The other day I heard from someone I hadn’t seen for months. He explained that he doesn’t get out much anymore. His wife is ill, and he spends every day caring for her. He knows he is doing the right thing but confessed to feeling resentful at times. He mourned his lost independence.
“Isn’t doing what is right supposed to feel good?” he wondered. “When does commitment start to be rewarding?”
He isn’t alone. A recent study by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP found that 48 million Americans (nearly 1 in 5) are providing unpaid care for another adult with health or functional needs.
Many of these caregivers fall into the “no choice” category, meaning they felt they had no option but to provide care. People in this category are much more likely to report feeling emotional stress, physical strain and loneliness. They also are more likely to suffer a greater financial burden and to have more difficulty maintaining their own health, which is no surprise considering that on average they spend 26 hours each week providing care and another 37 hours at work.
We spend a great deal of time talking to each another about our vacations, our hobbies, our interests. We ask young people what they want to do when they grow up. We ask middle-age people what they plan to do in their retirement. We rarely ask people how they are going to live with disability, illness or the many other hardships life inevitably hands us.
And because we do not like to talk about it, we do a lousy job preparing for it.
If you ask people what they need to be happy, the responses are predictable: a decent job, a certain amount of money, good health, time to socialize and freedom to pursue one’s interests.
But what if all that is taken away? Is there still a way to find meaning and purpose in such a life, to find it rewarding?
That is what my friend was wondering about. And behind his expressed questions, I heard another: How can I learn to be satisfied living a life I did not choose?
It is an important question, because nearly everyone has to face it at some time. And yet, there has never been society less capable of answering it.
Ever since the Enlightenment brought us scientific thinking and the technologies that resulted from it, we have become increasing skilled at changing the world to meet our expectations. That is what technology does. It enhances our power by giving us the ability to transform the world outside our heads. It also gives us greater freedom by enabling us to do things much faster and more conveniently.
Over the past 100 years or so, we have increased wealth, lengthened the average life span, eliminated diseases, and reduced hunger and malnutrition every single decade. By any objective measure, human life is better today than it has been at any time in the history of the world.
But technology does not give us more control over our inner world; in fact, it diminishes it. And that leads to less tolerance of the way things are and less patience when things do not turn out the way we expect. The frustration is particularly evident when we are up against the severest limits to the power and freedom technology promises: old age, illness and death.
Immanuel Kant wrote of a dove that dreamed how much faster it could fly if only resistance from the air did not slow it down. In the same way, we often imagine how much better life might be if only we were free from all worries and cares, if no obligations to others impeded our pursuits.
That is a fantasy to be entertained at times, but in the end it is foolishness. Living a life without limits is no more possible than flying without air. It is by working within those limits — with all the love and creativity and humor and grace we can manage — that we succeed in making meaning out of our lives.
We can’t always have a pleasant life. But we can have a meaningful life, because what makes a life meaningful is very different from what makes a life pleasant.
If we manage our lives well, we will find ourselves within concentric circles of relationships, some stronger than others, to be sure, but all defined by varying degrees and types of love. And that love carries with it both obligation and opportunity — the obligation to take care and the opportunity to be cared for. The only alternative to such a life is not one that avoids suffering but one that suffers alone.
I did not have any ready answers to my friend’s questions. But I don’t think he needs any answers from me. I have found that people who ask such questions are already on the right path. They are taking care of another because they have love in their hearts.
And what a blessing it is to be among the fortunate people to have someone to love and the ability to express that love in practical ways.