St. Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest who gave up his life for another in the Auschwitz concentration camp. With bravery, he spoke the powerful words, “I am a Catholic priest,” and laid down his life to save a man condemned to death.
St. Maximilian Kolbe’s story is incredibly inspiring, but something dangerous happens when we look at his story and twist the meaning into something different. From this story, we might find ourselves thinking I must give all of myself for others. This belief can become a justification for codependency.
A codependent person is characterized by excessive emotional or psychological reliance on another person. This is a very common struggle for people in Christian circles, for women, and for those raised by a parent who struggles with codependency.
Here’s some signs of codependency:
- Trying to fix another person’s problem
- Offering help when it isn’t asked for
- Saying ‘yes’ when you really mean ‘no’
- Feeling anxiety and guilt when other people have a problem
- Anticipating others’ needs
- Doing things others are capable of doing for themselves
- Trying to please others instead of yourself
- Abandoning your routine or plans to respond to or do something for somebody else
- Not knowing what you want or need or, if you do, telling yourself it’s not important
- Offering unwanted advice
- Overcommitting yourself
- Feeling responsible for other people’s feelings
- Feeling angry when your help isn’t accepted or effective
- Wondering why others don’t do the same for you
At the heart of codependency is the wound that comes from the sin of Adam and Eve: lack of trust. We don’t trust others to take care of themselves, so we try to do it for them. Or we think that we can do it better so we take others’ responsibilities on ourselves, enabling them to not have to be responsible. We think that we have to do it or else no one will. We don’t trust that God will take care of difficult situations, so we step in and offer our own solutions. Or we tell ourselves that God’s intervention is going to come through our own efforts. While God does often work through us to help others, if we find that our efforts to help leave us feeling anxious, pressured, angry, or resentful, that’s a good sign that wasn’t what God meant for us.
St. Maximilian Kolbe’s sacrifice is calling us to something greater than this fixing and controlling of others. It’s calling us to something that is incredibly difficult for most of us: sacrificing for ourselves.
In Mark 12:31, Jesus professes that one of the greatest commandments is to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you struggle with codependency, you probably read this verse and tune out after “love your neighbor.” But that’s not the whole commandment; Jesus is showing us that we have to start from the foundation of loving ourselves. This is not selfish or contrary to Christian love. This is the heart of love. We cannot love others well if we do not have proper boundaries for ourselves. If our yes means yes, but I really don’t want to, I’m just going to say yes and be annoyed and resentful later, or our no means no I don’t mind, but I actually do, I’m just too afraid to say it and I’ll be passive aggressively angry about it later or repress my feelings, that is not love. That is selfishness. People pleasing is an idol that we create because it feels good to be liked and to be seen as helpful. But it is a distortion of love. It is trying to control the image we want other people to have of us.
The gentle voice of the Father is inviting us to let go of control. When we’re used to being in control, it is terrifying to let go and to trust. But God is good and trustworthy. There is a reason why he wants us to let this go. He wants to show us the freedom and the good that comes from setting boundaries. Boundaries help us to say ‘no’ to things that are not serving us, and they allow us to say ‘yes’ to what is truly life giving for us. Christianity is not calling us to say ‘yes’ to every person at all times who asks something of us. Christianity is calling us to discern well from our relationship with God what he is calling us to say ‘yes’ to and what he is calling us to say ‘no’ to. Our ‘yes’ means nothing if we never say ‘no.’
Within this letting go is an invitation to love others exactly as they are, to accept them where they are at, and to choose to love them even if they never change. This is difficult and takes work. It means giving up loving only our idea of who we want others to be and instead loving others for who they truly are and loving them where they are at.
(Caveat: this does not mean tolerating abuse, manipulation, or toxic behaviors. Sometimes this love means I love you, and I’m walking away.)
St. Maximilian Kolbe was able to say ‘yes’ to a great sacrifice that God asked of him. His ‘yes’ to God was one of the most meaningful declarations because he trusted and surrendered control. Giving our last drop serves no one if it leaves us empty. Kolbe didn’t give the last drop. He gave his whole, overflowing cup to Christ and to Franciszek Gajowniczek. This is the sacrifice to which God calls us: to allow our cup to be filled to overflowing.