DOA: A Parable

 But here’s something I do know – no loving effort is ever wasted. It can never do more harm than good.  -Rudy Green, fictional character.

In my last post, I presented this ludicrous idea of Rudy’s, and asked the reader to consider if this foolishness actually rings true for them. I also noted that anyone can think of apparent counter-examples for this proposition, and promised to tell you this story, which seems to be a striking counter-example.

I can’t tell you when or where this happened, because the privacy of the people involved is paramount; I won’t even say if this was during my police career or my EMS career. But it happened one weekday afternoon, about 1:30.

Police and an ambulance were sent to a small house in an old neighborhood in response to a report of “a possible DOA.” We were met by a man in his seventies. He was skinny and disheveled; his hair was uncombed, and his clothes were dirty and stained, and hung loosely on him. The house was badly cluttered, also dirty and disheveled.

The body of an old woman lay in a bed in a small first-floor bedroom. Her skin was pale and waxy, her eyes open and staring. There was post-mortem lividity, the dark discoloring of the skin caused by pooling blood, along her back and buttocks. Rigor mortis was beginning in her hands, advanced in her jaw. I estimated that she had been dead for more than three hours. She was absolutely emaciated.

The man explained that he had gone out in the morning, and returning home about noon, had found that his wife, who was a bed-bound invalid with Parkinson’s disease, didn’t respond to him. Figuring that she would need to use the commode after the time he had been away, he hoisted her onto it, but nothing happened, so he put her back in bed. She still didn’t speak or move. In response to a question, he said yes, he had thought that she might be dead. When asked why he didn’t call for help right away, he said that it took a while for it to sink in and be accepted. Then he had to straighten up a bit before calling us.

We asked more questions, and he told us about her Parkinson’s and that she had been treated for cancer six months earlier. She wasn’t on any medications, because they had run out two months earlier. She hadn’t seen a doctor since her cancer treatments, because he wasn’t able to move her to the car.

They had no children, and the only nearby family was his sister, who lived about forty-five minutes away. His wife had nursed him at the start of their marriage, forty years earlier, when he had sustained a serious brain injury, and he had been pleased to finally return the care and love. He had been diligent in taking care of her, and they had grown even closer during her illness. When she could no longer speak, they gazed at each other as he fed her, although, for some time now, she had been unable to really eat or drink much, and the food and drink that he gave her mostly dribbled out of her mouth.

Considering the emaciated state of the body, and the history we were told, it was clear to me that dehydration and malnutrition were either the cause of death or strong contributing factors. It was also clear that this man had acted with great love and kindness, but had made many bad decisions that had turned his wife’s illness into a classical tragedy. (He was obviously cognitively impaired, possibly as a result of the brain injury he had mentioned.)

I think this story clearly demonstrates that acting from love doesn’t guarantee a happy ending — which we already knew. (Even Rudy would grant this, given the context in which he spoke.) But does this story prove that we can make things worse when we act from love? Think about this, sit with it a bit. Then read my thoughts that follow …

****

I confess that I found this event very troubling for quite a while, and struggled to understand whether it truly challenged my unbounded faith in love. Finally, I came to understand it like this: it wasn’t what the man did that made this situation worse, it was what he didn’t do. Essentially, he didn’t ask for help.

His failure to ask for help didn’t come from love, it grew out of his very limited understanding. The things that he did do, he did from love, and the care he provided and the love with which he acted were most certainly helpful and palliative. Of course, he could have and would have done more if his understanding was better.

Does this seem lame? Perhaps. Not wrong, but it may limp a bit.

Something John Edminster wrote in a comment on my last post deepened my understanding of this idea, made it far more robust, far less lame:

… most deeds are done by human actors that are fallen, and therefore fallible: “the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel,” Proverbs 12:10. This prepares me to expect a trace of self-serving and ignorance-clouded shadow over almost every good deed, however splendid-seeming or love-born, my own included. You must therefore prove to me that a truly evil fruit came from the love-component of the motivation and not the shadow.

You see, we humans are imperfect, and our motives are often, indeed, usually, mixed. Thinking back over this story, I see that the man was actually proud of how well he was caring for his wife, and he was proud of how dutiful and loving he was being; his limited understanding was aggravated and inflamed by the most basic of sins, pride, and he couldn’t have asked for help, couldn’t have seen that he needed help, even if he were actually more capable. The good came from love, the harm from pride and poor understanding.

Please don’t think that I have written this as a criticism or condemnation of an imperfect old man; I admire his loving kindness and sense of duty. The first lesson that I drew from this story was in seeing this man as Everyman, this story as a parable of any person’s best efforts, my own included, undermined by limited understanding. This story brings forth compassion, not condemnation. It also calls for self-reflection. John Edminster has unselfconsciously shown us how that is done.

I know I shouldn’t be turning this story into a sermon, but most of this post was written on Rosh Hashanah, so it is a time when reflection and repentance must be on my mind. So, just as this story is a caution against judging another, John’s comments from last week (please read them) demonstrate how carefully and stringently we should all judge ourselves and our motives; ask nothing less than perfection. If we mean to save the world — and I hope we all do — than we must each change the only part of the world that we can change; ourself. As Gandhi wrote, “If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed — but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”

For a long time now, I have prayed daily to learn to love perfectly. I see now that this pursuit grows first out of a conviction that love never fails, but also out of an inner knowing that whatever I allow to make its home in my heart that is not love — be it pride, jealousy, greed, fear, whatever — must fail, and may starve and kill what and who I love, in spite of that love.

Yes, of course Rudy was right, he just didn’t go far enough.

3 responses to “DOA: A Parable

  1. I like to think that the wife went ahead of her husband into the next world to ask God to pardon his pride and remember only his love — if indeed his sin was pride. It may have been despair of getting any meaningful help from “the system,” — or he may have been faithfully respecting her express wishes to have no more medical interventions, which may have been no sin at all. Remember, “She wasn’t on any medications, because they had run out two months earlier. She hadn’t seen a doctor since her cancer treatments, because he wasn’t able to move her to the car.” Sounds like my former neighbor, who died of cancer, at home, under his wife’s loving care, refusing to see a doctor at any time because he didn’t trust them.

  2. Paul, I appreciate your points and have some additional thoughts about this story.

    You say that “The good came from love, the harm from pride and poor understanding”. I would agree, of course, that the good did come from this man’s love. However, I think that to say that the harm came from a combination of pride and poor understanding blurs a likely causal and sequential relationship between those two factors.

    The mediating factors between motivation and right action are perception and judgment. Although motivated by love, which translates into a desire to do his best to provide optimal care for his wife, it appears that he was unable to do so because he misunderstood her needs and that this caused poor judgement about how to express his loving motivation through his actions.

    His positive feelings about himself mostly resulted from his mistaken belief that he was, in his impaired understanding, providing her with optimal care. Because he believed that he was doing right by her, he felt good about himself. If God’s will is that we act lovingly toward others, wasn’t he right to feel good about his lovingly motivated actions and his genuine, although inaccurate belief that his care for her was correct and complete? Is there not a difference between self-love and pride?

    I would say that the failure here, in fact, was a failure to love. This failure to love was that of others in this couple’s life, in their neighborhood, in their tribe and in this society.

    All of us have faults, impairments if you will, some more potentially damaging than others. This is an important reason why we all need community to help guide and support us. A loving, caring community could have accurately perceived this situation, compensated for this husband’s intrinsic impairment, and provided the necessary resources to meet his wife’s needs. The degraded existence of community, endemic in contemporary American society, is a result of a widespread and socially condoned failure to love.

    This shifting of blame from one individual to general society is not a cop-out. Every individual has the responsibility to love others and it is each of us, members of society, who bear this responsibility to provide community. Accordingly, it is the absence and not the presence of love that is the root cause of this tragedy.

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