Being useful vs. useful being

Today I was having a conversation with someone who has visited persons who are elderly and receiving palliative care. I asked him if any of them have expressed temptations to end their lives prematurely.

“Many,” he said.

“Why is that?” I asked.

He told me that it’s because of a sense of no longer being useful. “For so many, their sense of worth is connected to how useful they can be to their loved ones and to others in their life. When these opportunities diminish, so does their estimation of the value of their lives.”

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Attentiveness to the person

The other day, I learned about this interesting section in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Gifts to the Poor 7:3) concerning charity which says:

One is commanded to give to a poor person according to what he lacks. If he has no clothes, they clothe him. If he has no utensils for a house, they buy [them] for him. If he does not have a wife, they arrange a marriage for him. If [the poor person] is a woman, they arrange a husband for marriage for her. Even if it was the custom of [a person who was rich but is now] a poor person to ride on a horse with a servant running in front of him, and this is a person who fell from his station, they buy him a horse to ride upon and a servant to run in front of him, as it is said, (Deut. 15:8) Sufficient for whatever he needs. You are commanded to fill whatever he lacks, but you are not commanded to make him wealthy.

My professor, in remarking upon this passage, noted the two-fold dimensions to charity being discussed here.

First, there is the idea that giving charity involves restoring the person in need to their proper dignity.

Secondly, and perhaps more beautifully, there is the implicit virtue that this demands of showing real attentiveness to the person.

In order to perceive that a person is lacking in some respect, it is necessary to be familiar with their ordinary standard of living.

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Treat someone as you would want your loved one treated

There is this general ethos in contemporary healthcare that physicians should remain neutral, impartial, objective, and detached. To some extent, this seems fitting so to prevent burnout and enable doctors to see so many patients with a plethora of dramatic conditions and circumstances.

However, sometimes this goes too far and is detrimental and dehumanizing not only for patients but even for the doctors themselves.

One thing a former patient shared with me in this regard struck me. She said it was greatly reassuring for her when her doctors would preface their medical judgment or recommendation with the words, “If you were my spouse…” or “If you were my daughter…”

This indicated to her that the doctor truly had her best interest at heart. If he was willing to advise something in the case of his own loved one, then it was clear that he was making his recommendation very sincerely and had considered it seriously.

And so, this leads me to reflect on how we really want to be treated by others not only as they want to be treated but also as they would want their own loved ones to be treated.

I think doctors extending this kind of empathetic imagination to their patients can be an excellent form of accompaniment and help in having crucial conversations in the meeting between doctor and patient.

A Final Birthday Card

Around New Year’s 2015, my grandfather had been hospitalized and was in quite severe pain. I visited him in the hospital during the holidays but had left the city by the time his birthday came around a couple weeks later on January 17th. I just came across the following letter that I wrote to him, which ended up being my last birthday card to him. When I had visited him at the beginning of the month, he told me that the pain was so bad that he wished he could die. This was obviously difficult to hear and so, in writing to him, I felt greatly responsible to give him some encouragement.

Here is what I wrote:

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Caregiving as a school in humanity

This evening I read a short book written by my friend and colleague’s grandmother.

In the brief memoir, Walk with Me: growing rich through relationships, author Judy Rae reflects on the experience of caring for her husband Joe while he developed Alzheimer’s.

Presented with honesty and infused with a faith, Rae offers a window into how caregiving can be a school in humanity.

Judy recounts the pain and sorrow of watching her husband lose his memory and she does not skirt the undeniably tragic dimensions of this disease.

“I have been told that when a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he is introduced to a world of loneliness, rejection, terror, confusion, misinformation, and termination. Can this tragedy bring with it any victory into our lives?” she asks.

Rae speaks about how Joe became embarrassed and humiliated by what he could no longer do or remember. Despite the continual accompaniment, affection, and affirmation of his wife, Joe’s feelings of uselessness regularly caused him to get frustrated with himself and even to cry.

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Who exactly am I?

This evening I watched the film “The Father” – a drama that follows an elderly man’s experience of dementia.

The film is masterfully done and its artfulness consists in the way in which the disorientation and confusion of memory loss is simulated for the viewer.

Take a look at the trailer:

This film caused me to wonder: Why do Alzheimer’s and dementia happen specifically? I don’t mean biologically and physiologically, but rather existentially. What does it mean for humans to be the kinds of beings who, at the end of a long, successful, flourishing life can sincerely ask, “Who are you?” and “Who am I?”

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Is your work to die for?

Today is the feast of St. Joseph the Worker and this post examines Pope Francis’ beautiful Apostolic Letter “With A Father’s Heart” to explore the practical ways in which we can see work as a context for self-gift through which we fulfill the meaning of our lives.

I have organized the themes of the letter into the following eight categories. Each category begins with a excerpt from the letter and then includes a question or two for our contemplation of some possible practical applications.

1. Names and Relationships:

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