It is interesting to notice how the all-too-familiar rhetorical and Nazi-like tactic of dehumanization works in the eco system of probate guardianships. “The elderly” “Wards” the incapacitated” are all bunched together as a kind of faceless mass, all of them considered worthless and thus effectively deserving of the suffering that life in postmodern America probate courts will inflict upon them. Lost entirely is the fact that the elderly citizen stripped of their rights by the court—now referred to without even a name as “the ward”– are individual human beings, each with a distinctive face and voice, each with hopes and dreams, memories and regrets, friendships and marriages, loves lost and loves sustained. But our legal society has decided that they deserve to be disenfranchised and even die—and as for the rest of us, we can feel no compunctions about just going about our business or even profiting from their vulnerability.
To paraphrase Rabbi Shai Held in the Atlantic, March 12, 2020– I find myself thinking about the biblical mandate to “honor your father and mother.” The Hebrew word usually translated as “honor,” kabed, comes from a root meaning “weight.” At the deepest level, then, the biblical command is thus to treat the elderly as weighty. Conversely, the Bible prohibits “cursing” one’s parents. The Hebrew word usually translated as “curse,” tekalel, derives from a root meaning “light.” At bottom, then, the biblical proscription is on treating the elderly lightly, as if they are inconsequential.
Why do I say “the elderly”? In its biblical context, the obligation to honor parents is a command given to grown children (as are the Ten Commandments more broadly—you don’t tell children not to commit adultery nor to covet their neighbors’ fields). When you are an adult, the Bible instructs, you must not abandon the elderly. Giving voice to a pervasive human fear, the Psalmist prays, “Do not cast me off in old age; when my strength fails, do not forsake me!”
What does it say about our society that people think of the infirm or elderly so dismissively—and moreover, that they feel no shame about a court of equity so easily and quickly removing their rights, removing all support structures and extracting their lifetime’s accumulation of assets? I find myself wondering whether this colossal moral failure is exacerbated by the most troubled parts of our cultural and economic life. When people are measured and valued by their economic productivity, it is easy to treat people whose most economically productive days have passed as, well, worthless.
From a moral perspective, if there is one thing we ought to teach our children, it is that our worth as human beings does not depend on or derive from what we do or accomplish or produce. Each of us is infinitely valuable just because we are created in the image of God. We mattered before we were old enough to be economically productive, and we will go on mattering even after we cease to be economically productive.
Especially when they have become vulnerable, the elderly deserve our respect and, when necessary, our actual protection. The mark of a decent society is that it resists the temptation to spurn the defenseless. The moral fabric of a society is best measured by how it treats the vulnerable in its midst—and yet it is a lesson we never seem to tire of forgetting. “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old,” the Bible says—look out for them and, in the process, become more human yourself.
The inhumanity of the guardianship racket is epic, rivaled only by the hubris and greed that drives it. The refusal of our society to intercede in even the most egregious abuses perpetrated by the racket is a blatant “tell” about who and what we have become.