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Humans are the most vulnerable and needy at the beginning and end of their lives.

Prof John Wyatt describes (mp3PDF) the feeling of caring for his mother, stricken with dementia:

Even when my mother was tragically affected by dementia she was still on the journey. Close to the end of her life I visited her in the nursing home where she was receiving 24 hour nursing care. It was meal time and I was trying to feed her from a yoghurt pot with a teaspoon. “Open you mouth, here it comes…”. And I suddenly had a flashback – this was exactly what she used to do with me when I was an infant. And now the tables were turned.

We don’t like to be vulnerable and needy.  We are culture-trained to be secure and sufficient – on our own. Wyatt talks about the common phrase reflecting the fear we have of growing old, and thus vulnerable and needy.  “I just don’t want to be a burden to anybody.” (Or stronger, such as: “I simply will not become a burden to anyone!”)

But ‘being a burden’ to one another is one of the things that unites the human family together.  Our precious son, Thomas, was quite a ‘burden’ on the Special Care Birth Unit that looked after him as his lungs developed (having been born 7 week early); and he continues to be a ‘burden’ to us (nappies, feeding, lugging his gear around, etc., etc.)!

It is a cultural myth and a tragic assumption that human worth is only in ability to ‘contribute to society’.  But even given this false notion, those more ‘burdensome’ humans (babies, those with various kind of disability, the elderly, comatose, terminally ill, etc.), actually do contribute to society: they teach and mature the rest of us. I become a better human being having to ‘put up with’ others.  Wyatt continues about feeding his mother:

But in a strange sense this was not an evil, terrible thing. It was part of the narrative of a human life. She was learning more of what it meant to be a parent and I was learning more of what it meant to be a son. She was still my mother although tragically impaired and deformed. My duty was to treat her with love, respect and care.

Abortion and euthanasia are hotly divisive topics, and there are real people with real circumstances involved.  Most agree that the passive examples of ‘letting nature take its course’ ((A teleologically-loaded, and thus other-than-scientific, statement!)) such as saving the mother ahead of the baby and the removal of life-support in some cases are ethical.  But both are, in my view, justified far too often simply because a burden is being avoided. ((Take the common scenario of a sexually active teen girl having a pregnancy she (nor her sexual partner) were not planning on.  Could it be that having to face the responsibility of child birth and child-rearing may be just the thing that could help them not only avoid post-abortion depression, but also help them to mature and grow into responsible adult-hood?))  As we’ve seen, bearing burdens mature and grow us.  We hugely miss out by avoiding them.

Paul, in giving one of his various summaries of the essence of being a Christian, says: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way fulfill the Law of Christ.”

8 replies on “burdens”

Another beautiful post Dale. So true, the reversal that happens as parents and children exchange roles of caregiver and receiver.

I recently visited an elderly relative in a nursing facility. She had fallen in her home and fractured her ankle, now needing the care of trained nurses to care for her 24/7. As she attempted to take painful steps using her walker, I, similar to Professor Wyatt, remembered watching video of your nephew Kenton, barely able to walk at 10 months old. He was using a toy support (walker). He was unsteady and made a too quick move and fell. He received generous praise for giving it a go.

As you mentioned, it makes most of us feel uncomfortable to feel vulnerable and needy. We want to be secure and sufficient on our own. I’m reminded of truth in lyrics of a song that I used to sing years ago…

“No man is an island. No man stands alone. Each man’s joy is joy to me. Each man’s grief is my own. We need one another, so I will defend. Each man as my brother, each man as my friend….”

We do need one another… God wisely made it so, and quoting your comment…’being a burden’ to one another is one of the things that unites the human family together.’

Blessings and our love Dale!

aww, thanks mom (blushes) :)
John Wyatt quotes from ‘no man is an island’ in the talk (which I’ve noticed doesn’t follow the PDF very closely!).

Once can have heart-felt opinions about abortion and euthanasia and back them up with valid personal reasons. That’s fine. But when we extend and exert and impose these opinions on others by means of supporting restrictive laws, then we have crossed a very important line. That the benefit from burdens can often enrich our lives does not counter the flip side of that same coin, that sometimes those burdens carry too heavy a price in suffering. We must also have it in our hearts to let people decide for themselves.

Thanks tildeb,
First on the topic of Laws:
Curious what you might think about the relationship between “personal reasons” and law(s) – or even between “public” reasons and law. Saying that opinions shouldn’t be imposed on others via law is one thing, but it raises the question: aren’t all laws based on “opinions” of individuals or a majority? If the majority of a given society thought (or had a collective personal opinion) that (for example) abortion was always wrong, then what’s to stop that democratic consensus from being reflected in laws?

As a Christian, I will try to shape laws to be as good as possible, by voting according to my conscience, but I will not rely upon laws to ‘keep people in line’. Relationships, love, community, support, and yes, burden-bearing (all of which are essential to the Gospel of Jesus) can change society no matter what the laws might happen to be at any given moment.

Quickly on suffering and letting people decide for themselves:
I agree with Wyatt (in talk linked to) that there is a time to say “enough is enough” – so yes, in a sense I agree with you.

I’m also interested in how our culture affects how we think about responsibility and decision making. We are western individualists, and want total autonomy, whereas much of human history had (still has – i.e. in the majority world) a communal/family view where the individual is not the only thing that matters. Again, my view is not either individual or community, but both.

I’m surprised at you, Dale. Why would you think laws are based on majority opinion rather than secular constitutional rights of the individual? I assume you’re not a proponent of tyranny of the majority.

Also, on what basis should we allow law to reflect some ‘moral’ majority when the issue is often very specific to a different ethical field entirely. To be specific, on what basis should abortion, for example, be considered a ‘moral’ issue rather than a medical one? When do you think the general ‘moral’ framing of a medical issue trumps the specific medical concerns? And does someone concerned with the ‘morality’ of an issue have some greater authority than someone concerned with specific medical ramifications for an individual? On what grounds can this moral framing be justified?

I ask these kinds of questions because there seems to be this general yet as far as I can tell unjustified sense that ethical issues inherent in medical concerns like abortion and euthanasia and stem cell research are widely accepted to be moral issues first and foremost. As moral issues, these concerns are then treated to be open to input from those who may have no connection whatsoever to either the medical or scientific or even personal aspects some individuals face concerning these issues. In other words, why do we grant to plumber Dwayne from Delaware equal say over the ethical issues about stem cell research as we do a medical ethicist? We wouldn’t grant the same Dwayne the equal right to perform a heart valve transplant without very stringent qualifications in medical expertise, yet we tend to think nothing of waving aside this same need for expertise in issues that have been framed as ‘moral’ because of some ethical aspect touted to be a supreme concern and then stand idly by and let some majority group who share only the lowest common denominator in opinion to hold sway. To then frame this general moral agreement of the majority into a restrictive law to be applied to all in areas like medicine seems to me to be tremendously arrogant. How would Dwayne like a restrictive law about what kind of plumbing he can and cannot do based on the framing of some aspect of plumbing as a moral issue?

democracy is democracy. laws (or lawmakers) are voted in based on public opinion. The public/private divide is not so clear. And ‘secular’ constitutional rights are themselves established and protected by laws voted in by people with (privately held and publicly expressed) opinions.

And on your plumber v. ‘medical ethicist’ example, I don’t think anybody would want the medical ethicist’s personal/private ethical stance to dictate what the plumbers wife should do with her body any more than we’d want the plumber to write the laws for an entire nation.

In a democracy, lawmakers are voted in, who make laws representing moral opinions of voters/citizens, whilst (we both hope) being informed by experts.

There is the fact/value distinction to keep in mind as well. A ‘medical ethicist’ is effectively a metaphysician (all ethics is metaphysics) and a physician in one vocation; spanning the fact/value divide in one profession. The bare, naked, ‘objective’/indifferent ‘facts’ of any given medical scenario cannot (by definition as ‘facts’) prescribe ethcially/morally.

By imposing a restrictive law concerning a medical issue on the authority of some supposed ‘moral majority’, are you not in fact empowering all the Dwaynes from Delaware opinion to be held in greater esteem than all the Sues from Seattle who face the same moral questions and consequences but on much more personal level? Why should Dwayne’s moral considerations be able to determine Sue’s medical access? While you may hope that Dwayne’s moral understanding of all the issues involved may be enlightened by expert opinion, you know perfectly well that restrictive laws make any such enlightenment completely unnecessary: someone else will decide for you what is and is not morally acceptable medical access. My question is why any of us go along with this tyrannical charade unless we are equally willing to have our own lives and every facet of its practice equally dictated on ‘moral’ grounds by this faceless ‘majority’?

is your critique of democracy or me? My post did not bring up laws at all – it was simply arguing that being and bearing burdens to/of one another is a good ethic.

All laws are ‘restrictive’ and are made (within democracies) via the democratic process of voting (or voting in representatives). I’ve made it clear that I don’t place hope in laws to bring good to society, but that I’d simply vote according to my conscience (who wouldn’t?). I don’t think your beef is with me.

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