Thursday, August 10, 2023

Age, Duty, and Transactional Self Interest

There comes a time when there's not much more we can do for others.

So much of our sense of self is woven up with our sense of purpose and productivity, our ability to protect provide, our ability to nurture and organize.  Those are the expectations about the value we bring to the world, and also how we understand the value that other human beings bring to the world.

We offer value, and others offer value in return.  That's the basic transaction of human social exchange, of our oiko-nomos, the fundamental "house law" of all economic interaction.

When we no longer has anything to offer others, what happens to that exchange?

'Cause at some point, that transaction breaks down.  We cease to be able to provide a quid for a pro quo.  All we have is need.  There are other stages in life when this is true, like when we're in utero, or when we're a squiggly little bup that eats and poops and disrupts our parents' sleep cycle.  In those times, though, we've got a future ahead of us.  We offer up the promise of future returns.  There's an R.O.I. on a baby, or so we tell ourselves as the college bills keep coming in.

But in the last few years of life, we can't provide return on investment.  With mobility compromised, and our economic worth diminished, what do we have?  For a small privileged minority, what we have are savings, a reserve of economic resources to carry us through the long desert of our senescence.  These are imaginary resources, of course, resources that exist solely as a social construct, but hey.  You go with what you got.

For the majority, what we will have is the reality of our need.  Given that most human beings on this planet do not have large reserves of lucre, what extreme age offers is this: More need, and deepening need, with nothing but need to offer in return for the care we require.

This is where the assumptions and intentions of our transactional culture break down.  Another moral framework is needed.

In the book of Ruth, we hear a story that lays out a very different vision of how we are to deal with those who can offer us no material reward when we care for them.  A family of Judeans fled the region around Bethlehem to escape a time of famine, and settled in nearby Moab.  The two sons both married Moabite women, and for a while, things were stable.  But then the father died.  Then both sons died, leaving the matriarch Naomi without a husband or male offspring.  She was too old to remarry. In the patriarchal culture of that time, that meant that she was utterly bereft. She had no value at all.

Naomi was forced to return to her homeland, with the hope that she might be taken back into the care of extended family.  That return offered no guarantees of anything other than poverty and hardship.  Knowing this, she tells both of her daughters-in-law that they should return to their families.  Both resist, but when Naomi insists they not come with her, only one of them leaves.  Ruth refuses.  From love and from duty, she will not abandon Naomi.  Her assertion of commitment to Naomi is total:

Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.

This isn't a transactional relationship, or a relationship that assumes any reward.  It's an existential commitment.  Ruth's entire identity...her sense of place, her relationships with others and God, and her life woven up in her commitment to stand by her mother-in-law's side.

Ruth models a relationship of duty, tempered in the fires of love, a willingness to offer up the entirety of herself to another.  It's a faith commitment, one that is defining of her person, and cast in terms not of self interest but of covenant.

Where transactional morality fails to offer any grace or hope in aging, covenant commitment succeeds.  Does it require sacrifice?  Sure.  Does it offer an easy path?  No.  But aging is hard.  It will always be hard, as the reality of our mortality is hard.  The mealy, indulgent solipsism of consumerism and profiteering offers us nothing to endure that season.  For that endurance, we need the fierce strength of purpose that comes from a love as strong as Ruth's.