The Overflow | Sojourners

The Overflow

Dutourdumonde Photography/
Dutourdumonde Photography/

… my cup overflows.

-Psalm 23

Women have a lot to offer — and the problem is that we offer it too often and too long and without a break to fill the fountain. Women, at all ages, even girls, are set up to please and to give. Pleasing and giving are wonderful things — especially if they are appreciated and if they matter. When a womb is a fountain it overflows into goodness. When a womb is disrespected and unappreciated, even it can go dry.

I think of my two grandmothers: Lena and Ella. One was generous, the other stingy. One stretched the soup, the other made sure it was thick for her inner circle. One died happy and the other died sad. You may think I’m going to suggest that Lena, the generous, died happy and Ella, the less so, died sad. The truth is both had a certain joy and a certain regret. Women who give a lot to others often wonder when it will be their turn. Women who are as selfish as men with soup and self get hurt less. Women know we are “supposed” to keep the beat and feed the family. We also experience compassion fatigue, time famine, and wonder when what we give will come back to us. We worry that our fountains will go dry.

Feminist scholars have long known that something happens to girls as we come to adolescence. Carol Gilligan tells the great pizza story of a 12-year-old girl ordering exactly the kind of pizza she prefers: anchovies, peppers, sausage, lots of cheese. At 13, the same girl waits to order until she sees what others are having – and asks, “What are you going to have?” At 14, the same girl often says, “I’ll have what you are having.” Loss of choice, narrative agency, freedom to be a self in the way boys usually are, somehow disappears in the adolescent girl. Blame culture and culturalization, and whatever you do, don’t blame girls. They already think they are unworthy enough. When a woman gives to follow the rules or out of a compensatory sense of not being enough, the gift often sours her. Ask Ella. When a woman gives out of a filled fountain, one that overflows with the psalm that promises an overflowing cup, the gift sweetens her and others.

Women, simply, need to be sure to both give and to receive. To give from a full fountain, not an empty well. We need replenishment in order to be plentiful. We don’t need to give to others to be worthy. We are pre-worthy. We are already worthy. We are human beings who want to be less selfish than men. We sing in a different key, the key of the womb and the fountain.

One of my dear friends actually said to me, “you retire when you know you have lost your fastball.” I never had a fastball. I am not a guy, and while I did play softball, I resent having masculine metaphors run my life at my age. I also don’t think productivity is the way to worthiness. Ella didn’t either. Lena did. Fountain disappeared in them both in a certain way. One couldn’t give; the other couldn’t receive. Fountains flow in a pattern of both giving and receiving. I may retire when I no longer have a “fastball.”  I join men in not just being a “giver” and an achiever. I am also a receiver and a sitter on a chair.

I wish I thought that digital natives and millenials and gen xers were going to have it different. I still see women dressing to attract sexual attention. I still see women wondering whom they can please and wondering what others are having.

For women, the issue is receiving God’s love and grace as though it was ours. That is what is missing in our fountain. The issue is also self-care, which is such an ugly hyphenated word for such a wonderful idea. Self-care is generosity toward self and others simultaneously. It is the fountain in its cycle of filling and emptying, sprouting and spraying.

Blame and shame seem to be what most people understand as their stories. I am going to offer another one. We are enough — as we are, where we are, even if we are failing to accomplish all the love in our womb.

We are worthy of thick soup and we are able to thin the soup when we choose to do so. We are worthy of ordering our own pizza. We are fountains that overflow. Women get to choose the life we want, and most of us will choose fountain and flowing, over and over again.

Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper is Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City.

Photo: Dutourdumonde Photography/

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