Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

"I want to burden my loved ones"

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jun 09, 2006

"Living ... only as a burden" reads the photo above, part of the early Nazi propaganda for the elimination of "useless eaters" -- a campaign that was much more widely admired when it was in operation in the 1930s (before the Blitzkrieg and the Holocaust made Nazism a term of universal opprobrium) than it is fashionable to recall today.

A few days earlier I mentioned the deceptive appeal to "unselfishness" as part of the increasing social pressure to legalize euthanasia: ostensibly to eliminate suffering, in reality to eliminate those who suffer. Fifteen years ago the moral philosopher Gilbert Meilaender published a meditative essay in First Things that gently but deftly exposes the sentimentalist fallacy behind this appeal. He titled it, provocatively, "I Want to Burden My Loved Ones" (FT, October 1991, pp.12f). It's available as a PDF file here, and very much worth reading in its entirety. The excerpts I give below are pruned pretty drastically and leave out some important moves.

Meilaender begins his reflections by recounting a workshop on "advance care directives" he attended, in which many of the participants, having expressed their willingness to spare their own children the hardships attending end-of-life decisions, said something like: " I don't want to be a burden to them, and I will do whatever I can in advance to see that I'm not." He writes:

[A]s the workshop wore on, I found myself giving it only a part of my attention, because I couldn't help musing on this recurring theme. Understandable as it surely is in many respects, there is, I am convinced, something wrong with it. I don't know how to make the point other than a little too crassly -- other than by saying that I want to be a burden to my loved ones. But, rightly understood, I think I do.

The first thought that occurred to me in my musings was not, I admit, the noblest: I have sweated in the hot sun teaching four children to catch a hit a ball, to swing a tennis racket and shoot a free throw. I have built blocks and played games I detest with and for my children. I have watched countless basketball games made up largely of bad passes, traveling violations, and shots that missed both rim and backboard. I have sat through years of piano recitals, band concerts, school programs -- often on very busy nights or very hot, humid evenings in late spring. I have stood in a steamy bathroom in the middle of the night with the hot shower running, trying to help a child with croup breath more easily. I have run beside a bicycle, ready to catch a child who might fall while learning to ride. (This is, by the way, very hard!) I have spent hours finding perfectly decent (cheap) clothing in stores, only to have these choices rejected as somehow not exactly what we had in mind. I have used evenings to type in final form long stories -- longer by far than necessary -- that my children have written in response to school assignments. I have had to fight for the right to eat at Burger King rather than McDonald's. Why should I not be a bit of a burden to these children in my dying?

This is not, I have already granted, the noblest thought, but it was the first. And, of course, it overlooks a great deal -- above all, that I have taken great joy in these children and have not really resented much the litany of burdens recited above. But still, there is here a serious point to be considered. Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other -- and to find, almost miraculously, that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens? Families would not have the significance they do for us if they did not, in fact, give us a claim upon each other. At least in this sphere of life we do not come together as autonomous individuals freely contracting with each other. We simply find ourselves thrown together and asked to share the burdens of life while learning to care for each other. We may often resent such claims on our time and energies. We did not, after all, consent to them. (Or, at least, if we want to speak of consent, it will have to be something like that old staple of social-contract theorists, tacit consent.)

It is, therefore, understandable, that we sometimes chafe under these burdens. If, however, we also go on to reject them, we cease to live in the kind of moral community that deserves to be called a family. Here more than in any other sphere of life we are presented with unwanted and unexpected interruptions to our plans and projects. I do not like such interruptions any more than the next person; indeed, a little less, I rather suspect. But it is still true that morality consists in large part in learning to deal with the unwanted and unexpected interruptions to our plans. I have tried, subject to my limits and weaknesses, to teach that lesson to my children. Perhaps I will teach it best when I am a burden to them in my dying.

While the problem that gave rise to Meilaender's thoughts concerns itself with the relative merits of durable power of attorney versus advance care directives, the underlying decisions we make about the meaning of the human person apply in full force to the issue of euthanasia. Here is his conclusion:

At this point in my life ... I would surely turn over to my wife my power of attorney. In doing so I simply announce to medical caregivers: "Here is the person with whom you must converse when the day comes that you cannot talk with me about my medical care." I myself do not particularly like the recently fashionable attempts to combine the two forms of advance directives by naming a proxy and giving that proxy as much detail as possible about what we would want done. That move -- though again, it will be seen as an attempt to avoid burdening the loved one who must make such decisions -- may not, in any case, accomplish our aim. What it commits us to is an endless, futile search to determine what a now-competent person would wish. Still more important, it is one last-ditch attempt to bypass the interdependence of human life, by which we simply do and should constitute a burden to those who love us.

I hope therefore, that I will have the good sense to empower my wife, while she is able, to make such decisions for me -- though I know full well that we do not always agree about what is the best care in end-of-life circumstances. That disagreement doesn't bother me at all. As long as she avoids the futile question, "What would he have wanted?" and contents herself with the (difficult enough) question, "What is best for him now?" I will have no quarrel with her. Moreover, this approach is, I think, less likely to encourage her to make the moral mistake of asking, "Is his life a benefit to him (i.e., a life worth living)?" and more likely to encourage her to ask, "What can we do to benefit the life he still has?" No doubt this will be a burden to her. No doubt she will bear the burden better than I would. No doubt it will be only the last in a long history of burdens she has borne for me. But then, mystery and continuous miracle that it is, she loves me. And because she does, I must be a burden to her.

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