Two Kinds of Dignity

The philosopher Robert Spaemann has taught me to understand how there are two kinds of dignity. First, there is the universal dignity that all persons have by virtue of being human. This is also discussed within bioethics as fundamental human equality. Secondly, there is dignity that accords with a person’s particular worthiness owing to the virtue of an office, rank, or moral excellence.

Some healthcare professionals purport to have such neutrality and objectivity so to be inclined to treat every person equally according to the first kind of universal dignity characteristic of all human beings.

But persons, being persons, have a natural regard for both kinds of dignity.

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How we remember 9/11

On September 11th, I am remembering my visits to the 9/11 memorial in New York City.

Earlier this year, I listened to this interesting podcast episode by Malcolm Gladwell discussing both the 9/11 memorial as well as memorials for the homeless. If that sounds intriguing to you, click here.

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum has a lot of elements that very much reveal the character, spirit, and approach of the American people to tragedy, patriotism, and the value of human life.

Here are some snaps from my visits:

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Declaration of Dependence

The other day a friend of mine shared this profound aphorism from Nicolás Gómez Dávila which says:

Death is the unequivocal sign of our dependence.
Our dependence is the unequivocal foundation of our hope.

In 1993, a Canadian Supreme Court judge included the following statement in his decision:

“Although palliative care may be available to ease the pain and other physical discomfort which she will experience, the appellant fears the sedating effects of such drugs and argues, in any event, that they will not prevent the psychological and emotional distress which will result from being in a situation of utter dependence and loss of dignity.”


Here “utter dependence” is conflated with a “loss of dignity”, not the foundation of our hope.

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Redeeming contact

This is a quick post to direct you over to Ruth Graham’s interesting piece in The New York Times about a man on death row who is trying to get permission (through a lawsuit) for his pastor to lay hands on him before he is killed.

Sister Helen Prejean is quoted in the article as an advocate for the inalienable dignity even of criminals saying, “You uphold the dignity of the human being, that everyone is worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

One thing that I find striking about this story is the spectrum of human contact.

The prisoner, John Henry Ramirez, stabbed a man named Pablo Castro 29 times. In a robbery that yielded $1.25, Ramirez slit Castro’s throat and stabbed his head, neck, and shoulders.

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Roberto Clemente’s Immortality

Today while visiting my friends John and Sarah Beth in Houston, John brought home a book to show us titled, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero by David Maraniss.

“I don’t find it easy or natural to think about death, but when I think about this book…” John began, excited to share with us the story of a noble life and death.

I had never heard of baseball player Roberto Clemente before but John’s sincere enthusiasm – and even reverence – for Clemente immediately signified to me his undeniable importance.

John told us that his passion for Clemente’s story was piqued in third grade. An excellent teacher had given the assignment of doing a biographical book report on any famous person he wanted to learn about, admired, or found interesting.

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Hair, makeup, and palliative care

I was interested to come across several news stories about a new documentary created by filmmaker Lorraine Price. The film tells the story of an 83-year-old woman named Kathleen Mahony who, as Price tells us, “volunteered to do hair and makeup for the terminally ill at the palliative care unit at Notre-Dame Hospital in Montreal [for the past 31 years].”

Price was inspired to make the documentary in honour of her grandmother who had been a very classy and elegant woman. In this interview, Price reflects:

Her style was loud and unapologetic. But when my grandmother passed away in hospice care, on top of having dementia, she was barely recognizable to me—her hair was short and white, her nails nude, and her lips pale. It felt as though she was gone long before she left us. I was so absorbed by my grief and the desire to mitigate her suffering that I neglected to consider the importance of that outward-facing identity that she had cultivated her whole life.

I would love to see this documentary because we desperately need good examples of how to treat those who are approaching the end of life.

There is a universal, inherent dignity that is innate, yes. But there is also the matter of dignifying – we can add to a person’s dignity by bestowing honour, appreciation, and affection.

In another interview, Price remarked, “Kathleen doesn’t do their hair because these patients are dying. She does it because they are human and they deserve to feel dignified and like themselves even when they are at their most vulnerable.”

Kathleen’s service is precisely the kind of hidden work that will benefit our culture greatly by being brought into the light.



Investing in the Richness of Life

This morning, I was drinking some orange juice that I had picked up at Shoppers Drug Mart when I realized that it tasted nothing like the freshly squeezed organic orange juice that I have taken to buying at Farm Boy.

And every now and again, I eat some not-so-quality chocolate and realize its inferiority compared to the exquisite and delicious chocolate that I like to buy at Stubbe Chocolates here in Ottawa.

This is not about decadence or extravagance, but about quality and appreciation.

I remember reading a personal finance book when I was a teenager that discussed how foregoing $5 daily lattes (and similar “unnecessary” routine expenses) could lead to “building wealth” or “finishing rich.”

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Don’t Die Twice

Recently I have been reflecting on a particular chapter in the last book Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks published just before his death. The book is titled Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times and the chapter that I have in mind is titled “Victimhood.”

Rabbi Sacks opens the chapter with a discussion of Yisrael Kristal, a Holocaust survivor who lived to be 113.

During the Holocaust, Yisrael’s wife and children were murdered. And, after years in ghettos and concentration camps, he weighed just 82 pounds.

We learn that Yisrael remained a religious Jew throughout his life. He married another survivor with whom he had children and they settled in Haifa and opened a business selling sweets and chocolates as he had done in Poland.

Rabbi Sacks goes on to compare Yisrael Kristal to Abraham insofar as Yisrael was able to integrate into his life completely the transformative idea: “To survive tragedy and a trauma, first build the future. Only then, remember the past.”

“There are real victims,” Rabbi Sacks affirms. “And they deserve our empathy, sympathy, and compassion. But there is a difference between being a victim and defining yourself as one. The first is about what happened to you. The second is about how you define who and what you are. The most powerful lesson I learned from these people I have come to know, people who are victims by any measure, is that, with colossal willpower, they refused to define themselves as such.”

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This Is What Indigenous-Catholic Reconciliation Looks Like

The other day, my friend Ada and I were discussing the discovery of Indigenous children’s undocumented remains outside of the former residential school in Kamloops.

Ada is passionate about the Arctic and through her studies, research, and work is involved in cooperating with Inuit in the north with sensitivity, respect, and mutuality.

I could tell the news had shaken her and so I asked whether she had ever been to a First Nations cemetery.

“Yes, twice,” she said.

It was 2018 and Ada had just completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria. As a member of the Catholic Students’ Association, she joined four other students, led by university chaplain, former Anglican-turned-Catholic priest, Fr. Dean Henderson, on a cultural mission exchange to a First Nations reserve in British Columbia.

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Thou shalt not kill a book

This evening I’m thinking about these passages from Areopagitica, John Milton’s defense of freedom of speech against the restrictions of his day:

[…] for books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth: and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.

[…]

We should be wary, therefore, what persecution we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed, sometimes a martyrdom; and if it extend to the whole impression, a kind of massacre, whereof the execution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself; slays an immortality rather than a life.

Why are these excerpts coming back to me tonight?

Three years ago on this date, I was attending an event hosted by the Montreal Press Club with keynote speaker Dr. Jordan Peterson to honour the inaugural “Freedom Award” recipient Raif Badawi.

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