Earlier this week, the covenant members of our small faith community met for our monthly members' meeting. I’ve been part of the four-person leadership team for a number of years. In our community, commitment to membership in anything—the church, a mission group, the leadership team—is made for a year at a time, after which each one of us re-evaluates to discern whether we’re called to continue that commitment.
Sunday, I shared with the community some of my ambivalence about renewing my commitment. I said I was concerned that my cognitive impairment wouldn’t allow me to continue to participate meaningfully, especially for a full year.
But it’s complicated.
At this point in my illness, I’m aware of cognitive losses that have led me to give up, for instance, the bookkeeping at church or the writing of complex articles and commentary that was my vocation prior to this disease. But I haven’t yet noticed a decline in my ability to be actively and helpfully present in small groups or in mentoring relationships with individuals. Perhaps I can call that capacity “wisdom,” which, surprisingly, doesn’t yet seem compromised.
So, at this point, I still have a role on the team that’s important to me. But I’m concerned about the losses that might be just around the corner, disabling me more quickly than I’d anticipated and making me a burden to the team. I may or may not recognize my need to relinquish responsibilities before others do. My community has reassured me that they’ll speak up if my abilities are compromised, and they encouraged me on Sunday not to allow that concern to keep me off the team. We’ve talked enough as a community about my Alzheimer’s that I do have some confidence that they’ll be able to tell me if I am not contributing.
And that may be the problem.
As I’ve reflected on it since Sunday, my ambivalence actually rests on my fear that they will have to tell me it’s time to leave before I recognize it myself. It’s been a value inculcated since childhood: Do not think too much of yourself; never allow your self-assessment to outrun others’ assessment your capacity. If I don’t leave on my own initiative, I fear, I will be humiliated by their request to leave. So the real issue is not my concern about being a burden but about my pride.
I want to be on the team. I have an important role there. My capacities in that area are not yet impaired. Most importantly, perhaps, my presence there connects me tightly to our community, which is central to my sense of meaning and my happiness. This is a community that knows my illness, that loves me, and which I trust. Yet I am contemplating giving all that up, not because it may be time to do so, but out of pride that fears the humiliation of being told I must.
As our pastor lay dying a few months ago, he told me he was learning about the supreme value of weakness and vulnerability. In our weakness is our strength, wrote the apostle Paul. Yet my pastor said he could only accept that fundamental truth as he was dying. I’m not sure I believe Paul yet, but I can see that my weakness from Alzheimer’s disease is helping me confront issues I could not have otherwise confronted and given me a deep gratitude and a heightened capacity for relationship. It’s giving me permission to allow my community to gather around me without my humiliation. My weakness has given me new life.