Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736
The Burden of Caregiving
The gradual regression of Ben from human to salamander is analogous to the progressive decline of an Alzheimer’s patient. Caring for the frail elderly or any loved one with an injury or progressive disease that deteriorates cognitive ability places enormous stress on the caregiver. Like Annie, caregivers feel the need to become the rememberer, both in a sentimental sense (being sure to retain the patient’s life memories and recall the person’s original personality) and also in a practical sense (taking over the paying of bills, scheduling appointments, remembering when medication must be taken, etc.). The reader gets the feeling that, unlike someone suffering with dementia or Alzheimer’s, Ben has made a conscious decision to give up thinking, thus burdening Annie with the responsibility of thinking for both of them. Near the beginning of the story, Annie asks Ben, the sea turtle, “Ben . . . can you understand me?” Close to the end (when Ben is a salamander), she asks again, “Ben . . . do you remember me? Do you remember?” Of course, she gets no answer, and once again the burden of decision-making is hers. The stress of the burden is evident in this passage: “Now I come home from work and look for his regular-size shape walking and worrying and realize, over and over, that he’s gone. I pace the halls. I chew whole packs of gum in mere minutes.” Finally, Annie reaches “the limit of [her] limits” and decides to let Ben go, releasing him into the ocean, just as many caregivers must make the final decision to cease life-prolonging procedures (such as intravenous feeding and other life-support mechanisms) and let nature take its course. In Bender’s scenario, the caregiver suffers more than the actual patient, and her final decision is born of her own desire to avoid more suffering: “I cannot bear to look down into the water,” she says, “and not be able to find him at all.” Ben, who is no longer burdened by thought, is now at peace; Annie is the afflicted one. Bender poignantly illustrates the emotional strain of being the rememberer.
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The Dangers of Intellectualism
Ben tells Annie that they both think too much, “and the world dries up and dies when there’s too much thought and not enough heart.” This is an interesting choice of words by Bender, because as Ben devolves, he progresses from a land mammal (an ape) to an aquatic creature (a sea turtle and then a salamander). Apparently he has reversed the drying up process, by eliminating thought.
Later in the story readers learn that before becoming an ape, Ben had ordered a book on civilization from the bookstore. Perhaps Ben was interested in the evolution of civilization, in which the focus of society shifted gradually from religion and towards science, explaining away the mysteries of the stars and planets and other natural phenomena. The shift away from religion and towards science placed more emphasis on rational thought and less on superstition and intuition. While this is generally considered positive, many people (like Ben) feel that it has also insulated people from their own emotions. Ben is craving life on an intuitive, instinctive level, away from thought; he takes Annie outside under the stars and tells her, “Look, Annie, look—there is no space for anything but dreaming.”
The popularity of meditation, in which one attempts to gradually leave the busy thoughts of the mind behind and simply exist in the moment, indicates that Ben is not alone in his desire. Ben’s difficulties raise an intriguing question: though people normally consider the increasing sophistication of the human brain as evolutionary progress, is there a point at which it becomes counterproductive? Has an increase of intellect led to similar emotional progress, or has emotional evolution lagged behind? Some might consider the continued proliferation of war and crime evidence that humans have evolved less on an emotional level than intellectually. Bender’s story illustrates the struggle to find a balance between emotion and thought. Ben, in his desire to abandon thought, regresses in all areas, until he becomes a less complex form of life (a salamander) and is still continuing to regress. Most people would prefer a middle ground; one could say that humans must learn to be amphibious, able to exist both in the depths of their emotions and on the dry land of their intellect.