Reflecting on the homophones in the title, let me first consider the revelation (the baring) of burdens in later life. The body, whether our own or that of our fellows, often goes unnoticed when we are young. The body remains unnoticed until, in sickness, or with injury, it is corporealised (Gilleard & Higgs, 2018), becoming “terribly energetic and often so noticeable” (Barth, 2004, p.345). Amery (1994) plays up on this bodily ignorance, which is resolved as we take on time (viz. grow older), as he narrates. But with ageing, as frailties materialise, disturbances become routine, even unremitting. Even in mid-life such disturbances can be chronic—at least it is becoming so for me, with a persistent ache in an arthritic hip and renewed pain in fingers once broken but left largely unattended in my youth. In aging, as in illness, the body is realized (Amery 1994). The reflexive burdens of human corporeality demand our attention.
The attention bodily burdens demand is an attention to an individual person’s essence—to one’s bodily nature (Bonhoeffer, 2004). After all, as the Christian tradition teaches, “a human being is a human body” (Bonhoeffer, 2004, p.76. Emphasis is mine). This means, then, that “A human being does not ‘have’ a body or ‘have’ a soul; instead a human being ‘is’ body and soul” (Bonhoeffer, 2004, p.77). Thus when the body is speaking through its aches and pains, whether acute or chronic, our very nature is calling out for attention, baring a particular moral reality of an individual person (Moyse, 2019b).
However, that body of the individual person that demands attention claims others’ attention as well. That is to say, the revelations of an ageing body and the incumbent strains experienced by particular persons ought to be given attention, not only by these individual persons themselves, but also by both domestic and qualified carers, from spouses, partners, and children, to nurses and physicians, among other health professionals and volunteers. Rather than being a source of transitive burden, however, the gaze by others ought to be considered differently. But these other persons have ageing bodies and incumbent strains too! (Haider Warraich’s  Modern Death details such strains among carers in his “When guardians are burdened” [pp.171–190]). We must attend to such strains that reflexively burden us and our fellows. Such attention, however, must not become a repetition of the kinds of self-[nouns] a modern anthropology champions but extended, merely, to one’s family or narrow circle of caregivers (as though a family is but an analogue of the individual, repeating a familiar phrase, “We will take care of our own”)—risk for overwhelming despair persists in such situations; as caregivers suffer their own experiences of burden, the care for the other’s body demanding attention also suffers while the aims of a modern agency, i.e., burdenlessness, prove aimless.
It is for this reason that Warraich (2017) reminds his reader, for example, “One in four American adults provide informal caregiving at any moment. …the overwhelming majority of caregivers are female, and 85 percent of them are related to the patient. … Caregivers suffer not only in resources but also in health: … experience[ing] increased rates of depression, anxiety, and insomnia and an increased risk of suicide” (pp.178–179). One might suggest, therefore, that the kind of ethics of responsible action that follows would only perpetuate caregiver burdens and harms, while affirming the concern persons have regarding transitive burdens. But such a suggestion can only be made when the dominant anthropology persists, where independence is valued and a society, including health care personnel, for example, fails to practice caregiving too. Warraich raises such a rebuttal this way: “despite being so intimately plugged into the [healthcare] system, too many times they [caregivers] are so invested in the well-being of another that they forget about themselves. But perhaps the greater problem is not that caregivers are ignoring their healthcare but that healthcare ignores caregivers” (p.179).
Physicians and nurses, for example, might lament (as Warraich does) that they will have no legal recourse to “address their [viz. caregivers’] needs unless they also happen to be a patient” (p.179). Yet they could, at the very least, enquire with due concern and attention to the other, seeking to know how such caregivers are doing—a small act of compassion that might help another to bear a burden. (Meryl Comer reflected on the twenty years of caring for her husband who suffered dementia, with only one particular physician asking her about her well-being: “When you have a disease that always wins no matter what one does, you need someone to make you feel what you are doing matters” [p.180–181]).
What one needs when despair threatens human being, is a readiness to express concern, to love, and to act responsibly for another—whether sick or well, cared for or carer. What is needed are those with “taste and tact,” as Richard Kearney (2020) describes practical wisdom: “Wisdom, in the end, is about taste and tact. That’s what we mean, isn’t it, when we say that someone sensible is someone sensitive: they have ‘the touch,’ as healer, teacher, artist, lover. They are attentive, careful, tentative. They get it. To have the right touch is to touch and be touched wisely. Touching well is living well. Hermeneutics begins there, in the flesh” (Kearney, 2020, p.100). Such wisdom helps not only to reveal but also to carry persons through the struggles of a present moment and toward the unclarities of the future—baring and bearing the burdens of human life, together.
What one needs, therefore, as Gabriel Marcel knows well, is an “enduring spiritual community” that might strengthen one to attend to, to care for, and to remain cautious before “what in a sense he always knew but ran away from” (McKinnon 2011, p.186). For us in this essay, we need the interior strength to confront dependence—the reality of dependence experienced by others as well as ourselves—against a potent modern narrative history and incumbent social performance (as illumined by accusative burdens) that consider particular meanings of independence (i.e., self-sufficiency, individual choice, and control) as dogma. We must learn again to see ourselves realistically, not as self-sufficient gods, but as human beings, dependent on a network of complex relations where touching well might be humanising: “It is not the isolated individual but the responsible person who … [sic] truly live” (Bonhoeffer, 2005, pp.258–259). (Such learning can occur at any age; but attending to the reality of this humanising network of inter-relating and mutually dependent persons can become an expert attending, if you will. If such schooling would begin when younger, it might be, when old, our expert understanding of dependence could be experienced as a strength instead of as undesirable fodder for despair [c.f., Wright, 2005]).
Even while considering the need to be attentive to one’s own body, attending to the will to be healthy for oneself, the relation between persons persists (Barth, 2004). One must care for oneself so that one might be available to give of oneself for others. And when one cannot exercise such care for oneself, another can bear such caring attention on her behalf. The sociality of practicing the will for health, together, even when inundated by the forerunner of death, viz. illness, ensures that the one and the other can flourish as human beings—can bare their respective and correlating humanity. Such attention and caring in responsible communities ensures the mutual dependence one has with another, thus fulfilling the essential correlation between persons that is humanising. The practice of such correlation throughout one’s life stages, readies each one particular person to give and to receive due care, and thus, the capacities, or rather competencies, to relate as one to her fellows in both healthfulness and sickness, in youth and in later life—readying us to bear the burdens of our fellows. It is in this way that the relation of responsibility, of burden-bearing, that Bonhoeffer is introducing is a radical social initiative.
It is a social initiative where attention to the demands of bodily life, to the baring of human corporeality (viz. inter-corporeality), must become a bearing together. And for the Christian, bearing is imperative—life together is essential: “Christians must bear the burden of one another. … Only as a burden is the other really a brother or sister and not just an object to be controlled” (Bonhoeffer, 1996, p.100). Only by way of such bearing might persons become as icons of God, in Jesus Christ, and therefore bare their humanity. For it was, as the Christian tradition proclaims, the humanity of God “who suffered and endured human beings in the body of Jesus Christ. … as a mother carries her child, as a shepherd the lost lamb. … In suffering and enduring human beings, God maintained community with them” (p.100–101). Only by way of such corporate bearing, might persons, together, be enabled to protest a programme of techno-capital means introduced by a healthcare marketplace committed to maintain a distance between one and one’s fellows as idealised policies of independence prioritise a kind of static description of successful ageing according to a modern anthropological orthodoxy against the actualities of real life—of finite, mortal, intercorporeality and mutual, fleshly dependence.
That the sounds and slogans of the bodies of many persons in later life summon others to the “structure of responsible life” in a society offers evidence for the kind of ethics that Bonhoeffer advocates while opposing others where individualisms and independencies of various kinds persist—after all, his Stellvertretung (vicarious representative action) becomes “most evident in those relationships in which a person is literally required to act on behalf of others” (Bonhoeffer, 2005, p.257). Refusing such action, such bearing, is to “deny the law of Christ” (Bonhoeffer, 1996, p.101)—love your neighbour and pursue her advantage.
Acting on behalf of others, loving and seeking the advantage of others, means for one to “stand in their place. … incorporat[ing] the selves of several people in his own self” (Bonhoeffer, 2005, p.258). Such standing in one’s place is what it means to bear another. And in addition to his Christology, which orients his understanding of bearing (Bonhoeffer, 2004, pp.213–224), Bonhoeffer gives examples of fathers, as well as statesmen, and instructors, to offer sociological confirmation of his claims in this regard. He also turns to medical professionals to give examples. Regarding a father (or mother or guardian to be more exacting), he “acts on behalf of his children by working, providing, intervening, struggling, and suffering for them. In so doing, he really stands in their place” (Bonhoeffer, 2005, p.258). Any attempt by this father to live as though he were an isolated individual, independent of others, especially his children, “is a denial of the fact that he is actually responsible” (p.258)—a responsibility, like all others, which he cannot altogether escape.
Such a vision of responsibility reflects a shared rather than individualistic agency implicit to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of human being. Bonhoeffer’s reflections on the social phenomenon of friendship might offer some insight. The character of friendship is marked by Stellvertretung as an interceding for one another. Such intercession and self-offering are to be understood and practiced as need-determined, mutual, and non-competitive—expressed by a self-implicating and concrete correlation (Robinson, 2015). While several examples Bonhoeffer provides to exemplify Stellvertretung are often rich in power relations and risk patriarchy, the relation of ageing persons to partners, peers, kin, and other carers might correspond better to friendship marked by mutual responsibility, even if asymmetrical due to frailty or illness. Moreover, Stellvertretung as friendship, must also be conformed to an understanding of freedom, which might “release others from all [one’s] attempts to control, coerce, and dominate them with [one’s] love” (Bonhoeffer, 1996, p.44). Such friendship, as such, is not a self-centred and unmediated exercise of dominance over another but an attentive exchange where correlating persons, by a mediated repetition of Christ in and for the world, are taught and enabled to disclose their needs, desires, sins, and ideations so that each might learn not only to attend to such disclosure out of love but also to situate the vocation of friendship where fidelity for the wellbeing of each other might be promised (and practiced).
Devoting oneself to the flourishing of another, often many others, in this way is vicarious representative action. Such devotion anchors and bolsters friendships, but not only friendships. Consider, for example, the medical professional. The concrete case of a physician and a patient introduces a relationship where the responsibility of the physician to give due care for the benefit of the patient is obvious. But the physician is not responsible only to the patient. She is responsible to many patients and to the whole of the profession, for which she executes her service. Only then might she fulfil her vocation (Bonhoeffer, 2005, p.293). Accordingly, as a physician she “must recognize and fulfill my concrete responsibility as a physician no longer only at a patient’s bedside, but, for example, in taking a public stance against a measure that poses a threat to medical science, or human life, or science in general” (p.293). Any attempt of the physician to abandon her responsibilities through their denial, or a “myopic self-limitation,” is careless and negligent (p.293).
But devotion to one’s real responsibilities, thus to those for whom one is claimed to exercise responsibility (bearing), is the vocation of human being. Devotion, therefore, to the flourishing of those for whom one exercises responsibility is not a devotion to acquire idealized abstractions or to secure particular objects of a so-called ‘good’. Instead, such devotion is to “the affirmation of human beings and their reality” (p.262). Affirmation of human beings and their reality leads us to that familiar pericope in Matthew’s gospel (25:31–46), where the reader is reminded that “action in accordance with Christ is action in accord with reality” (Bonhoeffer, 2005, p.263). Bonhoeffer, continues saying, “Action in accordance with Christ is in accord with reality because it allows the world to be world and reckons with the world as world, while never forgetting that the world is loved, judged, and reconciled in Jesus Christ by God. … No one is commissioned to leap over the world and turn it into the kingdom of God” (p.264, 267).
Thus, to act accordingly, to be responsible, is to attend to real (bodily and disclosed) needs rather than abstracted desires or projections. One is to become responsible to the “domain of concrete responsibility” (Bonhoeffer, 2005, p.276). And concretely, to be sure, there is no escaping the other! She is, and they are, the occasion for persons to exercise humanity and to be humanised in accord. Caring responsibly, and accordingly, limited by our creatureliness, “clothes the naked. It feeds the hungry. It comforts the sorrowful. It shelters the destitute. It serves those that harm it. It binds up that which is wounded. It has become all things to all men” (Simons, 1956, p.307). Vicarious responsible action is concrete is these ways. “The attention of responsible people,” therefore, as Bonhoeffer (2005) contends, “is directed to concrete neighbors in their concrete reality. Their behavior is not fixed in advance once and for all by a principle, but develops together with the given situation” (p.261). Developing together, the aim is not toward an unrealistic ideal or disincarnated “absolute good” (like independence, which is included in successful ageing campaigns and policy statements), but to act meaningfully “in accord with reality [das Wirklichkeitsgemäße]” (p.261). Neither ideal nor policy but reality bares, or reveals and constitutes, the truth and limits of our responsible human action (of our bearing).