I am My Mom's Caregiver
Process Theology and Caring for Aging Parents
by Jay McDaniel
Viktor Emil Frankl, MD, PhD was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy, which is a form of existential analysis, the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy. He lived from 1905 to 1997. For more see Wikipedia
"Thank God for Guiding Me to Help My Mom"
The essay on the right is an appreciative response to the video above: Caregiver by Trinh Vu.
Her story, offered in the Youtube channel for the Center for Digital Storytelling, is "about the personal and cultural challenges that come with being the primary caregiver for her mother, who has Alzheimer's & Schizophrenia. She discovers the importance of self-care and also in enlisting other family members to help."
Amid her discovery, she thanks God for guiding her to help her Mom. I sense that she is thanking God both for guiding her to enlist the help of others and for the whole experience of being able to take care of her Mom, happily or otherwise.
Of course she is not alone. Her responsibility to her Mom is found in many a daughter and son who cares for an aging parent. But her sense is supplemented by the wisdom of Confucian-influenced culture, in her context Vietnamese culture. Those of us in non-Confucian cultures have much to learn from the Confucian idea that we help our parents in their older years as a way of reciprocating the fact that they brought us up in our early years. When "filial piety" takes the form of caretaking, it is an act of duty and thanksgiving, rolled into one. There is meaning in the fulfillment of the responsibility, and this meaning is more important than shallow happiness.
This is what you hear in the story above, It was made in a workshop facilitated by the Center for Digital Storytelling as part of APCA's (Asian Pacific Community in Action) Well Woman: Stories of Health and Healing project
If you enjoy this article you may also appreciate:
God Almight? No Way!
Where is God in Mental Illness?
Where is God in Alzheimer's Disease?
Where are God's Hands?
Does God know the Future in Advance?
God and the Sendai Earthquake
The Quaking and Breaking of Everything
Process Theology and Caregiving
In Man's Search for Meaning Victor Frankl reminds us that the purpose of life is not to be happy but rather to live a meaningful life. He says that happiness is a byproduct of seeking meaning and adds that, when people seek happiness as their goal, they often end up very unhappy.
If Frankl is right, then there are a lot of unhappy people in consumer cultures today. This is because in consumer cultures we are constantly being told by the advertisements that our own happiness is, and should be, the primary objective of life. Follow your bliss, we are told, and your bliss will make you free.
The problem with bliss-preoccupied living is that it is selfish and, often, unsatisfying, especially when accompanied by an ideology that takes "the individual" as the ultimate frame of reference for all evaluations: personal, political, and spiritual.
One of our JJB authors, Stephen Hatch, rightly calls this the problem of hyper-individualism. He suggests that hyper-individualism is a poison that now infects many a western soul. For him, one corrective to the problem is to spend more time in the natural world, recognizing that we are small but included in a wider, ecological whole with terrestrial, galactic, and divine dimensions. The universe is not all about us humans; and at a more localized level, in the context of family and community life, it is not all about me.
Meaning Bubbles Up In our Loving and Our Distress
Frankl takes a more humanistic but I think complementary approach. He was Jewish and a holocaust survivor. His book has sold over 9 million copies and it offers a healthy corrective to the self-centered, narcissistic ethos of so much individualist living.
One of Judaism's great gifts to the world is that its people have been nourished by a passion for meaning: meaning in history, meaning in daily life, meaning in suffering, meaning in community, meaning in ritual, and sometimes, meaning in suffering. The history of Judaism is not a history of happiness; it is a history of passion for meaning in dialogue with a covenantal mystery at the heart of the universe.
What is meaning? You know it when you feel it. Here is how Rabbi Bradley Artson describes it in She is a Benefit to Herself: The Value of Being Alive:
"Meaning is not conferred from the outside, nor is it timeless and static. Meaning bubbles up in our loving and our distress, in our pain and our delight, all of which we do together. We are, each of us, creatures becoming in relationship to others and to all. Value and meaning are terms to aspirate the worthy harvest of our textured interactions."
Note his words. Meaning "bubbles up in our loving and our distress, in our pain and our delight."
Meaning is the Grittiness of Love
There are two important points. One is that meaning is not bestowed on us from above; it bubbles up amind our relationships with others, in what another JJB author, the Reverend Teri Daily, calls the grittiness of love.
This love can include a love of God. Anyone who has tried this kind of love knows that it is gritty, too. It's not all about peace and harmony, it's also about struggle and pain. It is a relationship no less intense than that of individuals within a family. This relationship is part of what gives God meaning, too. It's not that God has meaning and then, as an afterthought, comes to love the world. It is that even for God meaning bubbles up in relationship..
God Does Not Cause the Pain
A second implication of Rabbi Artson's idea is that meaning unfolds in our loving and our distress. This may also obtain for God, too. Surely, if God is loving, there's lots of pain in God: as much pain as there is in the world, except magnified by infinity. In times of distress God shares in the distress.
Does God cause the pain? Rabbi Artson thinks not. As a process theologian, he does not beleve in an almighty God who makes everything happen as it does, but rather in an all-loving God, limited in power, who is forever faithful to us finite meaning-seekers. See his Creation through Lovingkiness: God receives the love and distress of the world and forever responds with fresh possibilities: a calling, a lure, toward meaningful living. It's a covenant.
This takes us to Trinh Vu. As I listen to her, I do not think she is thanking God for happiness alone, but for the meaning of living in covenant with her Mom in good times and bad, for being faithful to the bonds of relationship. She has received her mitvah, her commandment, her duty, and she is thankful for it. She knows, as do Jews, that law, that duty, is not the opposite of grace but rather a form of grace in its own right. Duty is a context for a bubbling up of meaning.
Meaning is Strength of Beauty
So what is the point? Process theologians propose that the point is strength of beauty. Strength of beauty has more to do with the quality of souls in relationship to one another than the surface appearance of faces or landscapes.
Of course, sometimes faces can reveal strength of beauty, not by makeup or chiseled features, but by character. You'll see some of this strength in the photography of Maxine Payne, featured on this website. She photographs individual people who, in the poignancy of their lives, have come to embody such beauty in their faces, their manners, their lives.
For my part, I see some of that character in the fades of all the people in Trinh VU's video, including her mother. Alzheimer's Disease and Bipolar Disorder cannot erase strength of beauty, the courage to keep living, moment by moment, day by day, amid confusion and irritation and despair. This leads us to three more points important to a process theology of caregiving.
Sometimes we must Relax into the Mystery
First, when it comes to strength of beauty, there are many kinds of love that constribut to its bubbling up: love of others, love of heaven, love of the natural world, and love of oneself.
There are indeed times when we must take care of ourselves, love ourselves, learn to be independent, and stand up for ourselves. If we are suffering from depression or excessive stress, we must find sabbaths of rest and relaxation, pleasure and ecstasy. As Rabbi Artson puts it in Turtles and Whales, we must go swimming in the oceans of wonder.
A healthy love of self -- positive self-regard and taking care of oneself -- is a form of love into which God calls all people at certain times, and sometimes this includes getting away from people.
Prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, had to go to the mountaintop and pray; prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, had to go to Mt. Hira. Moses was alone when he received the commandments from the Lord. We must find the Center and find our center, and sometimes this finding requires solitude: a vacation from social relations. Praying and meditating once a day helps, too. It is sabbath from compulsive busyness.
There is No Need to Seek Suffering; It comes Naturally.
Second, when it comes to strength of beauty, there is no need to make a fetish of suffering. Sometimes we must enter into times of suffering with clear and conscious minds, and sometimes we must avoid them. Sometimes suffering ennobles us; and sometimes it debilitates us. The passion for meaning, for beauty, is not a passion for suffering.
The key is discernment: having one's heart attuned to the calling of the context, the calling of the moment. Sometimes we rightly seek happiness. But the natural seeking of happiness is very different from making "the pursuit of happiness" an organizing principle for one's life. When that happens happiness becomes a false god. We fall into happy-olatry. As Victor Frankl made clear, the better option is always to seek meaning and let happiness emerge, if it does, as a byproduct.
Sometimes We Must Make Poems of our Memories
Third, after suffering has occurred, we can learn to make poems of our memories. Trinh Vu has made such a poem in telling her story and sharing it with us. We may not be able to make digital stories, but we can at least tell them and share with others. The stories we tell can be tragic, comic, tragi-comic, or farcical; but they are poems. Faith in God is not faith that everything that happens is good or meant to be; it is trust that no matter what happens, meaning can bubble up, even out of tragedy.
In process theology we speak of God as a spirit of creative transformation at work in the world. Faith in God is trust in this spirit. Does this mean that we can give thanks for everything that happens to us and to others? The answer is No.
Sometimes things that happen in life are so painful, so horrible, that it is obscene to pretend that they "were meant to be" or "happened for a reason." It violates the integrity of those who suffered, living and dead. There are times when protest and lamentation are the only legitimate responses. Lamentation -- sometimes even to the point of considering suicide -- is a form of prayer, in retrospect. It is a reaching out into the listening side of divine Love.
But in the very lamentation something bubbles up. A sense of solidarity and meaning emerges. A sense of connectedness. And in this fidelity to the bonds of relationship something is touched within the very interstices of the divine life: a shared pain, a shared beauty. These connections are worth all the thanks in the world. We can thank God for them and God can thank us, too. It's a kind of covenant.
Relationships Can Continue, and Even Improve, After Death
We live out the covenant with the Infinite through our covenant with our loved ones, mothers much included. The covenant with loved ones does not end with death. Relationships can even improve after death on both sides. But it is in this life -- in the grittiness of love -- that they begin. And it's a marvelous place to start.
Caregivers can live with a trust that there is nothing -- nothing at all -- that can separate anyone from the love of God and the possibilities for healing that are made available by God, in this life and the continuing journey thereafter. It's a covenant.
Are you a caregiver? In How to Care for Aging Parents, some quick tips are offered for self-care. Here is an excerpt:
Define the job.
As much as you may want to, you cannot do it all. So decide what you are willing to do. Then make a list and stick with it. Don't keep trying to do more.
This is a big job and most of us cannot do it without loads of helpers. Sign up for community services (meal delivery, homemaker programs, adult daycare, in-home health care, etc.). Recruit other relatives to help and see if neighbors or your parent's friends might take on some small tasks.
If your parent's care consumes a significant chunk of your life, get away from the task occasionally. Find someone who can step in for you or see if there aren't respite services in your parent's community. Go out for dinner with a mate, have a bath, or take a vacation. Do something else, think about something else. Your parent will survive and you will be a better caregiver.
Spend time with friends.
Studies show that caregivers who have social supports (friends, family, support groups) experience less depression and illness. Coffee with a pal may feel like a luxury, but it's a necessity.
Laughter makes the world more sane (or at least it makes the insanity more fun). And scientists have shown that it actually improves one's immune system and circulation, not to mention one's outlook on life and ability to cope with the impossible.
No comparisons, please.
Don't listen to other's opinions of what you're doing and never compare yourself to other caregivers. Every situation is different. You may have a more stressful relationship with your parent, fewer supports, a more demanding job, or just different priorities and makeup. Trust in yourself to find the balance that is right for you.