If we acknowledge that at some point in life we’re again going to become dependent on others, it would also be logical to expect that at some point someone is going to be dependent on us. I think one reason why people express a reluctance to be a burden is because they think ‘If the tables were turned, would I want to take care of me?’ and most of the time the answer is ‘No Way!’
One factor in this is a loss of a culture of service; we no longer expect to serve one another.
Over the last year, I have heard media reports several times talking about ‘the sandwich generation’. Families, and women in particular, are for the first time, so the story goes, in a position of caring both for young families and elderly parents, often while holding down a demanding job.
This sounds impressive, and a huge cultural shift, until you think for a moment. This is the way it has been for the vast majority of people for the vast majority of history. Women have always worked. Very often they’ve had elderly relatives not just to call in on a couple of times per week, but actually living in the home with them. They haven’t had nurseries or child-minders – apart, of course, from those elderly relatives.
All over the world, all through the ages, this has been the reality of life for all but the richest people. For a few decades the dynamic shifted. We started staying healthier longer, so people who had babies when they were young enjoyed a couple of decades of independence in their 40s, 50s and 60s before having to worry about taking care of ageing parents.
The trouble is, having tasted freedom, it’s incredibly difficult to return to a mindset in which your freedom from responsibility is not the priority; to return to a mindset which expects to serve others.
On a blog a couple of years ago, I joined a discussion which had wandered into the subject of love. I mentioned casually something about love being characterised by service, and one of the other contributors shot back a response along the lines of ‘What??!?!?!!’
I know, from his other posts, that he had not long before lost his wife after a difficult illness. I believe that the marriage had been a happy one. Yet when I used the word ‘love’ and he used the word ‘love’, the concepts we both understood those arrangements of letters to encapsulate were so totally different that they might as well have been two different words.
I can’t remember his exact words now, but the message he sent loud and clear was ‘service is not an integral part of love’.
That’s what we’re up against. People have no concept of serving even their spouses as an act of love, so when we tell people the greatest commandment is to love God and love neighbour, we need to understand that they are not automatically thinking that that means serving God and neighbour.
I will talk specifically about love another time, but I think service is significant enough to be its own category in the New Song. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to demonstrate that he calls us to serve one another. He told us that the greatest among us is the one who serves. He himself is often referred to as the Servant King.
He is not calling us to do something that he himself was unwilling to do. THis culture is in desperate need of radical acts of service, and of people willing to model servant-heartedness in all areas of life. It is humbling. It is hard work, and it is often thankless, but it’s the right way to live.