Black & White

Recently I was getting ready to head to the U.K. for a five-day seminar.

Before leaving, I showed the webpage announcing the program to a Chinese student at my residence.

As he scrolled the webpage, a concerned expression spread across his face.

“Why are these photos black and white?” he asked nervously, perusing the headshots and bios of faculty and fellows.

“Just for branding and aesthetic,” I shrugged. “Why?”

“In China, black and white photos indicate the person has died,” he explained to me.

Ah, I realized.

No wonder he had looked so startled upon seeing my black and white headshot on his laptop as I sat across from him.

Women at the foot of the cross

I recall reading in a biography of Cecily Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice and palliative care movement, that she had been struck by how many women were pioneering and influential in the care of the dying throughout the centuries.

This is something that I contemplate whenever I look at religious art depicting the women at the scene of the Crucifixion.

In his letter on the dignity and vocation of women, John Paul II wrote:

Indeed, the Gospels not only describe what that woman did at Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper; they also highlight the fact that women were in the forefront at the foot of the Cross, at the decisive moment in Jesus of Nazareth’s whole messianic mission. John was the only Apostle who remained faithful, but there were many faithful women. Not only the Mother of Christ and “his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene” (Jn 19:25) were present, but “there were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him” (Mt 27: 55). As we see, in this most arduous test of faith and fidelity the women proved stronger than the Apostles. In this moment of danger, those who love much succeed in overcoming their fear. Before this there were the women on the Via Dolorosa, “who bewailed and lamented him” (Lk 23:27). Earlier still, there was Pilate’s wife, who had warned her husband: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream” (Mt 27:19).

It is interesting to consider the impact that art can have on the imagination and also on forming a person’s sensitivity to his or her role to play within a society.

A director of learning for the elderly

Even though it was published five years ago, I still remember this news article in my local paper in which an 89-year-old man describes his life at a retirement home.

It begins with this section on small talk:

Unlike soldiers, prisoners or students, we at the lodge are here voluntarily and with no objective other than to live. We don’t have a lot in common other than age (and means). However we are encrusted with 70 or 80 years of beliefs, traditions, habits, customs, opinions and prejudices. We are not about to shed any of them, so the concept of community is rather shadowy.

The common topics of conversation are the weather and the food, and since they both change every day, most of us never lack for conversation. For those contemplating a move to a lodge such as ours, it is wise to polish up their encrustations to make them as smooth and inoffensive as possible.

Thus we engage in the never-ending table talk with the minimum of disagreement.

Now I understand that the piece is intended to be a bit humorous in a certain way, but I haven’t been able to forget the grim picture painted in those short paragraphs.

By contrast, consider the aspirational vision that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gives us in his piece, “To Grow in Wisdom”:

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We die together

This is a short post to direct you over to the excellent, thoughtful piece by Joshua Briscoe published in the summer edition of The New Atlantis titled, “Dying, But Not Alone.”

Here are two of my favourite paragraphs:

A patient’s choice to end her life is not “defined” by her, if by that we mean that it is a choice that is just about herself. Rather, it is a declaration about what kind of life is worth living. It is thus also a statement about other people’s lives, a statement to others about when their own lives are worth living or not.

[…]

This is why choices about how we die are not just about us; they are also about how others think about us and are involved in our care. When someone says, “I would never want to live like that,” “She’s just a shell of who she once was,” or “This death is undignified,” the person is expressing our culture’s prejudices about aging and dying, and in doing so is further reinforcing them and thus shaping how others view themselves.

A lot has been written about the lonely and solitary dimensions of death but not enough attention is paid in our time to its social dimensions. Briscoe highlights this in his piece and makes the case that our cultural attitudes toward death concern and implicate us long before the hour of our death.

Be sure to take a look at his piece, here.

Cultural Vitality and Human Dignity

A few years ago, I conducted this interview with Juliana Taimoorazy, founder of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council. Since it was not previously published, but contains many worthwhile remarks about why cultural preservation is an important aspect to human dignity, I now post it here.

Amanda: You were once interviewed on CBN about the Iraqi elections and Iraqi Christians. In that clip you said, “In addition to building communities in terms of brick and mortar, their homes, their streets, and churches… there must be real attention paid to building the human person.” What does it mean to build up the human person, in general and in Iraq specifically?

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Initial hypothesis about resurrection

After nearly 200 days of blogging about death every day, where is this leading?

I find myself becoming fascinated and absorbed by the topic of the resurrection of the dead.

As a friend remarked to me the other day, this is one of the most fundamental beliefs underlying our civilization and yet, it is a teaching about which most people are, if they are being honest about it, rather incredulous or indifferent.

My very preliminary hypothesis is that belief in resurrection is subliminally decisive to how we live and that it has wide-ranging implications in ethics, technology, and culture.

To play with these ideas, we can ask: What difference does it make whether or not we believe in a resurrection of the dead? What are the practical consequences in our lives of its possibility or impossibility?

Another question: If people believed in the resurrection of the body, what would it change in our public bioethics?

I do not yet have many answers to propose. However, my first intuition is that the precariousness of our embodiedness needs redemption.

Whether this redemption is possible and whether we stake (or mistake) our hope about it in the correct place is, I think, a more interesting and practical question than many realize.

Jordan Peterson: “Part of you must therefore die.”

Rule Four of Jordan Peterson’s new book Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life is: “Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.”

In this chapter, Peterson discusses how choosing to take responsibility is fundamental to being useful and leading a meaningful life. As usual, he weaves a range of sources together from the Hebrew Bible, to Egyptian myths, to Pinocchio and Peter Pan.

The section of this chapter that especially interested me is about conscience. Since conscience is a word that does not have a great deal of resonance in our contemporary culture, Peterson patiently expounds upon what conscience is and how it works.

Here is the relevant excerpt:

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“May the wolf die!”

Today I learned an Italian idiom for wishing someone good luck that struck me as rather intriguing.

The phrase In bocca al lupo literally means “into the wolf’s mouth.”

The common reply on being wished good luck in this way is crepi il lupo – may the wolf die, or simply Crepi! meaning “May it die!”

The superstition embedded in such idiomatic phrases is that it is bad luck to wish someone good luck directly.

It is amusing to consider the ways in which presuming the worst can be a way of actually hoping for the best.

The Italian who taught me this idiom said that this mentality is quite deeply embedded in the culture. For example, before going rock climbing with some of his Mexican friends recently, he suggested to them that they would all be in the news after the trip having fallen off of the cliffs to their deaths.

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Suffering in the Spotlight

I have been captivated by a recent audition on America’s Got Talent.

It is worth every second of your next seven and a half minutes to watch it, here:

Since watching Nightbirde’s audition a few times, I have also watched a couple interviews that she has given in recent days, checked out these podcasts between her and Virginia Dixon, and perused some of her blog posts.

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Worth Doing Badly

Tonight I am remembering the oft-cited G.K. Chesterton quotation, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

It is seems to me that some of the things I find particularly worth doing and so that remain worth doing, even badly, are: studying new languages, attempting new skills, and learning more about cultural and religious traditions.

In the clip above, I was on a coffee plantation tour in Mexico when I stopped to attempt to make tortillas.

As you can see, it went rather badly.

As you can also see, I was smiling quite a lot and found it worth doing.

What is it about certain things that make them worthwhile even if we are not excellent at them?

In one of his letters, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

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