involved in a dance, where one partner leads and the other follows, but it takes two to tango, so to speak (though speaking as one of the congenitally two-left-footed who cannot dance, if this analogy makes no sense, ignore it).

    • leahlibresco

      This is actually pretty close to what I try to think now.

      • The Ubiquitous

        Never say no to a mitzvah!