Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Society and Dependence

Michael J. Gerson


By Michael J. Gerson

January 3, 2014

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa. 

In recent weeks, I’ve had a vivid, personal reminder of how suddenly dependent on others we can become.  After a cancer diagnosis, I had surgery to remove a tumor.  The procedure was successful, but left me in the hospital for a few days and recovering for a few weeks.  

Many have had a similar experience at some point in their lives.  One day, you are self-sufficient and self-reliant.  The next, you are dependent on machines and drugs and the care of doctors, nurses and your family.  It is not a pleasant experience to feel helpless, even if you know it is probably temporary.  You are grateful for all the help – but particularly grateful when you no longer need it. 

For me it was a reminder that dependence is not just an unfortunate accident that happens to the strong, it is part of a natural cycle that happens to everyone.  It is the condition of infants and children, the result of illness, and the gradually advancing condition as we age.  It is the daily reality for many with physical or mental disabilities and their families.  Even in the best of circumstances – a long and full life – we become more dependent over time. 

And how we react to dependence – how we care for others and receive care ourselves – is an important measure of our character.  Care can be grudgingly given, or grudgingly received.  Or freely given, and freely received.  There are responsibilities on both sides. 

There are, of course, cases that can’t be easily explained or understood, such as people facing unbearable pain.  But in life’s normal stages of dependence, we can learn lessons in giving and friendship.  “When we honestly ask ourselves,” said Henri Nouwen, “which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” 

These lessons extend to our society as well. One of the worst influences of laws and social doctrines that encourage physician assisted suicide and euthanasia is the message they send to the severely ill, frail elderly and dependent.  People in these situations already feel vulnerable.  And sometimes they feel worthless.   Our proper response – as individuals and a society – is to affirm their worth, not to affirm their fears.  The value a society places on life is revealed in its attitude toward the dependent.

The worst problem with utilitarianism – measuring the value of a life by its social usefulness – is its cruelty.  It tells vulnerable people they are useless.  A compassionate, welcoming society affirms exactly the opposite: Vulnerable people deserve our special attention and care.  And most of us will need that care, at some point or another.     

- Michael J. Gerson is a Visiting Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010). 

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”