I want to live long enough to be a burden to my children.
I heard a Christian thinker I respect say that years ago, and it embedded in my mind, shocking as it is to our sensitivities. After all, isn’t this the shocking reverse of the received wisdom we hear, and say, all the time? Isn’t it selfish to want to be a burden to one’s children?
This sentence came to mind again this weekend when reading this article in The Guardian by Giles Fraser. Fraser writes that he is not enamored with the pain and indignity of death. But caring for others, and being cared for, is love. We are not “brains in vats,” he notes but persons who live in communities and families.
None of us want to be an undue burden to anyone, of course. I certainly wouldn’t want my children, when I’m elderly, to have to suffer in caring for me in the throes of dementia or cancer or paralysis. But when I peel that back further, in my case, the real issue for me is simple: pride.
I want to be the strong provider/protector/dignified image of myself as husband and father. I want to live on with the image in my loved one’s memories of me as in my prime. I don’t want the humiliation of having to be cared for in my weakness, or the fearfulness of having to trust someone else to attend to my needs. I want to be a man, but I don’t want to be a helpless baby in need of parents or a helpless elder in need of my children.
I’m not alone.
Simon Peter of Galilee was happy to serve his Rabbi and lord, Jesus. He was happy to preach and to heal and to cast out demons, to organize events and to camp out all over the countryside. In the fullness of time, he was willing to sword-fight anyone who tried to arrest his King. But when Jesus kneeled before him with a towel and water, Peter flinched. “You shall never wash my feet,” Peter said (Jn. 13:8).
This seems to be humility, doesn’t it? Peter doesn’t want his Messiah to serve him, but instead the reverse. But this isn’t humility. Peter doesn’t want the humiliation of being the served one rather than the server. He doesn’t want the indignity of his filth being seen and touched and washed away.
I’m the same way. I love being the answer to problems. But when I need other people, I am reminded that I am not alone. I am not the solution. I am not the Messiah.
That’s why God gave us a life-cycle, from dependence to dependence. We don’t pay our parents or interview them or recruit them. They are just there when we are born, and we are helpless. And, at the end, despite all our technology, there is something right about falling back on the kindness of friends and family, who are motivated not by our ability to pay them back but by love and fidelity and community.
And that’s why God gives us the church. No person is a church to himself, but is by definition in need of others, with gifts he or she doesn’t have. The church is an organism, a Body. Without dependence on others, we don’t have a Body but an organ in a jar, to be studied or collected or destroyed as medical waste.
In the Body of Christ, there are not people who have burdens and people who don’t. We are to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). We are all a burden to be borne, just in different ways.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and go wherever you wanted,” Jesus told Peter, “but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (Jn. 21:18).
That’s humiliating. That’s pride-destroying. That’s the way of Christ. It was there for Peter. It will be there for me. It will be there for you. But it is not our path alone. Jesus himself went to the humiliation of the cross. He was a “burden” to his mother, who had to watch him drown naked in his own blood. He was a “burden” to the the owner of his borrowed tomb. He was a “burden” to his women friends, who anointed his dead, bloated, bloodied corpse with spices. Who wants one’s friends to see that?
He was no burden. He was loved. He is Love.
I hope my children never have to sacrifice for their father when I’m elderly. But, if they do, I pray I’ll be Christlike enough to crucify my pride and receive their love. And I pray that I’ll be learning to love, and to be loved, all along the way.