Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Faith and Caregiving

Caregiving ain't easy.

It requires bandwidth, and it's always.  Caregiver fatigue is one of the greatest challenges for those who are supporting aging loved ones, and it can consume us.  

It demands just as much attention and just as much focus as raising a child.  It can feel unforgiving.  Exhausting.  Devoid of hope.  It is simultaneously and paradoxically both constant and unpredictable.

Like the hurly burly of raising munchkins into humans capable of "adulting," caregiving for a loved one never backs down.  You are, every day, riding the whirlwind.  Things feel stable, you have it under control, things seem to have balanced out.  Then there's a fall.  Or a reaction to something.  Or a bad test result, because another system has failed.  Or an illness, a cold that morphs into a lingering cough which becomes pneumonia.  You've got to be continually watching, always on guard, hypervigilant.

Only the process doesn't end with that person "launching" or "leaving the nest."  The process of caring for an aging loved one, done perfectly and without error, will end in death.  It's a Kobayashi Maru scenario, but one that cannot be cheated or circumvented.

And then, when we are done caregiving, we know that in the blink of an eye we will trade roles.  We will become that person who must be cared for.  It unsettles our sense of ourselves and our competency, our sense of our agency, a sense of our place in the world.  It can drain us of hope.

Which, as we discussed in the adult ed class of my little church this last week, is why faith is such a vital part of the Christian journey through aging.   

First, Christian faith affirms the personhood of all.   Jesus valued everyone, no matter their place in the social order.  The leper.  The tax collector.  The despised Samaritan. The woman who can't stop bleeding.  The Foreigner.  The centurion, an imperial/colonialist oppressor.  

Or the little children, because as you should know because your pastor shoulda oughta taught ya, children in ancient Judah weren't considered fully human until they'd managed to survive childhood.  Welcoming the little children wasn't a cute thing to do.  It was an action that defied the expectations of culture, that upended a fundamental assumption about who had worth and who did not.

In a society that warehouses, marginalizes, and ignores the old, radically affirming their personhood is a form of defiance.

No matter where we are in the process of life, no matter what stage or capacity, Jesus teaches that we have value as souls.  We are children of God when we are too small to care for ourselves, when our every moment must be managed.  We are just as much beloved of God when we have lost the capacity to be productive or creative, when we have lost our influence, or any of the things that industrial consumer culture values. 

Second, it establishes a hope that both transcends and defines the brief flickering light of our mortal being.  

"This too shall pass," we say when life is hard at work, or when we're struggling.  But when you're caring for an aging parent, that's not exactly a word of comfort.  We know, we know it will pass, but saying that doesn't make it better.   Faith affirms that life is both fleeting and eternal, that it rests in the paradoxical union of endless change and infinite permanence.

The Gospel, again defiant, declares that we are more than the material process of our wetware, more than quasi-sentient meat that writhes and rots in the fires of temporality.  As ephemeral as life seems, faith grounds our action in something  more, something that both affirms the processes of life and yet is not reducible to those processes.  We proclaim, and live out, that love is more than all of those things.

Sure, our time as a caregiver will end.  As will our time as the one requiring care.

But love?

Love, as dear Brother Paul sang, never ends.

And in that, hope abides.