Beyond Useless

My mother took care of people for most of her life—a blind father, orphan children in a South Indian mission school, children of her own, aging parents-in-law, generations of students, foster children, homebound church members, my father in his final years. I remember her declaring as she washed potatoes at the sink, “When I stop being useful, I want to go. I don’t want to live long enough to be a burden.” Later, in “assisted living,” she became for the first time a reluctant recipient of others’ help. Age and mild dementia required that she modify her utilitarian sense of purpose. She put together jigsaw puzzles, watched movies, let me read to her, and when her energy permitted, played croquet—a gentle sport that she had enjoyed decades earlier on our front lawn. Even then, though her own eyesight was failing, she read the news aloud for a woman down the hall and brought mail to an infirm neighbor’s room. And, as long as she could, she tutored a young man on the kitchen staff who was trying to pass an evening ESL course at the local community college. It was important for her to be able to help someone. Her sense of identity and her understanding of stewardship and Christian responsibility seemed to her rightly fulfilled when she was doing that.

So it was a hard adjustment for her to become less able, unsteady on her feet, uncertain in her memory of daily things, and finally distressingly disoriented. “Uselessness” was the condition she dreaded most. One afternoon as I popped in after work for our evening visit and asked my usual opening question, “How are you, Mom?” she answered with a slightly baffled look, “I’m okay. I just can’t quite understand why I’m still here.” She was nearing her 94th birthday then, and was several months away from going gently, with characteristic grace and simplicity, into that good night.

It was a poignant moment. She had taught me that things happen in God’s good time, that God’s purposes are mysterious, and that we were not the judges of our own or others’ value. Still, her own sense of value was faltering. She was, as she put it in her darker moments, “not much good to anyone.”

My efforts to reassure and encourage her were a memorable exercise in practical theology. I realized how deeply I identified with her desire to be useful: I remembered singing at her side some Sundays a vigorous 19th-century hymn, “Work for the Night is Coming,” which may by now (perhaps for the best) have been excised from most hymnals. It purveys a rather insistent protestant work ethic, rooted in an eschatological frame of reference that still shapes much evangelical thought. I quote here the second of three verses that take singers through the arc of the day—morning, noon, and evening—urging work while the light lasts:


Work, for the night is coming,

Work through the sunny noon;

Fill brightest hours with labor,

Rest comes sure and soon.

Give every flying minute,

Something to keep in store;

Work, for the night is coming,

When man works no more.


There’s a lot to be said for the commitment the hymn urges to God’s service in the world; the work was, as I was given to understand it, laboring in “fields white unto harvest”—evangelizing, teaching, caring for the poor, the sick, the dying. Mom had been a missionary in India for nearly 14 years before returning to the states to teach and do long service as deacon in our church. Her response to the call of the Gospel was literal and faithful and full of authentic joy.

So it was a particular kind of pain to see a quiet sadness descending on her when there seemed no work left for her to do.

I gave her a pep talk. “You can pray,” I said. “You believe in the power of prayer, and you have time to do it now.” What she may not have been able to say in response was that it was hard for her to focus on prayer. Her mind wandered. She couldn’t remember the names of people she might want to pray for. The effort to pray was confusing. “You can be here for me,” I said. “I spent so many years living far away from you—it’s a real gift to me to be able to see you now.” I’m sure that mattered some, but I’m sure she also recognized that it was I who was going out of my way most days to come by and visit. She wasn’t “helping” me. All reassurances to the contrary, she felt like something of a burden.

“I just don’t want to be a burden to my children in my old age” is a fairly common sentiment, and one that I share. To the extent that we are able, my husband and I have taken out long-term care insurance and provided for the costs associated with our death for that reason. But as an adult child, I know that the anxiety may obscure another important fact about being an aging parent: the love we give our children may in fact inspire them to want to care for us as we age. They may be eager and honored to do so—or at least wholeheartedly willing to perform what services age and infirmity require as a free exercise of love. We may need to allow more generously for their generosity. Even now, when I go anywhere near the “burden” word, one of my daughters insists, “I want you with us, Mom. If you need care, I want to give it.”

My daughter’s generous reassurance offers a salutary corrective to my own fear of uselessness. The utilitarian idea of individual worth that troubled my mother is widely held, and accounts at least in part for widespread dismissiveness and neglect of the aged. Whether or not it is acknowledged, many otherwise generous souls find themselves bemused and impatient during the long lingering of elders ravaged by Alzheimer’s or other forms of mental and physical debility. What might reframe this last chapter of life when so many live beyond conventional ideas of “usefulness”? How can we help the old—and ourselves while we are not yet at that point—develop a deeper understanding of the ways they are, as the Amish believe, a gift to the community in focusing its caregiving energies? And how can we help those so inclined to consent fruitfully to turning inward, gathering, harvesting, reflecting—doing the “work” of old age?

It may be that for my mother, and perhaps eventually for me, one of the important lessons of age, with its progressive losses and dependencies, is to learn to receive with gratitude and grace, to relinquish the role of giver and consent to being rather than doing. Maybe the final assignment for those who live long enough is to open heart and hands and body to the simple grace of receiving the breath of life, the light of day, the kindness of others—sometimes of strangers—in patient consent to the terms of this journey. Maybe there is goodness in play, so long neglected for work and family–the pleasure of a jigsaw or a game of checkers–or a slow walk in the garden to see which flowers have bloomed. Maybe we need to foster our own delight and our elders’ in those pleasures, slowing into praise, laying aside our preoccupations. Maybe we need some hymns that bring to our human living a wider range of acceptable verbs: open, hold, enjoy, receive, wait, notice, listen, be, love.

My mother’s father, 62 years old when she was born in 1913, was, in his early years, a pioneer pastor in the Minnesota outback where conditions were rustic at best and winters often life-threatening. A letter he wrote during one of those winters has survived in our small trove of heirlooms. After describing the blizzard that kept his family snowed in for many days while supplies dwindled and the pile of firelogs shrank, he concluded his letter with these words: “How precious it is to wait on the Lord.” I am convicted by that kind of faith. And I think how good a word that is to keep close when life drives us into “uselessness” by age or accident or illness. Waiting may be our work—more precious than we know in the sight of the Lord.



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