Love is . . . a chance to die to my selfishness

A few months ago, Pat Robertson made headlines for saying that it was okay for a man to divorce his wife with Alzheimer’s. “It’s a kind of death,” he claimed, thus the man was justified in breaking his marriage vows by divorce.

Granted, the story is more complicated than that and read in full context, his controversial remarks make more sense. Not more moral sense, but I can see his logic. The man in question was having an affair; Robertson seemed to reason that between infidelity and a divorce, the lesser of the two evils was a divorce.

But there’s a third choice, one that Robertson apparently overlooked. (I’ll cut him some slack for having to fumble for an answer to a question posed on live television; I couldn’t do it.) It involves death, just not the type of death he envisioned. For that marriage—or any other—to survive, there must be the death of our self-centeredness. 

Mark Lukach writes about this in a poignant piece in The New York Times’ Modern Love column. His young wife developed a severe psychosis that lasted for several months. She had no history of mental illness, nothing to suggest that she would suddenly break from reality. During this time, her antipsychotic medications slowed her response time—and everything else—down. When she spoke, it was about suicide or love.

Lukach was left to care for a fragile woman, one who was very different from the woman he had married. All his worries and fears had to be hidden away. Everything revolved around the illness.

That’s the stuff of nightmares, not romantic fantasies. No one signs up for around the clock care of a psychotic wife when they say “I do.” It’s not glamorous to deal with delusions and paranoia and suicidal impulses, just like it’s not fun to care for a spouse with Alzheimer’s. They aren’t the same person anymore. It’s like they died without really dying. It’s tempting, oh-so-tempting, to say that this “kind of” death is really death, and that it’s time to move on.

But what if this is a chance to die to selfishness?  

That’s what Lukach did, and his words challenged me. I have a selfish desire to have everything my way, to have the ratio of relationship work be 50-50. I do the dishes, he takes out the trash, we take turns getting up for the 3 a.m. feedings or giving the kids’ baths. I never want to be the 100% to the other’s 0%. Ideally, marriage involves give and take in equal measure.

But the ideal and the reality don’t match, and sometimes we find ourselves being the caretaker when we’d rather be cared for. At that point, we have a choice. Do we continue to love our spouse and honor our vows, even when they cannot give us anything in return?

The noblest—and hardest—part of love is when it dies for the other person. And that death isn’t found in grand gestures. It’s found in the small, daily humilities that are the hallmark of selfless love.  

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10 thoughts on “Love is . . . a chance to die to my selfishness

  1. Excellent post Laura; this is a topic that most of us know little about and probably don’t want to know anything about, if we are being honest anyway. I won’t attack Pat Robertson particularly, other than to say a few years ago he made a very strange comment about Scotland and Scots were not happy, and the upshot was that he had to have certain business arrangements in that country nixed because people were angry with him.

    Anyway, you made a really good point about not being self-centred; I personally think that we do as Christians have to ‘die to self’ and put selfishness behind us and learn, maybe for the first time, to regard others as being as precious and as valuable as we might think of ourselves. No one is perfect in this, and probably even good people and good Christians have a little selfishness; I am certain I do. But what God values is when we, even imperfectly, try our hardest to live the Gospel values of love, compassion, tolerance and consideration for the other person, even when we might not like that person or know that person so well.

    You wrote ” Ideally, marriage involves give and take in equal measure.” I think we can say this about life in general, with every person we meet and are involved with to any degree, whether family and friends, or just acquaintances and strangers. Life is give and take; we can’t always have it all our own way, because the other person has their needs too, but a little give and take is I think a good thing; it teaches us tolerance and understanding, and respect for other people. In this way, we can have friends that might atheists or Muslims or from other countries entirely; we don’t have to agree with their views but we can respect their right to live the life they choose, and we can learn to love them too. I think much of God, and the reality of God in our lives hinges on simple love for the other person; as He love us, we should also love.

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    1. Great points, Tim. I hadn’t thought about the implications of what I was writing beyond marriage, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I definitely think the give-and-take applies to all relationships. If there’s been one good thing about Facebook, it’s that I’ve had to learn to respect other people’s opinions; I’ve got friends that have all kinds of religious and/or political beliefs that I don’t necessarily agree with. I try to respect their opinions and love them, even when it’s difficult to do so. (Say, like during political season!)

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  2. “The noblest—and hardest—part of love is when it dies for the other person. And that death isn’t found in grand gestures. It’s found in the small, daily humilities that are the hallmark of selfless love. ”

    Laura, that is one of the richest passages I’ve read in a while. My wife and I each had “Love never fails” from 1 Corinthians 13:8 etched inside our weddings rings. I hope by God’s grace to live up to that each day. You have given me a good reminder of what that looks like, so I’d like to wish a Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your family.

    Tim

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      1. By the way (and I realize this may come across as the shameless self-promotion it is!) but Keri Wyatt Kent recently asked me to write a guest post for her blog. It’s a response to John Piper’s claim that Christianity is supposed to be masculine: http://keriwyattkent.com/soul/?p=1073. I hope you get a chance to read it, because you write so well and it would be wonderful to get whatever feedback you might have for me.

        Tim

        P.S. I don’t have a site of my own, but a few bloggers have been kind to ask me to do guest pieces for them, like Keri, Jenny Rae Armstrong, Aimee Byrd and Jane Hinrichs. I think another piece should be up on Rachel Stone’s website in a week or so too. This blog-writing stuff is fun!

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  3. Laura, I’ve already mentioned my view of the caretaker-spouse’s role on Facebook, but I left out the fact that I was once the caretaker of someone I love dearly: my mother. When she began to exhibit signs of dementia nearly ten years ago I took great pains, against UCLA Medical Centers advice, to keep her in my tiny apartment in L.A. A few incidents occurred while she was living with my girlfriend and I, one that required an ambulance after she fell and hit her head due to being disoriented. She was taken to UCLA and before I left the doctor again stressed to me that she needed 24-hour care in a nursing home. But still, I was determined not to let her go into a one of those facilities. I was unemployed and figured I could take care of her.

    Eventually, I broke down and tried first to see if she could manage an assisted-living facility. The staff seemed confident they could take care of her. She was probably the youngest person living there, and I always felt like I’d abandoned her. Eventually, after a few incidents at the assisted-living home, the staff sent her to a hospital and told me she could no longer live there. They simply couldn’t take care of her.

    I was so in denial; I’d been taking her to UC Irvine’s neurological center for an experiment drug treatment which I felt was safe because the drug was basically composed of the same active ingredient the only existing drug on the market had, Aricept. (In fact, if I recall correctly it was a drug being funded by the same company distributing Aricept.) When she was evicted from the assisted living facility I tried the next route: a home-like environment with a group of Alzheimer’s and other dementia sufferers cared for by a small staff. This seemed much more humane and comfortable a place for my mom to live than the urine-stenched nursing homes I’d been visiting. Again, the person managing the place was confident she could take care of my mom, but again she was sent to a hospital not two weeks later.

    I finally allowed her to be moved into a health care center — ah, let’s just call it what it basically is, a nursing home — which at least seemed much better than the other nursing homes I’d seen. She’s been living there for about seven years now. I can’t say she’s doing well — it kills me not being able to visit her nearly as often as I was able to living in California. Moving her out to Alabama seems like it wouldn’t disorient her further; as it is, she can no longer communicate.

    She will always be my momma and I will always love her. People have told me I’ve been too hard on myself over the years, and I believe there’s truth to that. But I haven’t been able to let go and move on with my life — it’s not because of my mom’s illness entirely because I was suffering from depression far before my mom became ill — but my inability to accept the circumstances has no doubt killed a part of me just as much as she is dying in slow motion.

    That last phrase, “dying in slow motion”, is not my own. During the years mom was being moved around from hospital to home to hospital to home to hospital again, I discovered a book at the library called Death In Slow Motion, written by a person whose mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimers and was similarly trying to give her mother the best possible care and struggling with being a daughter to a mother she no longer recognized. It’s not an entirely depressing book — there are some humorous moments that kept me from laying down the book in despair. I believe this book provided me with some consolation — enough that I purchased the book after returning my library copy.

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    1. Harold,
      Thanks for reading and offering your view on this. I had hoped to hear from at least one person who’d been through a caretaking situation. It sounds to me like you’ve done your absolute best for your mom and it’s very clear how much you love her!

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