The Jewish Ethicist: He's Not Heavy He's My Brother
I'm an invalid and don't want to be a burden to others.
Q. As a result of illness I find it difficult to get around or to engage in activities I enjoy without help. Yet I am reluctant to ask family members or friends to help because I don't want to be a burden to them. Is it unfair to ask others to help me get out once in a while?
A. We can be grateful that modern conveniences and treatments make us more independent than ever. Independence and self-reliance are important values, and they contribute to our feeling of freedom. But there is a cost: in the past, when interdependence was more prominent, people took for granted the need to help others and found it easier to expect help from others as well. Today, it becomes easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we are really managing on our own, and expect others to do the same.
Just two generations ago, most men couldn't imagine managing a household without a wife, and most women couldn't imagine financing one without a husband. Spouses had far less independence and fewer options than today, but on the other hand the emotional bond between them was reinforced by material necessity. In a situation of mutual dependency each spouse found it easier to feel a sense of gratitude, and in turn each one had the satisfaction of knowing that he or she was truly needed.
The truth is that even nowadays, all of us, all of our lives, are a burden on others. As John Donne pointed out, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent." We couldn't thrive for even a short time without the elaborate web of mutual obligations that surrounds us. Nowadays this web is more impersonal and anonymous than previously, so we feel independent, but the truth is that we are more dependent than ever.
Jewish tradition emphasizes that our entire lives are a web of mutual obligations. Our sages tell us, "All Israel are responsible one for another." The word used for "responsibility" also refers to someone who backs a loan; thus, every debt we take upon ourselves is also partially borne by others. Part of our obligation in society is to help others with their particular needs and desires; we in turn do not need to feel ashamed or guilty to benefit from the obligations of others towards us.
What we do find in Judaism is that a person shouldn't be an excessive burden to others; we should do our best to manage on our own, but at the same time we remember that we are in a society built on mutual aid, which is a two-way street.
For example, in the laws of charity the Shulchan Arukh (authoritative Code of Jewish law) states that "A person should always distance himself from charity and subsist in misery, so that he shouldn't become dependent on others". Yet the same chapter adds, "Anyone who is in need and is unable to subsist without taking, such as an old, sick or suffering person, and because of pride desists from taking, is considered as one who sheds blood, and takes his life in his hands, and has nothing to show for his distress besides transgression and sin." (1)
Likewise, we find in the laws of honoring parents: "A person should not place an overly weighty burden on his children and be excessively particular about his honor, so as not to create an obstacle [to their obedience]; rather he should be forgiving and look the other way." (2) It is perfectly appropriate for a parent to make reasonable demands on children when they have need of their help; they are however warned not to make excessive demands. (The obligation to honor parents is primarily to help the parents with their own needs; a person doesn't have to accept the parent's guidance in his own life, for example in choosing a spouse, a place of residence, a profession and so on.)
Jews are sometimes known as pushy people, and there is some truth to this. It is probably not a coincidence that among the handful of Yiddish words which have become common parlance we find the term "nudnik." Yet we are also known as very generous people, always among the first to pitch in to any community projects. These two traits are intimately connected. People who are reluctant to burden others often have little patience for others who become a burden to them.
Our tradition educates us to recognize that human existence is by its nature a joint project. No person can thrive for even a short time without the help of others, and it is illusory to believe in our "independence." We should not strive to avoid all dependence on others; rather we should do our utmost to fulfill our obligations to help others while keeping our own demands modest by moderating our needs.
A popular hit song from my youth (I'm dating myself) was the song "He ain't heavy, he's my brother." The line has been traced to a 1924 magazine article about a scrawny boy lugging his younger brother to the park; when the author asked if the kid brother wasn't too heavy, the youngster replied with the now world-famous line.
One verse relates: "If I'm laden at all, I'm laden with sadness; That everyone's heart Isn't filled with the gladness of love for one another." When I see truly needy people denying themselves the help they need because they don't want to be a "burden" to others who should feel privileged to lend a hand, I feel some of this sadness.
It's a healthy instinct to avoid being a burden to others, and even those with special needs may want to think twice before asking for help. Yet ultimately we have to recognize that mutual care and concern is just part of life, and seek an optimal and generous balance between giving and getting rather than a narrow focus on not making demands. Don't sell yourself short; acknowledge the sacrifices others make for you but never forget that your company and gratitude are valuable to others. In proper proportions, getting help with important errands doesn't waste the time of your relatives or friends, it makes productive use of it.
SOURCES: (1) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 255. (2) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 240:19
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