Saturday, July 28, 2012

God, Biochemistry, Darwin, and Sacrifice

Flickr: Squirmelia
'Cause now it seems that you wanted a martyr
Just a regular guy wouldn't do
But baby I can't hang upon no lover's cross for you
-"Lover's Cross" by  Jim Croce



Here's a thing never to be fully explained or thoroughly understood: my wife chose to sacrifice for me far beyond what is asked of a normal spouse.

This came to mind earlier this week during a short session of outpatient surgery for me. One of the nurses told my wife, "I couldn't do this, do what you do."

She meant be there for a husband who is a quad. And there for a husband with a severe mobility impairment is far different than a casual observer might imagine. There: To help him in and out of bed. To help him from shower chair to wheelchair. To drive him hither and yon.

I know what it costs my wife to maintain my life. I can say, without revealing a truth I cannot fully explain, that I was reluctant to marry. I knew what my paralysis had cost my family, how my great vacuum of need could consume a caregiver's time and energy to the point that there is nothing left for self. 

Of course, I think almost every spouse denies self to maintain a marriage, but to become a spouse and caregiver (otherwise identified as a "personal care attendant") is something few experts agree is healthy for a marriage. Modern psychologists counsel against a family member, especially a spouse, undertaking "personal care attendant" responsibilities for his or her partner.

My wife said, "I love you. I need what you can give me from your heart, from your mind, from your spirit. If the marriages lasts only five or ten years because of your disability, I will have grown into a better person." She also said, "I don't want anyone else caring for you." And so we married.

That was nearly twenty-one years ago. I am still paralyzed. I still need care. We are still married. And in spite of regular offers on my part to engage more than the incidental hired assistance we use, she continues to say, "You are my husband. I want to, I need to, care for you."

I think neither of us fully understood the bargain we made.

Whatever she needed from me, whatever she receives from me, I think she did not realize that I might draw more energy from her than I am able to return.

As for me, I thought I understood the nature and depth of guilt, but I did not realize each bit of energy she focuses on me adds to the constant drum beat of guilt that sometimes overwhelms my soul—a guilt I know is there, and yet a guilt I cannot acknowledge and continue to live. To linger on all that I need from others to live a healthy life would mean I would not be able too live with a degree of acceptance of self, to live on without shame.

And so we come to the Why? of her sacrifice. Believers, I think, understand selfless love as a reflection of divine love. I am a believer. My wife is a believer. We cling to the notion that God has joined us so that we might be better as people, as agents of divine good in the world, than we are alone. In that enterprise, we each apparently receive from the other something that makes life not only possible but also better. Her sacrifice has purpose, were that so, and my guilt cheapens it.

It is self-serving, to be sure, to assign divine intentions to what we two fragile people have made of our marriage. It is self-serving, and sanctimonious, to claim we are successful because of the divine when many atheists and agnostics within loving marriages find themselves being asked to sacrifice to sustain a spouse.

They doubtless would accuse me of rationalization in the name of self-interest, but I would say to them there is nothing objective or utilitarian about human love that makes possible such sacrifice. 

As for me, I know nothing of the human heart except that it both selfish and generous. I believe there can be both evil and good in the human heart, recognizing that a nonbeliever may suggest it is mere biochemistry and darwinian utilitarianism.

I cannot explain who my wife and I are together no more than I can fully explain why we are together. I can only say I recognize her sacrifice, and I subsume my guilt. She asked for a few years of love, and acceptance, and emotional support. I asked for nothing. What she has given cannot be measured. What I have received cannot be repaid.
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