I recently had lunch with a friend who has a parent going through some serious health issues. My friend’s father is in his eighties and while some of the issues are acute, there is also a realization that he is likely to need increasing care over the coming months and years.
Throughout the conversation, what became clear was that this friend was trying to navigate the ‘normal’ waters of life – marriage, children, work, etc. – and now faced the reality that his father will need more from him. He described some of the changes that have already happened and how he was committed to being there for his parents, to ensure they were cared for.
He described this commitment to me as “a burden, but not a chore”. When he said it, I think I understood what he meant, but since our meeting I have spent time reflecting upon it further.
The phrase needs to be broken into two separate parts. The burden has weight. It asks and sometimes demands to be carried. It requires something material of the carrier. A chore has an unpleasant underpinning. To me a chore is something like cleaning the dishes or scrubbing the bathtub.
Sometimes burdens are chosen. Sometimes they choose us. Whether or not we have the choice to take on a burden or not, we always have the opportunity to choose how we will handle them. In my friend’s case, his choice was straightforward in spite of the weight.
I have had the gift of witnessing friends and family care for their aging relatives. None closer than witnessing my parents care for their aging and ailing parents in their final years. Two decades apart, I watched my mom and dad care for their mothers in different ways before their respective passings. The example of love and respect that they demonstrated, even in the hardest moments, is something that left a lasting impression on me.
Nobody ever wants to be a burden on others, but the reality of life is that whether it is at the end of a long life or after numerous stumbles along the way, we will all need to be carried. What we can sometimes forget, however, is that those tough moments bring out the best in us as people.
As I thought more on the idea of burdens, I went back and read one of my first few posts on this blog, The Burden of Responsibility, to see if I agreed with something I wrote 16 months ago. In the post, I wrote about some of the areas of responsibility of my life and how they can, at times, feel like a burden to carry. The takeaway was to seek support from others and from God. To not try to carry all of life’s loads alone.
In preparing to write this post, I went a step further and considered whether family life is in itself a burden. If a burden is defined simply as a heavy load, then the answer cannot be anything other than ‘yes’. Fearing the reaction of leaving it at that and having my wife and maybe one day my children read this, I want to unpack this further.
I chose to be a husband and a father. While it is impossible to fully grasp the challenges of marriage and fatherhood prior to experiencing them, I chose to embark on this adventure with my wife, anticipating the great joys that would come from it.
When we take on the great challenges in life, it is my experience that they call forth something new out of us. Things we did not know we possessed and would not otherwise realize in the absence of life’s trials.
To give a tangible example, becoming a father has opened within me an unconditional love for my children that I could never have known otherwise. To an external observer, it might be easy to focus on the crazy and frustrating bedtimes, the messes to clean up, the constant driving to activities, not to mention the exhaustion that often accompanies parenthood, and think life might be easier without it all. That person would probably be right – life would be easier and ask far less of me. But it would also have denied me the greatest calling of my life.
Knowing what I know now, I would choose this ‘burden’ again and again.
Greatness over Comfort
Pope Benedict XVI said, “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” There is a superficial part of me that reads this and thinks of greatness in the material sense – success, accomplishments, glory. I have experienced enough, however, to know that the true meaning of this statement has nothing to do with material accomplishment.
When we choose to accept the challenges, the burdens, placed before us, we accept opportunities to become great. Those challenges themselves often appear so great, whether it is a sick child, an aging relative, the loss of a job, or any other curveball that life chooses to throw, we often question our ability to cope and survive. In those moments, when we acknowledge what we are lacking, we open ourselves up to the grace and strength required to get through. And on the other side, we are able to see the glory that comes through carrying the load. The opportunities to care for another, to share precious moments, or to find a new path that we never thought possible, are a few of the examples of the gold found through acceptance and carrying of a burden.
It is here that I found God in my question about the burdens of life. Jesus already gave me the answer. It is the Cross. Jesus won victory over death and evil when he rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. But there is no Easter without Good Friday and death on the Cross.
After rising from the dead, Jesus is speaking of returning to His Father’s house, explaining to His disciples that they know the way. Confused, they ask Him how to get there. Jesus responds: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6)
When we choose to accept the crosses of life, to love others when it is hard to do so, to give more of ourselves than we want to for the good of another, we are following the model set before us by Jesus. In doing so, we follow the map that we know will lead to eventual glory; not our own, but God’s glory that He wants to share with us.
Post-Meal Wrap Up
As we finished up our conversation, my friend made another observation about providing more care for his father. Projecting forward, he could already see the gold that comes from the time he plans to spend with his father, in spite of what others might see as inconveniences or undue burdens. I gained an admiration for this friend as he chose to embrace what was in front of him. The moment awaits.
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