e-mail us

Starting Point

The path to dependence


It usually begins with a distinct odor followed by several twitches of the nose. If my wife is in the room, we’ll play the game of seeing who can hold out the longest. Eye contact is avoided. Without fail though someone eventually breaks down and announces the obvious: “Whew, stinky diaper.” As the rule in our house goes, “Whoever smelled it, changes it.”

I remember when we dreamed of a time when we would be freed from changing our daughter’s dirty diapers. It was all a part of an amazing progression -- rolling over, crawling, standing, walking, feeding herself, and the grand finale of baby graduation, using the toilet by herself. It couldn’t come soon enough. Freedom for the parents at last. Now, with our son a little over a year old and midway through our second journey through diaper dependency, I’m not so sure. I still think I have much to learn from this task most would rather avoid.

I became convinced of it when I stumbled across Tuesdays with Morrie, which had been tucked away long ago on one of our bookshelves. It tells the story of how Morrie Schwartz and Mitch Albom resumed their teacher-student relationship some 20 years after Albom had graduated from Brandeis University and left his professor behind. Through a chance late night encounter on “Nightline,” Albom rediscovered his mentor who was in the advanced stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). He began to visit him every Tuesday until his death.

As I leafed through the book, one particular exchange between the two grabbed my attention. In it Morrie relates how he was opening up to the gift of dependence:

“Do you remember when I told Ted Koppel that pretty soon someone was gonna have to wipe my ass?”

I laughed. You don’t forget a moment like that.

“Well, I think that day is coming. That day bothers me. Because it’s the ultimate sign of dependency. Someone wiping your bottom. But I’m working on it. I’m trying to enjoy the process.”

Enjoy it?

“Yes. After all, I get to be a baby one more time.”

Far from being a gift to be embraced, though, dependence seems to be a burden to rid oneself of as soon as possible. It really doesn’t matter who is dependent -- us on others or others on us. The point is to avoid it. Cain’s rhetorical question becomes ours: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer more often than not is “No.” As misguided as it is, self-reliance becomes our way.

Yet, Jesus offers us a glimpse of the kingdom that calls us to reevaluate dependence, perhaps even to appreciate it. Naturally, from my perspective, children figure prominently:

At that time the disciples approached Jesus and said, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me” (Matthew 18:1-5).

Living in a society where they lacked any social standing, children were totally dependent on their parents. Little has changed today. We still desire to grow up as quickly as possible and “stand on our own two feet.” Contrary to our assumptions, if we wish to be great, we must take the path of descent rather than ascent. It is a path to powerlessness, to dependence. There is an old Yiddish saying that captures this well: “People do not fall because they are weak, but because they themselves are strong.”

It’s time to change another diaper.

Michael J. Daley is a writer and teacher at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati. Along with Bill Madges, he recently edited Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories (Twenty-Third Publications).

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003