Not infrequently in the initial stages of therapy, individuals comment that they are overly codependent. However one defines codependency (there are countless books and articles on the subject) with the main experiences as the following: difficulty establishing and maintaining appropriate boundaries, difficulty saying “No”, acting ‘nice’ when a tougher love is called for, and feeling overly responsible for the feelings or behavior of others.
Sadly, many Christians fall into the trap of justifying such behaviors as being examples of the call to ‘love one’s neighbor’. A variety of Gospel passages, each emphasizing the Christian call to service, is used to legitimize such behaviors. However, their use more often represents a distortion of the Gospel message.
One of the Gospel parables to which I frequently refer in helping individuals realize their rights is Matthew 25:1-13, the parable of the 10 Virgins. In that parable the behavior of the five Wise Virgins is highlighted as exemplary. And what is the behavior they displayed? It is the antithesis of codependent behavior. When asked to share some of their lamp oil with the Foolish Virgins, the Wise Virgins in effect responded: “No. We are keeping what we have for ourselves. We are not sharing what we have with you.”
On the surface their response can seem downright cold to some. Uncaring. Certainly seems ‘un-Christian’. But it is not! The Wise Virgins were simply remaining committed to their fundamental call to be ready for the bridegroom. Despite the pain, suffering, and panic experienced by the Foolish Virgins, the Wise Virgins remained resolute. They had been prepared with enough oil for their own lamps and to have shared their oil would have put the Wise Virgins at risk of failing to live up to the primary call they had received. They were not being selfish; they were exemplifying enlightened self-interest.
Undoubtedly the Wise Virgins experienced some anguish over the Foolish Virgins’ situation. Yet, they were not disinterested and cold in their refusal to share. No hostility here! Quite the contrary, they came up with an idea: “Quick, go to the market and buy some oil.” In other words, take responsibility for your selves; follow the call you were given. Well, too little, too late for the Foolish Virgins. The parable does not discuss how the Wise Virgins felt seeing the Foolish Virgins miss the wedding procession, but I imagine that they felt sad. Not guilty (that would be codependent) – they did nothing wrong. But sad! A sadness with the accompanying experience of powerlessness in the realization that they had been helpless to prevent the results of the Foolish Virgins’ poor planning.
I have given Marjorie White Pellagrin’s children’s book, Too Nice to a number of clients who have found it helpful in discriminating their poor boundaries (codependency) from more healthy boundaries. The main character (Amy) finds herself repeatedly being taken advantage of by her classmates because she is too nice – codependent. In the course of the story, she learns to establish clear boundaries without feeling bad, and without taking responsibility for the feelings of others, even when they are angry that Amy didn’t do what they wanted her to do. The story is stark and to the point. Being shown from the point of view of a child’s world makes it very easy to get the message. It is the same message we can take from the five Wise Virgins.
* Photo: Old Oil Lamp – Wikimedia Commons
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