I have a client — I’ll call her Joanne — who is a devout Christian. Joanne periodically contacts me and asks for my opinion about a faith-based issue she is struggling with. She recently asked me if I think she has an obligation to assist her husband’s mother — I’ll call her Frances — with her basic personal, healthcare, and financial needs.
For most of the years that Joanne has been married, Frances lived in Peoria and relied on Joanne to help her with various tasks. A few years ago, Frances moved to another state to live with her daughter. She recently moved back to Peoria because she no longer wanted to live with her daughter. That’s when Joanne’s problems began.
Joanne told me that Frances is now relying on Joanne to assist her with her medical and insurance paperwork, picking up prescriptions, scheduling appointments, and various other tasks that Frances cannot or will not do on her own. When Joanne approached me, she was ready to tell Frances that she was no longer willing to help her.
The problem that Joanne has always encountered is that Frances is mentally unstable. When Frances takes her medication, she does okay, but she does not consistently take her medication and refuses to allow anyone to monitor her or interfere with her decisions concerning her medication. She is also unappreciative, argumentative, and difficult to deal with.
After I asked Joanne some questions, it was clear to me that she is the only person in Frances’s life who may be willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary to take care of Frances. I got the impression that Frances would be totally on her own if Joanne stopped helping her. Without Joanne’s help, Francis would not be able to take care of herself and could end up homeless, with nowhere to go but the psych ward of a hospital.
There are numerous counselors and advisors who would tell Joanne that because her mother-in-law has children who can take care of her, Joanne does not have any obligation to help her, and Joanne should not feel guilty about refusing to help Frances.
I told Joanne that it is my belief that because no one else is willing to help Frances, as a Christian, Joanne has an obligation to do what she can to assist Frances. If Joanne was a Catholic, I would have reminded her that she has an obligation to practice the corporal works of mercy, which are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead.
I told Joanne that there is a reason God allowed her to be confronted with a decision as to whether she should help Francis. I emphasized the fact that a decision to help Francis would also be a decision to imitate Jesus, and that just as Jesus was willing to take up a cross to carry and to suffer for our salvation, Joanne’s cross at this point in her life is Frances. I indicated that Joanne should imitate Jesus by offering up, for the salvation of others, any suffering that is associated with dealing with Frances. I made it clear that Frances is in her life at this time to help her obtain salvation, and she is in Frances’s life right now to help Frances obtain salvation.
The last thing I told Joanne was that she needed to sit down with her husband and write down all the things she was willing to do for Frances, as well as all the things she was not willing to do for Frances. After compiling a list, she and her husband needed to meet with Frances and tell her what was expected of her and what Joanne was willing to do for her. They also needed to tell Frances that if she did not follow their guidelines, Joanne would not be able to help her.
Over the past 20 years, I attended several business development conferences. At most of those conferences, there was at least one speaker who told the people who were in attendance that if there was any “toxic person” in their lives, they needed to immediately cut all ties with that person. I had never heard the word “toxic” associated with people until I heard it at the first conference I attended. After I heard it for the first time, I began seeing statements in business-related articles that stressed the importance of maintaining your sanity and health by disposing of toxic people in your life, including, if necessary, your spouse and immediate family members.
I agree that it’s a good practice to get rid of toxic clients, patients, customers, employees, acquaintances, and other people who are disrupting your personal or business life. But from a Christian perspective, I believe we have an obligation toward the members of our family to do our best to patiently put up with them and reasonably assist them with their needs, regardless of the suffering and sacrifice we are forced to endure.
There are many people in our modern society, including Christians, who would disagree with me on this point. To those people, I would quote St. Thomas Aquinas: “God gives each person grace in proportion to the dignity for which he destines him.” We are destined by God to extend love and compassion to others, especially the members of our immediate family.
I would also refer to something that St. Bernardine of Siena said: “It is an established principle in theology, that when a person is chosen by God for any position, he receives not only the qualities necessary for it, but even the gifts that he needs to sustain that position in a fitting way.” Our Church teaches us that we were chosen by God to care for and sacrifice for the members of our family.
Joanne understood that God gave her certain gifts, which include empathy, compassion, patience, kindness, good judgment, love for others, and the intelligence and ability to perform and follow through on important tasks. She also understood that God expects her to use her gifts to help people who are less fortunate than she is.
After I finished telling her what I thought she should do, Joanne said, “I knew you would tell me that I should help Frances. I guess I just needed the push that was necessary to do what I knew I should be doing.
If she needed a push, she came to the right person. There are many people I know who do not ask my opinion or advice because they know I will push them to do something they know, deep down, they should be doing but are not willing to make the sacrifice that is required to follow through.
But I don’t just push other people to do the “right thing.” I push myself by reminding myself every day that God gave me certain gifts that very few people have, and I am obligated to set aside time to use those gifts to help people who are less fortunate than I am, regardless of the suffering and sacrifice that is required of me.
The conversation I had with Joanne is the same conversation I frequently have with myself. There are times I have a harder time convincing myself to do the right thing than I had in convincing Joanne to do the right thing. Fortunately for me, when I argue with myself about whether I should do something I do not want to do, but I know I should be doing, the Holy Spirit and His spouse, the Blessed Virgin Mary, double-team me and I usually end up submitting to the will of God.
Blessed by God Forever.