Why caretakers must reflect on the complex desires behind their care-taking.
One of the main reasons as to why reflective self-transformations among caretakers is so difficult lies in the deep need caretakers have of perceiving themselves as doing good to others. Each caretaker must seriously reflect on the nature of such a troubling human need. If no such reflection has been undertaken, the possibility of having a self-critical spirit as regards the caretaker’s own actions becomes more and more difficult to achieve.
It seems the main reason for this dilemma is as follows: the caretaker gives meaning to the narrative of her life through caretaking itself. In this same respect we all admire such individuals for what we (and they) perceive —though this is part of the problem— as their altruistic sacrifice for others. (see Aristotle, NE, Book I) However, this perception only solidifies in the caretaker the sense of their deserving recognition as regards their alleged sacrifice for the other, specially for the pains and troubles one has to undergo —supposedly— in the taking care of the ill. I say allegedly for it would surely be odd to choose a way of life in which one thought of one’s actions solely as a sacrifice! Such a choice would never allow for true happiness in either the caretaker, or the ill person herself! And once such a mental attitude is set firmly, the chances for such a person to reconsider the very foundations of their reasons for doing good become harder and harder to bring forth to the light of criticism. And if the person who seriously asks the caretaker to reflect on their own unquestioned desires and needs is the ill person herself, then sense of ingratitude seems to skyrocket!
This is in part one of the reasons why ill people must hear recognition demanding phrases such as “well, at least you are not in the street, at least you have me, …….”; one of the reasons why most doctors –though not all– will be disappointed when their patient asks for a second opinion; one of the reasons why traditional doctors will become very defensive when spoken of alternative possibilities, telling their patients that if they do so “it is their responsibility, ….”; one of the reasons why families/couples/parents will constantly argue how much sacrifice the ill are for them; one of the reasons why convincing others that illness is not a burden is almost impossible.
Under such conditions, which unfortunately are the norm and not the exception in our human condition, the ill must be careful and have the tools to counteract —even if they are in a condition of total physical disadvantage—- such tendencies which lie in the deepest, most troubling and most ambiguous human needs. The ill must never forget it is they who are at a disadvantage, not those who in their health do not have the courage to undergo a reflective critique of their needs.
In plain language, there is a saying in Spanish, constantly recovered by Doctor Payán, that says “El camino al infierno está hecho de buenas intenciones.” (The path to hell are made through good intentions.”) In literature a dramatic example of such a process lies in the short story entitled “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1899) link by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which tells the story of a husband and ill wife and which should be obligatory reading for ANYONE involved in the caring of the ill. Finally, and most importantly, it is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which shows the path towards an understanding of such deeply problematic needs, those needs associated with the goodness presupposed by those who hold the life of virtue as the crowning life for human beings. It is little wonder to find Aristotle arguing that true happiness can never be found in such a sphere (Book X). The life of total dedication to virtue leads only to a secondary kind of happiness.
In other words, the possibility of seeing such dilemmas is inaccessible to caretakers unless they happen to come into contact themselves, or through friendly others, with the critical spirit that guides the liberal arts education which follows the Socratic spirit of courageous, serious and continuous self-reflection on the dangers permeating our deepest, most unconscious, human needs.
(Note: Of course, another extremely powerful view of this dilemma is that of Nietzsche and his genealogical deconstruction of the good. I fear however, that such an approach is so dramatic that most caretakers will not be able even to perceive its importance.)