Does Tragedy Confer Dignity?

Today marks the 11th anniversary of the 2010 plane crash in which 96 people, including Poland’s then president Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria, died.

They were en route to commemorate the 1940 Katyn Forest Massacre in which more than 20,000 Poles had been murdered by Soviets.

Those on the flight composed an official delegation and so many of the other crash victims were political, church, and military leaders in Poland.

I still remember a religious sister guiding me toward a monument commemorating victims of the crash in the Lublin cemetery. She whispered, “Some do not refer to this as the Smolensk disaster but rather as Katyn the Second.”

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Something to offer

Sixteen years ago, Terri Schiavo died.

I remember that when she was in the news, I heard the term “vegetative state” for the first time. It immediately struck me as a completely inappropriate term for any person since it explicitly dehumanizes someone by applying an incorrect analogy. Initially the adjective meant, “endowed with the power of growth” but it has come to denote exactly the opposite in public bioethics – that a person is incapable of any significant growth or development. We do not tolerate those who would dehumanize others by calling them cockroaches, so we ought not tolerate the dehumanizing language that refers to persons as “vegetables.”

When I think about Terri Schiavo, I think especially about the impact that her life and death had on my friend Taylor Hyatt. She wrote this great piece several years ago titled, “13 days that changed my life: Remembering Terri Schiavo.”

In the piece, Taylor reflects on how Terri’s story captivated her when she was in Grade 7.

She wrote:

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The Task Report in Death

This evening I’ve been reading Tomáš Halík’s book, I Want You To Be: On the God of Love in which the thirteenth chapter is titled, “Stronger than Death.”

In this chapter, the Czech priest, philosopher, and Templeton Prize laureate discusses how, “in order to perceive death as a gift, one must first deeply experience life as a gift.”

Gratitude is the appropriate response to a gift but, importantly, life is not only a gift but also a responsibility. Halik, like Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaks of life as an assignment:

Death is not a mere returning of the gift of life. Only loans are returned, and to return a gift is always regarded as an insult to the donor. The entrance ticket to life (think of the conversation between Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov) is not returnable. Life is not just a gift; it is also an assignment. At the moment of death, the handing on of the life that was given to us as an opportunity and entrusted to us as a task is—in religion terms—a sort of completed task report, the hour of truth about the extent to which we have fulfilled or squandered the opportunity we were given. Aversion to that religious concept of death is possibly only assisted by arguments from the arsenal of materialistically interpreted science, although in fact it is more likely based on the anxiety aroused by the need to render an account to a Judge who cannot be bribed or influenced. Compared to that the atheist view that everything comes to an end at death is a comforting dose of opium!

How often do we consider giving God an inventory about how we have spent our lifetime?

To be accountable for our days is a basis for man’s proper dignity.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible.”

And responsibility is not only a matter of what we do but, most importantly, of who we become through the moral footprint of our deeds in this world.

Photo: With Fr. Tomáš Halík in Prague in April 2016

Kitchen Talks: Death & Dying

This evening, a friend of mine named Josh Nadeau hosted a “Kitchen Talks” event on death and dying and so, naturally, I had to attend.

Josh describes the broader initiative as follows:

Kitchen Talks is a series of events where people from different walks of life gather to discuss controversial topics. It was dreamed up in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where ‘kitchen talk’ refers to the conversations that, back in the Soviet Union, were too contentious to be had outside the home.

A generation ago, the kitchen was a safe space to discuss history, politics, sex, religion and everything else under the sun. We hope that our own “kitchen” provides an opportunity, and a safe space, to engage with the people and the ideas we don’t always encounter in our everyday lives. We strive not only to speak, but to facilitate an encounter that respects the fact that we all have different life experiences and come at important questions from different angles.

Our meetings involve introductions, discussions, large-group exercises, small group work, anonymous activities and more. We encourage all participants to join the conversation, but understand if some decide to listen more than to share. Our facilitators come with a prepared set of discussion questions and exercises, but often adjust their plans depending on the group and what participants are interested in discussing that day.

I was struck by Josh’s ability to offer compelling prompts to the diverse participants he convened. Everyone certainly diverged in terms of viewpoints, however it was a group that self-selected on the basis of having a willingness to listen respectfully to others and to affirm what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called “the dignity of difference.”

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“A story’s end changes the meaning of every page.”

Tonight I am remembering this 3-minute video in which Lizz Lovett reflects on facing terminal cancer:

It is a striking thought–that how a person lives out their final days is reflective of what has ultimately been the tenor of that person’s entire life.

What does how you hope to die reveal to others and to you about what you are believing about life all along?