Values is another English word with multiple meanings. As a noun it can be defined as wealth, a numerical amount, or moral standards. As a verb it can be an estimate of worth or something or someone to cherish.
What we value typifies who we are. And how we behave.
In 1970 my father and I saw the movie, Patton. I had served in Patton’s armored division 16 years after his death in 1945. Even in death, Patton’s personality pervaded that unit’s culture.
Patton was born wealthy to a family with a strong military heritage. He was athletic and a historical mystic. As depicted in the movie, Patton saw himself as the modern embodiment of a mythical military past. One in which winning — and ultimate conquering — were the most important goals in life.
After seeing the movie, my father was curious how my military service might have caused me to be more competitive. Because in my youth I was never competitive. Games were just games. I did not care if I won or lost, did not value winning for the sake of winning.
But to feel successful, the winning must matter. Really matter. When lives are at stake. When failure, suffering and pain are the result of losing.
I value winning when it means something.
My greatest worry in the army was that I would lose soldiers because of my stupid mistakes. I told myself that conquering a faceless enemy in battle, as much as I accepted that important objective, was less significant than the loss of people who trusted me.
Because of an odd set of circumstances, I was never asked to test my values in a shooting war. Main battle tanks were not used by the army in Vietnam.
But as an educator, my values have been tested. Overcoming obstacles in the personal as well as academic growth of students and clients.
My values are unfulfilled if I fail to accomplish those goals. And a certain kind of suffering results.
I admire medical professionals. They value healing. And feel failure when their skills are not enough. When their patients grow worse and sometimes die.
They fear making mistakes that result in pain and suffering. Sometimes death.
As the caregiver for a wife with Alzheimer’s, who will certainly die from that ailment, I wish my skills as a husband were enough to stop it.
But I will lose.
The medical and residential staff will also lose. Our lofty values to first do no harm, and then find ways to avoid the inevitable, will be for naught.
An attempt to win over Alzheimer’s is like experiences with other terminal diseases and disorders humankind has not conquered. Winning will not happen now. Not even in this era.
We do not win over death and some disorders leading to it, no matter how hard we try. Regardless of how often I tell myself that kind of winning is meaningful.
At this stage in our lives, all my wife and I can do is value what we have always valued. Only I can verbalize those values now: Family. Service. Love.
My hope is that she is still able to sense those things in her limited consciousness and marginally demonstrated depth of feeling.
The questions I ask myself now are: What will I value after the caregiving is done? What will I value after my wife dies? How will I act on those values in the remaining years of my own life?
Caregivers die too. Until then, what is the charge, or set of instructions emanating from 58 years of marriage and service?
Service to family. Service to other people. Service to the loving connectedness of humankind.
In trying to act on those three goals I start with family. The living, loving result of our marriage. To cement relationships and help build foundations for eternal bonding.
Continuing to serve others, as my wife and I did in our profession, is more challenging now. As a retired man with no institutional base other than volunteering.
So, I volunteer for AARP. Seek ways to further the goals of my church and community.
And I write.
The loving connectedness of humankind is possibly the most challenging charge. Probably because I am most acutely aware of love’s meaning when I reflect on loss. Loving connectedness is the overriding meaning of our otherwise finite existence.
Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan were scientists, not theologians. They were the world’s foremost scholars on matters having to do with the massive universe of which we are just a small part. Both Hawking and Sagan were secularists, in that they neither disputed nor verified the existence of God and a spiritual world.
What fascinated both men, and other scientists like them, is that our bodies are made up of the same stuff that gives the universe shape and substance. In other words, the molecules that exist within us are no different than those of the most remote star or planet.
Toward the end of their lives, both Hawking and Sagan were interviewed extensively on their beliefs about the meaning of our lives and the existence of the universe. Connectedness was the point.
Stars and planets are irretrievably connected by the laws of physics. Mostly gravity. And motion.
Life on earth is connected the same way. Take away just one piece and everything dies. Plants, water, oxygen, climate, and millions of other connections are essential.
The status of our environment has become a vigorous topic of discussion. As it must. It is essential to the survival of the planet on which we exist. But what to do about it is constantly disputed.
The loving connectedness of humankind is also a vital subject. Like the environment, what we should do to ensure its continuance is also disputed.
It boils down to what we value as a means for attaining a goal. Some value the unfettered advancement of human progress as it has evolved in the past.
Growth in manufacturing and development. Conquering obstacles. Unfettered entrepreneurship. Solving problems through individual achievement and the competitive spirit.
In many ways I admire those values. I have exercised them myself. But the kind of connectedness they enshrine are rooted in the chaos theory, which is a mathematical term that accepts the idea a small glitch somewhere can change everything.
It has happened to me. No doubt it has happened to you too.
Glitches have been unacceptable to me as a husband who cares for his wife. As she suffers from Alzheimer’s.
A loving connectedness needs to work within a stable universe as much as possible. That is the essence of what I value and will fiercely do anything in my attempt to control it.
That is the uniqueness of our human, loving connectedness. Death will cause us to lose that connectedness we value so much.
But until the laws of the universe win, we will stay true to the values of being there for each other.
Continue to seek ways to take care of yourself.
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