Great journeys of integrity are walked alone

Q: My wife of 21 years was abused so badly as a child and young woman and, at the age of 70, she has been bedridden most of the past eight years. She suffers from unrelenting, inoperable pain from damage to her lower spine and pelvis. Her side of the family has shunned us and demonized me for asserting that her suffering is from the abuse that happened within her family. My side of the family has shunned us, advising that I divorce my wife and find a younger, healthier woman to marry. Most of the people who said they love us are simply gone.

We live in relative isolation and in poverty produced by catastrophic health care costs. How do I maintain some sense of respect and optimism for humanity? It appears that the world is mostly inhabited by good people who do nothing, and my tendency is to believe that whatever catastrophe awaits our species is, frankly, well-deserved. -- J.K., Apache Wells, Ariz.

A: I used to be married. Remember that line in the marriage vows? For better or worse? My then-wife and I had a running joke. When one of us had a grouchy day, forgot an important date or otherwise behaved as a less-than-stellar spouse, the other would say cheekily, "How much worse?"

The routine once made me laugh warmly, affirming the sublime safety we find only in committed, covenant love. Today I can still laugh, but now with a bitter irony. How much worse? Obviously too much, it seems.

J.K., your question is about the gripping equation of hope versus despair, but it makes me ponder the crushing weight of marriage vows. It makes me think of an anecdotal aside in the book "Mediated," by Thomas De Zengotita. He says marriage used to mean " 'til death do us part." Now it means throw yourself into it with all you've got and see if it works out.

You say your marriage is somehow "beneath" your extended family, that their solution to your suffering is to discard your mate and pick a younger, healthier wife.

They are exactly right, J.K. -- right, that is, if you were, say, a mountain gorilla or gibbon instead of a human being. No other Great Ape would have chosen her in the first place. And the troop, after some reasonable efforts to care for her, would have long ago left her on the forest floor to starve to death or die in the jaws of the first marauding leopard that happened by.

Such are the demands of nature. If you can't keep up, you are selected out.

The demands for being human are different.

I know a man who fell in love with a woman forever bound to a wheelchair. No feeling or movement from the waist down. She can't walk. Bladder and bowels forever managed by appliances. Whatever sexuality they discovered together, it would never be a truly reciprocal joy, and only a fool wouldn't acknowledge that as profound loss. Making babies was not a possibility. But still, the man fell in love. Married her.

What struck me was not his family's discomfort, but the discomfort of my own industry! Yep, therapists clucked about the man's "need to care for someone," implying that some undeveloped part of him could not bear the weight of a truly reciprocal sharing of power in the relationship.

Works like a charm! When another man's life forces you to behold your own smallness, all you have to do is retro-narrate pathologized stories about him. Just like that, your world is a safer, happier place.

Your friends who are simply gone? You force me to behold, J.K., something I hate to think about: All great journeys of integrity are ultimately walked alone. The archetypal picture here is probably Jesus, whose friends agreed to accompany him into the garden of Gethsemane that night to pray. Jesus is scared. Anxious. Asking God if there isn't some other way. He looks to his friends for support and encouragement.

And they are sound asleep. And Jesus asks a rhetorical question into the silent night air: "Will no one stay awake with me?"

As a matter of fact, no. Tonight Jesus will suffer, and he will suffer alone.

How to maintain some sense of respect and optimism for humanity? I can only tell you what I do.

When I'm feeling low, when I've lost track of why I keep putting one foot in front of the other, when I am sick and tired of paying the price for living out values about which no one else appears to have much if any investment, when I can no longer argue with Protestant theologian John Calvin who used the word "depraved" to describe the essential nature of human beings ...

... well, J.K., that's when I think of people like you.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to