Love Has Limits, Now?

In E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, a novel loosely based on trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the children of arrested spies are put into the unwilling keeping of a distant relative – a woman who accepts the responsibility and then stumps off, saying, “I’ll do my best, but that’s all!”

Reading it as a teenager, that was my first exposure to the idea that people could choose to put limits on love.

Of course, the idea has gained some traction, particularly in the past 4 decades. People limit love all the time, now, or worse, don’t even let love through the door. We selectively abort two babies while keeping the third, because that’s preferable to living in Staten Island and buying big jars of mayo. We embrace the temporary wedding vow.

When we limit the amount of love we allow in, or give out, we limit the work of God in our lives; His access to us, our access to him. The older I get, the more I know this to be true. As the challenged Abbess from In this House of Brede scrawled on her notepad during a stressful time: “there can be no limits.”

To limit love is to stop the forward thrust of God, working in our lives.

A few weeks ago, I posted this video here, and left the commenting to you folks:

Watch CBS News Videos Online

The story nags me a little bit, and in my new weekly column at First Things, I explain why:

A too-long-undiagnosed bout with Lyme Disease has left me challenged with arthritis and some neurological damage. The arthritis has its uses: I can predict rain, and the pain gives me something to offer up in prayer, or as penance.

Not so the neurological issues. At the peak of my illness I was unable to figure out how to do the dishes; my organizational skills have never fully recovered, and verbally I sometimes wander into strange lands, referring to cereal as cookies, or to hats as helmets. When that happens, and after I have apologized to my family for sending them into hysterics or on goose chases, I will ask, “Are you going to get rid of me, when my mind is gone?”

“We’re going to be confused a lot of the time,” they admit.

“Well,” I shrug, “as long as you still love me.”

You can read it all here.

And check back each week. Like a Traveling Horse Doctor or a lazy Cha-cha girl, I’ll be appearing every Tuesday!

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  • zmama

    As I began to read further into the piece about the triplets I had to force myself to continue to the end. Having dealt with infertility and pregnancy losses and having chosen the adoption route rather than IVF, it is doubly hard to read this woman say “Can’t we just get rid of one, or two?”, especially in light of the fact that she conceived these 3 children naturally. Natural triplets! What are the odds? What a miraculous gift! Her response is so cold. Kind of reminds me of the character Catherine Zeta Jones played in the movie Traffic when she keeps saying “Shoot him in the head.”

    I wonder how this woman’s son will feel some day if he learns what happened to his siblings in utero.

    Not a day goes by that I don’t look at our beautiful daughter and think about how many millions of others just like her in China will not see the light of day and I am so grateful her birthmother chose life for her and that God allowed our lives to intersect.

    It is just a completely different mindset than what I was raised with having two active pro-life parents who took unwed mothers into their home to offer them a real choice. Is it any wonder I was not shocked by the postscript added by the NYT re. this woman’s views on abortion?

    Funny how the NYT doesn’t allow for comments on these types of pieces.

  • zmama

    I didn’t realize Ms. Richards was so well known in feminists circles. After googling her I found out she received awards from various feminist publications including being named one of the “leaders for the 21st century”.

    Yeah, I got pretty turned off of feminist theory some 25 years ago when I was forced to read the works of radical feminist Mary Daly while taking a course on liberation theology at my Jesuit University.

    And this Amy Richards who so callously and quickly asked her doctor if she could get rid of her identical twins went on to write a seemingly well regarded book on parenting “Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself”. The only ones who lost themselves were those twins.

  • Bender

    Love is a choice, so not loving is a choice, and stopping loving is a choice. Why do people “fall out of love”? They don’t “fall out,” any more than “falling in” is involuntarily caused by some short guy shooting an arrow in you, rather, they choose to stop.

  • tim maguire

    “I’ll do my best, but that’s all” is a fascinating locution. It could have dramatically different meanings depending on how said.

    My first thought when I hear a parent say about a wayward child, “I did the best I could” is that the best you can is the bare minimum as a parent. No medal for that. But the best you can really is the best you can–you give it your all and hope for the best.

    But here, “I’ll do my best” sounds like “I’ll do the least I can get away with.”

  • Western Chauvinist

    Sometimes I think I was away from the faith too long to completely recover my Catholic sensibilities.

    I look at the story of the reporter married to the Alzheimer’s patient and I see no diminishment of love. Perhaps we have a disagreement about the state of the person, Jan Chorlton. If we *are* our memories, Jan Chorlton is gone. It seems to me her husband is loving her still as we Christians love one another in our human dignity. He lives in mourning for the woman who is no longer there, and yet cares for the human being who is before him. By bringing the “other” woman into his life, it seems to me he has actually added to the love Jan Chorlton receives. I understand the beauty and grace you have all shared in the stories of utter self-sacrifice on the part of some caretakers – and yet… I can’t help sense a certain fullness – a “yes” to love and life in the three person marriage of which the perpetual stranger, Jan Chorlton, is a member.

    I’ve read the comments arguing that Barry is losing out on experiencing the grace of self-sacrifice and suffering. Maybe that is so. But, how does that increase the love experienced by Jan Chorlton? When does his sacrifice become a monument to his virtue at the expense of someone else – not least, Jan Chorlton?

    I’m completely open to the possibility I’m wrong. I just need to understand *why* I’m wrong.

  • Mary

    If we *are* our memories,

    What mindboggling proportions that “if” takes on.

  • Western Chauvinist

    OK, Mary. It is mindboggling. But, is your argument then that Jan Chorlton is still present? If so, in what way? I’m not trying to be cute. Help me understand.

  • Will

    The woman who will not allow her grandchildren to see her when she is in the later stages of the disease exemplifies the selfishness of our culture perfectly. She won’t know who they are, so what does it matter to her then? What damage will she do her grandchildren and children by denying them herself? Is she really saving them by this action or just behaving as an exceptionally selfish person?

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  • jane

    I am so sorry to hear Barry Peterson talk about his love for his wife, Jan, in the past tense. He is still married to her.

    Perhaps he and Jan didn’t take Christian vows at their marriage ceremony, to love and to cherish, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do them part. I don’t want to judge Barry, but I have to admit that I find his live-in relationship with Mary problematic. And, Mary’s saying that Jan is now her “friend” has a self-serving ring to it.

    In this day and age, when many of us feel that we can have it all, having a wife in a long-term care facility while living and travelling with another companion seems contradictory, at least contradictory to the married love that Christians are called to.

    God bless Jan, Barry, and Jan, and may He have mercy on them.

  • Bender

    Of course she is still present WC. How? In the same way that you are still present. Or not. If we *are* our memories, you having failed to completely recover your Catholic sensibilities, we might as well say that you are gone. If Jan Chorlton is now nothing more than a zombie, one of the living dead, we might say the same of you because of your lack of memory of the truth of the human person.

    But you can see how absurd an argument that is. But it is no less absurd when applied to her or Terri Schiavo or a newborn baby or any number of other members of the human family.

  • Western Chauvinist

    Please don’t be harsh with me Bender. I’m not advocating the abandonment or murder of the person who used to be Jan Chorlton. I also didn’t see any of that coming from her husband or the other woman he loves. One of them used the term “three-person marriage” and said something to the effect, Jan will always be a part of our lives. How is that not love?

    Obviously Jan Chorlton still retains her spark of the divine – she is an AMAZING woman, able to laugh and enjoy the strangers she meets every day, including her husband. So, to answer my own question, her personality is present, her body is present, her soul is present… only her mind is gone. But as creatures of intellect and will, the part missing is significant.

    I very much believe in the dignity of the human person (including Terri Schiavo, newborn (or pre-born) babies and all other members of the human family). I’m just trying to figure out how Jan Chorlton’s dignity is diminished by the caring and love of a couple she doesn’t even know. And, frankly, you’re not helping!

    [Bender...I know sometimes you don't realize that you're coming off a little rough. This is one of those times. WC, there are several questions worth asking about how JC is being treated. For one, she has no capability to consent to her privacy being invaded as it was in that tape, basically so a book could be hawked and a "don't judge me" choice put before us. And while it's very nice that this woman who never knew JC and is now in possession of her husband "loves" her, she doesn't KNOW can't really speak to how real the love is, but on the other hand one needn't assume it is vast. Finally, her husband says "she'll always be a part of our lives." That's very nice. But that's not what he vowed to her. I think that's what Bender is saying. -admin]

  • Jeanne

    The article on the woman who aborted two babies made me so upset. If you read it again, look at all the “I” sentences. It’s all about her: her “right” to have a child when she pleases, out of wedlock; her “right” to her body. Well what about Peter and his right to his two now dead children? How does HE feel about it? Apparently he was none too happy that she killed off two of his unborn kids. But I guess her “love” doesn’t even extend to him, this man she has been cohabitating with for several years….if she doesn’t even consider his opinion in the matter, his choices, she lacks love there too. Lord, pray for this confused woman. This was so sad I felt tears prick my eyes. And she’s celebrated?

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    As I recall, Jesus once said something about a man not being able to serve two masters.

    I believe the same principal applies in marriage.

  • Western Chauvinist

    Thank you, Anchoress. You’ve giving me something to mull over. I had considered that BP(?) might be exploiting JC for the purposes of selling his book, but the video didn’t strike me that way. I know it is possible. He just seems so torn-up and the evidence given indicates he has done a lot to preserve her dignity. Of course, anything less appealing, he would have left out of the story. We just don’t know.

    I do wonder how often he has put himself through the torture of listening to his wife talking about her husband, “Mr. Happy” in the third-person. Was he “holding onto her” as tightly as possible just for the camera? Heartbreaking, even if that was the case. Maybe it’s the remnant of the bleeding heart liberal in me, but when people in such circumstances ask for mercy, I’m inclined to give it.

    As to JC not having a say in her part in the film/book – that is not doubt true. But, neither did Terri Schiavo and I think in both cases the humanity of the women shone through.

    And yes RS, “not being able to serve two masters” is why I’m opposed to married priests. OTOH, the Church has now welcomed some married priests as converts and that, too, seems to increase love in my opinion.

    It is all so messy. We are imperfect people operating in an imperfect world. If BP loves, honors and cherishes JC until death do they part, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    [I think I have made a point over and over again that I'm not looking to judge anyone. But I also am of a mind that simply getting sentimental and saying, "aw, look; his life is hard, so anything he does is fine, as long as she's cared for" leads us all to places we may not want to go, as I made clear in the main piece -admin]

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    WC, I fear the camera tends to change things; people act differently before it, than they would in front of, say, other people they meet in real life. Look at all the over-emoting, melodrama and manufactured outbursts that take place on “reality” shows. I’m not saying this man isn’t sincere, but there’s always a temptation, in situations like this, to play to your audience.

    And, of course, there’s always the “Two masters” thing; I hope that this woman is cared for. But, what if the “other woman” in this situation becomes weary of helping to take of her, and starts making her own demands or wants to leave? This could cause problems, and create tension in the household, which wouldn’t be good at all for suffering from Alzheimer’s.

  • Western Chauvinist

    I’m sorry if I’ve irritated you with my obsession with this. Apparently you aren’t the only one nagged by this story. I would NEVER have guessed myself guilty of sentimentality, but you have held a mirror up to me and I will try to take a closer look.

    Signing off on this for some contemplation time,

    [I think in cases like this, it's really difficult NOT to let a wave of sentimentalism creep in, don't you? -admin]

  • Elaine S.

    “I’ll do my best but that’s all” could be interpreted to mean “Don’t expect me to be perfect or superhuman, or be disappointed if I mess up sometimes.”

    Although in the context of the novel (since the relative was obviously not happy about taking in the children) it probably did indicate a sort of conditional love WITH limits.

  • Charlie

    Sorry to hear about the Lymes. Something we are very familiar with in our family, though none of us have gotten to the chronic stage. Though it was close (not diagnosed early) in a couple of instances.