Aging parents often say “I don’t want to burden my children”. But, the truth is that many sons and daughters will need to bear some burden if their parents are to maintain a dignified life as they weaken with age. For some families, the burden will be relatively light and manageable, especially with advanced planning.
For others, even for those gifted with foresight, the load will require appreciable changes in life, i.e., sacrifice. In modern-day America, we would like to think that the dramatic choice between caring sufficiently for our aging parents and pursuing our own most important goals and objectives in life can always be avoided. In my opinion, it is not always possible.
Many people in this situation make the noble choice and compromise their own family life, career development, financial security, leisure pursuits, and overall “quality of life” for their parents. In the end, they get to attend a funeral and are left with a lonely, empty feeling. They’ve probably not been giving their friends as much attention as in earlier times, and thus may not have as much support available once the end finally comes.
Wanted: Stories that Affirm Caregiving as Worthwhile
Hopefully, they know that they did the right thing, that they upheld the most basic notions of common decency and societal virtue. But American culture does not offer them much support and affirmation for that.
I can’t think of any movies or songs or stories that celebrate those who gave away something of themselves to repay their parents for the gift of life. The more prevalent assumption seems to be that such people should have gotten better financial advice or that they did what they did because of an unhealthy psychological dependency.
Instead, I suggest that we turn to the ancient Greeks for some advice, given their great interest in truth and wisdom. I’m not a trained Greek scholar, but I know of one story that might apply here. It is the tale of Cleobis and Biton, as narrated by Solon in the writings of Herodotus and centuries later by Plutarch.
In a nutshell, Cleobis and Biton were two young men who lived with their mother on a farm in Argos, probably a fairly well-off rural estate. Their mother was a patron in good standing at the Temple of Hera, where services and sacrifices were held in honor of the goddess Hera.
To maintain such good standing, it was important to attend the major ceremonies on a regular basis and to arrive punctually. On the day of a festival for the goddess, it was time to hitch the oxen up to the cart that would transport mother over the six miles of roadway that led to the Temple.
However, the oxen were somewhere in the lower forty still plowing. It was clear that mother wasn’t going to make it in time, and was going to lose some points with the high priest or priestess for showing up late (or not at all).
So Cleobis and Biton stepped up and decided that they would latch themselves up to the cart and pull their mom over the bumpy roads to Hera’s Temple. (So much for their pleasant evening sipping wine and watching the sun set from the back porch.)
After a hot and dusty trip, Cleobis and Biton got mom and cart up to the Temple gate in time for the torch procession or however they began a pagan temple service. In their exhaustion, the two sons decided to find a quiet spot somewhere in the Temple, and both soon fell asleep.
As the service progressed, mom invoked the goddess in honor of her two wonderful sons — that they die the happiest of men. Well, this IS an ancient Greek story, so you know there’s an ironic twist involved. And here it comes. After the service was over, mom went to find her two sons and discovered their lifeless bodies. They never woke up from their slumbers. A terrible tragedy.
Rich as Croesus
BUT, on finishing this story, Solon points out to King Croesus that despite the King’s great wealth and his fabulous success in life, he was NOT the happiest of men. The happiest of men were Cleobis and Biton (and also Tellus, another humble man who died honorably enough to be recalled by Solon). Their mother’s wish was granted.
Although their grimy, sweaty exhaustion followed by unforeseen death sounds anything but happy, the ancient Greeks did not measure ‘happiness’ simply by the internal sense of personal satisfaction and fulfillment. They used a more ethereal standard, appealing to the ideals of virtue.
According to the Greeks, Cleobis and Biton were heros and should be emulated (although their mother obviously should have pondered the maxim ‘be careful what you wish for’). They were not poor chumps who got a bad hand because of their own neurotic dependencies and lack of foresight (e.g., they should have thought to send a house servant out to call the oxen back in from the fields a few hours before the service).
The ancient Greeks could indeed be a bit over-dramatic in making their point. I’m not suggesting that a person should be willing to die in the service of dependent parents. In fact, it’s extremely important to take care of yourself while under the stress of parental support.
Honoring Your Parents
But the fact remains that the truest of true happiness doesn’t always SEEM very happy, in the modern sense. Taking care of a dependent parent, whether on the front line, or even in a support role, can be a drag. It DOES sometimes take away some of your own life opportunities and choices.
And there isn’t always a wide assortment of people around who want to support you during your months or years of trial. After you miss four or five New Year’s Eve parties, you may not be getting as many phone calls. Your situation is just not fashionable.
But if it was good enough for the people who gave us Plato and Socrates and Aristotle, perhaps it should be well considered by us moderns too. Just as America learned to ’support our troops’ after the disregard which they unjustly received during the Vietnam years, perhaps we also need to better support those on the front lines of parental caregiving.
Virtue is its own reward, as Herodotus and Plutarch implied. But public acknowledgment of such virtue is also a good thing, as the ancient Greeks also realized.