Of Elders, Character, Christ’s Passion, and Blessing

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

At a workshop several years ago, a woman shared this story: She was the mother of four children and, while they were all still young, at home, in school, her father, already a widower, suffered a stroke that left him severely debilitated. He has unable to take care of himself and needed assistance.

Being the dutiful daughter, she had him move in with her own family, at great inconvenience to her husband and children. So many of their family routines had to be adjusted and re-arranged to accommodate her dad’s presence. Their life changed radically.

At a point, her father’s condition deteriorated to the point where she had to take him to a hospice where he could receive full-time care. But, even then, she still needed to visit him daily, often having to take one or more of her children with her. This went on for seven years. Daily, she and one or other of her children would have to go and spend some time with her father.

During those years, many times, in large and small ways, she apologized to her husband and children for the inconvenience this was causing them. Eventually her father died. Several years after the funeral her eldest son, now in college, said to her: “You know, mum, all those years that we had to arrange our lives so much around Grandpa and his illness – that was really a precious time. That was a great gift to our family!”

How can the life of someone like that, someone whose life and existence can weigh on us like a burden, be a blessing? How are we gifted by having people like that in our lives?

The answer is part of a deep human and spiritual mystery, a part of the secret of love itself. We give life to each other not just in what we actively do for each other, but also, and sometimes especially, in what we passively absorb and are unable to do. Helplessness brings a special presence into a room. We give life through our activity and we also give life through our passivity. We bring a blessing to the sick when we visit them, but we also leave their presence blessed by having visited them. There is love in giving, just as there is love in receiving.

And the gift does not always look or feel like a beautifully wrapped Christmas present. The gift can, initially, seem like a burden, an unwanted imposition, an awkward inconvenience, an unfortunate duty. But those feelings themselves eventually contribute to the depth of the gift.

We see this mysterious aspect of love illustrated in the Gospels when they describe how Jesus gave his life and his death for us. Each of the Gospels has two very distinct parts: The early parts of the Gospels describe Jesus’ activity and how he gave his life for us by what he did for us. The latter part of the Gospels describe Jesus’ passivity and how he gave his death for us by what he passively absorbed for us. Appropriately this latter part is called The Passion (from the Latin, passio, meaning, passiveness.)

Today, we struggle to understand this, both intellectually and existentially. Sadly, today, we tend to define life and meaning almost solely on the basis of health, productivity, usefulness, and what we can actively contribute to others. What can we bring to the table?

And so we ask ourselves: What do the elderly who can no longer live on their own contribute to our lives? What meaning is there in the continued existence of a person living with full-blown dementia? What does someone who is mentally handicapped bring to the community? Why prolong the life of someone who is in the final stages of a terminal illness? And: Why keep a debilitated Grandpa in the house when he disrupts our normal family life?

The answer: Because a person in this condition, at some deep level, is giving us a precious gift, namely, depth and character.

Whenever a culture debates about the merits of euthanasia it is an infallible sign that we no longer understand this.

I like James Hillman’s take on this: Productivity is too narrow a measure of usefulness, disability too cramping a notion of helplessness. An old woman may be helpful simply as a figure valued for her character. Like a stone at the bottom of a riverbed, she may do nothing but stay still and hold her ground, but the river has to take her into account and alter its flow because of her. An older man by sheer presence plays his part as a character in the drama of the family and neighbourhood. He has to be considered, and patterns adjusted simply because he is there. His character brings particular qualities to every scene, adds to their intricacy and depth by representing the past and the dead. When all the elderly are removed to retirement communities, the river flows more smoothly back home. No disruptive rocks. Less character too.