Last week I had a heartbreaking conversation with someone I’ve known most of my life. He and his partner are taking care of his aging parents, and things are not going well.
Greg’s father is in the early stages of dementia and is increasingly forgetful, confused, and angry. His mother is no longer able to care for him by herself, so last summer Greg helped his parents sell the house they had lived in for nearly fifty years and move in with him. Since his father has difficulty with stairs, his parents moved into the main floor while Greg and his partner moved to the basement.
But what causes the heartbreak is not just his father’s decline, it is witnessing his mother’s world fall apart. He has seen it coming for decades.
His mother’s chief way of engaging the world is in moral terms. If something does not work out as planned, she looks for someone to blame. She insists that if only her husband would try harder, get more exercise, do more crossword puzzles, eat better food, his condition would improve. She spends her days complaining to him and about him.
To make matters more complicated, my friend and his partner are gay. They have been married for several years, but his mother has always denied their relationship. She refused to attend their wedding, and she carefully keeps knowledge of their relationship from her friends.
I could hear the pain in his voice as Greg described the situation. It hurt him deeply that his mother not only took his efforts for granted, she seemed oblivious to the pain she was inflicting. But what hurt him most was that he could not even talk to her about it. They have not had a genuine conversation in many years.
For her entire life, his mother told herself that if she and her husband believed the right things, prayed every day, went to church and brought their children up in the right way, their life would turn out well: they would be healthy and prosperous, they would have status in their community, their children would grow up to be obedient and successful.
Now the story is falling apart. One child is gay; the other is physically and emotionally distant. Neither child shares her faith. Her husband barely remembers who she is. Their retirement savings are gone. They no longer live in the community she calls home. She does not know how to reconcile the story she has always told herself with the reality she is facing today.
So she denies: she blames others for what is happening, she withholds information from her friends, she crafts a narrative about her life to make it more acceptable.
We all do this to some degree.
Human beings are the only creatures who can tell lies. We are story-telling animals. We create our identities through the stories we tell. We share them with others; we also tell them to ourselves—over and over again.
It is this ability that makes ethics possible, because we can imagine possible ways of living, evaluating one course of action in relation to others. It is this ability which makes us responsible for our lives, a responsibility which is both a burden and a gift.
Socrates claimed the chief source of unethical behavior is self-deception. When we tell lies to ourselves—out of fear or anger or desire—we compromise our judgement. The deeper the self-deception goes, the less able we are to distinguish the true from the false and the more likely we are to do real harm to ourselves and others.
Every person’s primary obligation, therefore, is to be a truth-teller. And that begins with the stories we tell ourselves.
Greg’s mother is not unusual. We are all tempted to shape our stories in an effort to make life easier. But when we try to control those around us with the stories we tell, we distort our relationships and lose our way.
Jesus said “whoever would save his life will lose it.” It is in this sense also that he said “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” For only when we surrender control of our story and seek to live in genuine, loving relationship to others do we begin to see the world unmediated by the fears and desires that always threaten to distort our perception.
There are two ways of responding to dissatisfaction in our lives: we can try to change others or we can try to change ourselves.
The first way is responsible for much of the needless suffering in the world. It is the path of autocrats and tyrants. It begins in insecurity and often ends in cruelty or despair.
The second way begins in humility and ends in wisdom. But it is difficult. It means facing things we would rather not see or think about. It means questioning and allowing ourselves to be questioned. Above all it means listening to others, especially those with whom we disagree.
Whenever we are inclined to blame others for our disappointments—whether it is a spouse, a colleague, a government official, or a political party—we should stop and ask: What is my part in this situation? What might I do to make things better?
Truth, like charity, begins at home.
March 5, 2020