NewSong: Dependence

I don’t want to be a burden.

This is often seen as the clinching argument in the euthanasia/assisted suicide debate.  When we’re healthy, we can’t imagine anything worse than being incapable and dependent on others.  Better, surely, to be dead than to have to rely on someone else for food, washing, dressing and using the bathroom.

In part this is motivated by concern for the carer.  Taking care of a dependent is hard work.  It’s hard enough looking after children, but not only do you have a reasonable expectation that they will improve, but also the physical lifting and moving of a child is much easier than of an adult.  Taking care of an adult’s more private needs is also potentially embarrassing for both parties. 

Caring for someone is physically demanding, time-consuming, and emotionally exhausting.  Carers are heroes and it is right that we recognise the sacrifices they make on behalf of the needy.

In addition, people may express a wish not to be a burden for fear that they will be neglected, resented or even harmed.  This is a very real experience for many elderly or incapacitated people in our supposedly-civilised society, and these fears should not be ignored.

Yet there is another aspect to the desire not to be a burden which is the real heart-song of our culture; to be dependent is to be humbled, and humility is not one of our core values.

In his recent, excellent, little book The Radical Disciple, John Stott devotes a chapter to the topic of dependence, drawing on his own experience, as well as that of others.  “A refusal to be dependent on others,” he concludes, “is not a mark of maturity but immaturity.”  he illustrates this by reference to the film Driving Miss Daisy:

[The film’s] main plot is the developing psychological relationship between the two chief characters, namely Miss Daisy, the stubborn seventy-two-year-old widow and her African-American driver, Hoke.

The action begins when Miss Daisy crashes her car by putting her foot on the accelerator instead of the brake. Her son, Boolie, tells her that no insurance company will now insure her and that she must get a chauffeur. She refuses but he perseveres until he finds Hoke who has driven a local judge until he died.

In the beginning she will have nothing to do with Hoke. On one occasion she blurts out, ‘I don’t need you, I don’t want you, I don’t like you!’ But gradually as Miss Daisy and Hoke spend time together, they grow to appreciate each other until years later she says to him, ‘You’re my best friend. Really’, and takes his hand.

The film ends on a Thanksgiving Day in the retirement home where Miss Daisy now lives. Boolie and Hoke both visit her, but she insists on monopolizing Hoke. He notices that she has not eaten her pumpkin pie, and as she tries to pick up her fork, he gently takes the plate and fork from her. ‘Lemme hep’ you wid’ it,’ he says. He cuts a small piece of pie and carefully feeds it to her. She is delighted. It tastes good. He feeds her another. And another.

Miss Daisy’s independence could have led to her being confined to her home, alone day in and day out, unable, after a while, to properly take care of herself.  She would then truly have been humbled in everyone’s eyes but her own.

Her gradual acceptance of both help and friendship, however, allowed her to remain living at home for much longer than she would otherwise have been able to, and brought her a caring, patient friend to whom, in the end, she felt closer than to her own son.

Dependence brings new depth to a relationship.  It is incredibly hard, especially in a culture which places such a high value on autonomy, choice and other self-focussed doctrines, to lay these aside and surrender the choices to someone else.  It’s counter-cultural and takes dedication to do with a good attitude, but, as ever, we haven’t been asked to do something God himself wouldn’t.

One of my favourite Bible passages, that is both beautiful and challenging, is this, from Philippians 2:

 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 
 Who, being in very nature God,
      did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 
  but made himself nothing,
      taking the very nature of a servant,
      being made in human likeness. 
 And being found in appearance as a man,
      he humbled himself
      and became obedient to death—
         even death on a cross! 
 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
      and gave him the name that is above every name, 
 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
      in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
      to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus humbled himself.  First, he gave up his autonomy and independence to be born as a baby, limiting himself to human frailties and needs. Then, as if that weren’t enough, he submitted himself to an unnecessary arrest, an unfair trial and an undignified death.  John Stott again:

At the end, on the cross, he again becomes totally dependent, limbs pierced and stretched, unable to move.  So in the person of Christ we learn that dependence does not, cannot, deprive a person of their dignity, of their supreme worth. 

For this is the core of the belief: if I don’t have my autonomy, I don’t have dignity and thus I don’t have value as a human. Tomorrow’s Saturday quote draws on this, so I won’t go on too much longer here, but will leave you with on last thought: humility is the opposite of arrogance; so if dependence produces humility, is that really such a bad thing?

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