Wednesday, March 23, 2005

My Two (hundred) Cents

I started commenting on a friend's post regarding the Terri Shiavo case and realized I wanted to say more than was appropriate for a comment (I've made that mistake before). So I figure, what the hey, everybody's sticking his or her opinion everywhere it will(or won't) stick (we Americans do this well), so I might as well throw mine out, too.

I'm not sure I can say what I want to say without seeming to come down in judgment on Terri's husband, which isn't my intent. He has undoubtedly suffered much and endured much and, to be honest, I have folded like a house of cards under much less. Be that as it may, I believe real judgment is possible in this case. Most of us probably think of the word judgment in a pejorative sense, being that the highest virtue of our day is Tolerance, which has somehow been neatly propped up across from Judgment and declared it's opposite. But the main definition of the word only implies an ability to discern or form an opinion based on available information. I suppose we feel that nobody ever has enough or complete information about another person and therefore is in no position to judge. I agree with that statement where it concerns the motive or intent of a person. But I also think it would be a big mistake to assume that we also cannot judge ideas, simply because they happen to be attached to a person.

What are the ideas in this case and can we separate them from the Shiavos? I think we can. So, without casting aspersions on Mr. Shiavo's motive or character, I'd like to explore the separate, ethological issues.

The first, most obvious issue is one of life: the quality and purpose of it and how these two things relate one to the other. There are two grids (other than the eternal one, presupposing God) through which to look at this issue; one is the importance of Terri's life to her and the other is the importance of her life to others.

Michael Shiavo claims that Terri's life is not worth living to her and that she would want him to let her die. This is no more than an assumption and is absolutely impossible to determine. I have seen individuals with Downs Syndrome or other mental/physical incapacities who have enjoyed life very much in their limited way. The funny thing about limitations is that we who do not have them assume that nobody could happily live with them (because God knows, we couldn't). I read an article the other day in which Mr. Miller, a deaf man, said (with regard to cochlear implants) , "I do not want one for myself. I am very happy being deaf. To me, this is like asking a black or Asian person if he/she would take a pill to turn into a white person." I, as a hearing person, could not understand what he meant. Doesn't he know what he is missing? Well, no, he doesn't. But it doesn't matter , because he doesn't know and therefore is not, to his mind, missing anything. My eight-year-old son cannot imagine or desire the experience of falling in love but this does not mean that being an eight-year-old boy is a less fulfilling life than being a grown man; in fact, it may be happier. Certainly Terri's case is different from that of a hearing-impaired man or my eight-year old son. But it is similar in this sense; that even if her husband had proof that Terri, when well, asked him never to let her live in a mentally and physically impaired state, it would only be like stating that a hearing person thought he couldn't bear not hearing or a boy swore that he would never kiss a girl. We don't actually know what life is like for Terri or if she wants (in whatever way she is able) to keep it.

The other part to this question of her life's value pertains to the people who love her. In this case, her parents love her and don't want her to die and are willing to sacrifice much of their own comfort in order to care for her. If her husband loves her, too, but is unable to care for her, he could hand her over to the care of her parents. Perhaps he truly believes that Terri would want to die and he is fighting for her good. However, she doesn't appear to be in pain, she smiles, and as we established above, there is no sure way to know that she does not want her life, given that she cannot communicate her desire.

The second ethical issue I see in this story regards the nature of human commitment or love. This is the area that I can hardly avoid seeming to condemn Michael Shiavo. So I will try to divorce it from him altogether and take the general question my friend posed, "how can anyone live with their life-partner being mentally and physically incapacitated for so long?". I understand this question and ask it myself. Still, when I try to determine the defining assumptions behind a term like "life-partner" or "marriage" or even one as general as "love" I don't find that our perceived ability (or lack thereof) to withstand hardship really has a whole lot to do with it. Many wedding vows still include the lines, "for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health". The love which first prompts two people to make this promise to eachother may be filled with emotion, good feelings, an appreciation of what the beloved gives or makes the lover feel, but it is not meant to stop there. It is meant to blossom into a deep and abiding love which always protects and always cares for it's beloved, even when the other is unable to reciprocate. That is why lovers marry and pledge to care for one another. Otherwise, why not just love until the fuzzy feelings fade (which they will) or until the other person gets fat or ornery or sick or difficult to care for? I even heard recently that couples are changing their wedding vows to say "as long as our love shall last", rather than the traditional "until death do us part". How can there be any real trust between people who are saying, in effect, "At some point in time, I will probably not love you. But for now, give me your soul and we'll make the best of it". Take a look at what Dr. Robertson McQuilkin had to say when he resigned his position as president of Columbia Bible College to care for his wife, Muriel, who had Alzheimer's Disease:
"My dear wife, Muriel, has been in failing mental health for about eight years. So far I have been able to carry both her ever-growing needs and my leadership responsibilities at Columbia Bible College. But recently it has become apparent that Muriel is contented most of the time she is with me and almost none of the time I am away from her. It is not just "discontent." She is filled with fear–even terror–that she has lost me and always goes in search of me when I leave home. It is clear to me that she needs me now full-time. The decision was made, in a way, 42 years ago, when I promised to care for Muriel "in sickness and in health, till death do us part." So as a man of my word, integrity has something to do with it. But so does fairness. She has cared for me fully and sacrificially all these years; if I cared for her for the next 40 years I would not be out of debt. Duty, however, can be grim and stoic. But there is more; I love Muriel. She is a delight to me, her warm love, occasional flashes of that wit I used to relish so, her happy spirit and tough resilience in the face of her continual distressing frustration. I do not have to care for her. I get to! It is a high honor to care for so wonderful a person."

I suppose this leads into a third consideration, which goes hand in hand with the first question of an individual life's value. We, the lovers, the care-givers, can actually become better persons through selfless and tenacious love of a helpless person. A 22 year-old severely autistic boy who attended my church died recently. I don't know what his mental capacity was but I know he couldn't communicate and couldn't be left alone. I watched his family (mom, dad, brother, sister) relate to him with unbelievable love. His sister held his hand and led him around, his dad rubbed his back to calm him when he began shaking and murmuring loudly. I don't know if their love made a difference to him (though I would venture to guess that it did, pretty significantly) but I know that it made a difference to them. The whole family radiated love; they were kind, patient, understanding, giving people.

The last question that came to my mind as I thought about the Schiavo Case is one of death and suffering. Terri is not being artificially caused to breathe and is not in a coma and cannot, therefore, be relieved of the life support and die unconsciously. Instead, she is being starved, which does not seem very humane to me even if we are talking about an animal and not a human being. I read today that Terri's parents are not allowed even to give her a sip of water to wet her dry mouth. This does not seem consistent with respect for human dignity and life, even if one takes the "right to die" position.

Yeah, so there are my thoughts on the matter. Much too long and most likely not very popular.

Ah, well.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Holy Spam

I received an email forward the other day. To be honest (my apologies to those of you who spam) I usually delete these without reading them. Being that this particular mail came from someone unknown to me and was sent to all the parents at my boys' school, I skimmed it over. Here it is, mostly in entirety:
Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response (regarding the attacks on Sept. 11) . She said:
"I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?"

In light of recent events...terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (she was murdered, her body found recently) complained she didn't want prayer in our schools, and we said OK.

Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school... the Bible says
thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as
yourself. And we said OK.

Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn't spank our children when they misbehave
because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their
self-esteem (Dr.. Spock's son committed suicide). We said an expert should
know what he's talking about. And we said OK.

Now we're asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don't know right from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world
is going to hell. Funny how you can send 'jokes' through e-mail and they spread like wildfire
but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing.
Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.
I'm not laughing, are you?
Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you're not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it. Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.
This enraged me. The more I thought about the ludicrous nature of the email the more angry I became. So instead of hitting "reply to all" and embarrassing the sender with angry ranting, I'm using my blog to vent some steam (what else, after all, is it for?).

I don't know what Anne Graham meant by her comment, but here's what I think:

Tragedy on the scale of the September 11 attacks or the recent Tsunami disaster is disconcerting for many reasons. All is not well with God's world and we naturally want someone or something to blame. Could these tragedies be Divine punishment for a people who
refuse to love Him? Do they signify the lifting of a protective hand (assuming it was there in the first place) from the United States of America? I'm sure I don't know. But, in the absence of proof, why would I want to believe or even suggest such an idea?

Could tragedy be the outcome of a broken world filled with nature gone awry, evil ideas and hateful passions? Certainly, it is. That is all we know. Speculating about the mind of God is not only fruitless, it gives the speculator a ticket to ride the "Smugness Express", standing around pointing fingers instead of digging them into to dirt.

This email purports to take the blame for the state of the world upon "ourselves" (ie. "we said ok"), but the tone is the angry, frightened one of judgementalism; not the wise, saddened one of compassion.

Internet spam almost always comes with an agenda tag, hurling insults and half-truths (or outright lies) at the perceived enemy, whatever group or individual that may be. In this case it's hard to tell who's the enemy (secularists? Christians? God?) but we know it isn't Anne Graham, and it doesn't appear to be the terrorists, and I'm guessing it isn't the author.

The first enemy identified is Madeleine Murray O'Hare, who was apparently murdered for taking prayer out of public schools (does the author realize who this implicates?).

Then "someone" took the Bible out of schools, which apparently led directly to moral decay, because nowhere outside the Bible are we taught that murder or theft are wrong or that loving others is important (the Israelites must have been running around stabbing eachother for stylish sandals until God wrote in stone "Do not kill" and "Do not steal").

Next we get to blame Dr. Spock, who dared to suggest that fathers stop dragging their sons out to the woodshed and that we should hug our children. I smelled something fishy here and found this dispelling the myth of Dr. Spock's son's suicide. In addition to this juicy tidbit being false, the attitude behind the telling of it is an insensitive, almost cruel gloating over a sobering and horrible thing, and strikes me as antithetical to Christian charity. Not to mention the fact that it uses faulty logic; a good man's son may despair of life for reasons which have nothing to do with the man or his parenting philosophy.

We get the invitation to blame ourselves somewhere in there, but by this time we are so angry at the Atheists and Liberals that we're ready to take them out to the woodshed. And to top it all off like a cherry on an ice cream sundae, the author slaps on some guilt, for good measure. "If you don't pass this on then you're as bad as they are."

I'm not sure an Atheist could compose email spam more contrary to the spirit of Christianity. As a Christian myself, I object to this representation of me. I object to this representation of Christ. I'm still angry. And I think I should be.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Creature of Habit - Part II

Some situations we respond to by instinct and others we respond to by habit, like Pavlov's dog. We have free will. However, our will gets all but nailed to the floor by habit. An essential part, then, of exercising free will is to choose which habits we will form and which we will uproot.

I first encountered this idea while reading Charlotte Mason on childhood education. Well, no, it's inception for me was in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, book IV, chapter 7, "Let's Pretend".

"When you are not feeling particularly friendly
but know you ought to be, the
best thing you can do,
very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave

as if you were a nicer person than you actually are.
And in a few minutes,
as we have all noticed,
you will be really feeling friendlier than you were.

Very often the only way to get a quality in reality
is to start behaving as
if you had it already.
That is why children's games are so important. They

are always pretending to be grown-ups -playing soldiers,
playing shop. But
all the time, they are hardening
their muscles and sharpening their wits so
that the pretence
of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest."

I read this and began thinking about behaviour and character. Which comes first? Does a man do good because he is a good man or is he a good man because he does good?

I'm sure I could credit many authors with contributing to the pot of this idea, as it stewed in my mind. But back to Charlotte Mason. She was a late 19th/early 20th century educator who is rightfully being saved from obscurity, mainly by home-schooling parents. In her book, Home Education, she writes,

"One of the great functions of the educator is to secure that actions will be so regularly, purposefully and methodically sown that the child will reap the habits of the good life, in thinking and doing, with a minimum of conscious effort."

Ms. Mason goes on to identify the most important of these habits, including the "habit of attention", the "habit of manners", the "habit of truthfulness", the "habit of gratitude", among many others. Children will leave home and develop their own philosophy of life, of course. But if a boy has been trained to the "habit of manners", chances are that he will be polite. If he has practiced the "habit of truthfulness" for many years, most likely he will be an honest man. Again, from Home Education,

"Educate the child in right habits and the man's life will run in them, without the constant wear and tear of moral effort of decision."

This is very important. As I wrote in my previous post, I have few good habits, that I can think of , which means that I am at a severe disadvantage as regards doing good. Good acts that I can choose come with tremendous, often dissuading, "wear and tear of moral effort". It is incomparably harder to develop habits in an adult than in a child but I owe it to myself at least to try. Here's a saying attributed to Thomas a Kempis:

"Sow an act, reap a habit,
Sow a habit, reap a character,
sow a character, reap a destiny."

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Creature of Habit

I quit smoking 5 weeks ago. It wasn't hard then, because I was too sick to move. It hasn't been hard since, because my sore throat only left this week.

A few nights ago I was feeling very bitter and a little bit sad. I grabbed a jug of merlot and tried to drink away my sorrows (never a good idea, since alcohol tends to send me on cynical, angry rants and the next morning finds me sad). Since I was smack in the middle of a rant when Scott went out for a smoke, well, of course I had to have one.

The next night we painted and everyone knows that smoke breaks are the best part of painting. And I was bitter and sad.

Last night, while bitter and sad, I watched a stupid movie and the best part of a stupid movie is irrefutably the smoke breaks.

I woke an hour early this morning thinking about habits. Habits of Doing become Habits of Being. I don't have good habits. I simply don't. I intend good. I sometimes choose good. I may happen upon good. I think about being good, and I hope that in the end everything comes out, well, good.

That just isn't the way we work. We can't do one thing and have it's polar opposite result. At least not as a matter of course.

Duh. It's time for some new habits.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Paint Stains

Last night Scott and I dug our $1.00/can garage sale paint out of the closet and painted the laundry room /tv room/bedroom (Yes, it is only one room - we're packed in here like sardines).

As I stirred up the now three-years-stagnant paint, my eyes recognized the canvas tarp beneath it. "Oh look, " I thought, "There's the color of our kitchen on Botanical - that was a great color". Creamy Cocoa, I think they called it. I bought yellow first. Stephanie and Aiden came over to put it on the walls. "That's a bit of the yellow right there," I thought, "Way too bright." Flourescent, really. Yellow paints are risky... I re-did it in Creamy Cocoa.

I scanned the drop cloth for other colors and didn't stop until I'd identified every one; the gold (which I will never do again) from our bedroom, the moss green we used to cover the (very amateur, if creative) mural on the bathroom walls, blue and grey from the Milligan House basement and a black, spray-painted, rectagular outline, laid down in the making of the "Fallout Shelter" coffee house sign.

Moments, words, faces, laughter, music, conversation, brewing coffee, smiles, tensions, late nights, stale coffee, cigarettes... all these things rushed at me and I wasn't quick enough to chase them away.

Physicality is curious. Existence in space and time is curiouser. Every day I see my bookshelves and tables and photographs, and I can remember them in past settings. But they stand alone here, now, and I never think of them as connected somehow to a place or a time. This canvas drop-cloth is different. Each colored stain adhered to it's surface at a moment in time, during a period of time, in a particular house and a particular room. Particular people stood on it and painted. I stood on it and painted. I and this tarp were there, together; somewhere we can't get to now.

The tarp carries it's marks of the past. I carry marks, too; intangible ones. I don't like intangibility. I want to wear my stains, as the canvas does. Like Doubting Thomas, I'll put my finger in the scars so I can know that I am real and not a ghost.

I finished mixing the paint, stood up, wiped my eyes with the back of my hand and set about laying new stains on the drop cloth.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

A Word for the Men

A comment on my previous post drew attention to the body-image pressure facing women in America and suggested we might ease some of this pressure if men understood the food/body struggle that most women experience daily. While it might be helpful in some regards (my husband would finally understand why "I absolutely cannot go out looking like this"), I don't think the problem can be fixed by making men taste the same bitter drink. Whoever the ambiguous "they" driving this engine, I honestly don't think it is men. Yes, one could invoke the law of supply and demand and say that what men want is what is put out. But I think that men get caught in the claws of the monster, too. They are actually taught what to find attractive in a woman. And with advertising and film as sexualized as it is, it's hard to not want what we see.

Often, to be honest, we women perpetuate the feminine "ideal"; we claim to despise the idol and then bow down to it. I've several times quoted a female speaker I once heard who said "All mothers should be at least 15 lbs. overweight", but in the end I wouldn't mind too much if my children had to lean on a bony shoulder.

Women also make resistance to societal pressure hard for one another. We are very critical of eachother. We compare ourselves to eachother. We measure every woman against the Cosmo Goddess. When a guy is with a woman who is less than ideal we wonder "why is he with her?" but when we see a beautiful woman with an ugly man we assume he has "character". I am more afraid of what women think of me than of what men think.

Back to the "Ambiguous They". What it comes down to is the dollar. Men and women alike shell out extravagant amounts of money in pursuit of phantom perfection. But if gold is the fuel for the engine, who is the engineer? It's us, it's them, it's advertising firms, it's the fashion industry, the movie industry, it's the giant of consumerism itself; all of which are made up of ordinary men and women. The whole seems to be greater than the sum of it's parts. That's why it's ambiguous.