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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What do you want to do [today]?

To be a young person and, especially, to be a student is to be continually asked by others about what you hope and plan to do in the future.

Many years ago, I read this excerpt in Henri Nouwen’s book Aging: the Fulfillment of Life that has remained with me:

Not too long ago a thirty-two-year-old, good-looking, intelligent man, full of desire to live a creative life, was asked: “Jim, what are your plans for the future?” And when he answered: “I want to work with he elderly and I am reading and studying to make myself ready for the task,” they looked at him with amazement and puzzlement. Someone said, “But Jim, don’t you have anything else to do?” Another suggested, “Why don’t you work with the young? You’ll really be great with them.” Another excused him more or less, saying: “Well, I guess you have a problem which prevents you from pursuing your own career.” Reflecting on these responses, Jim said: “Some people make me feel like I have become interested in a lost cause, but I wonder if my interest and concern do not touch off in others a fear they are not ready to confront, the fear of becoming an old stranger themselves.”

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Wishing to Die

It can be quite unsettling to us when someone expresses a desire to die.

Even when a person is very elderly and is naturally approaching death, hearing them say that they want to die can sound to us like a complaint, a cry for help.

Yet, Michel de Montaigne has a very articulate reflection on how ageing and illness naturally draws a person into resignation concerning death and toward an acceptance of it in a way that makes sense.

He says:

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Filial Piety and Patriotism

Today I came across this striking passage in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France:

To avoid therefore the evils of inconstancy and versatility, ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice, we have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude. By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country, who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces, and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds, and wild incantations, they may regenerate the paternal constitution, and renovate their father’s life.

There is a relationship between filial piety and patriotism. The reverence we have for the traditions of our political communities is analogous to the reverence we have for our parents. Are we able to receive from our parents and from our tradition?

To what extent is our political culture reflective of “hack[ing] that aged parent”?

What difference could restoring filial piety have on renewing authentic patriotism?

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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I Asked My Grandfather What He Hoped I Would Do in Life

Throughout Pope Francis’ pontificate, he has been emphasizing the value of encounter between the young and the old. One of my favourite quotations ever of his is this: “We, the elderly, can remind young ambitious people that a life without love is arid. We can say to young people who are afraid that anxiety about the future can be beaten. We can teach young people too in love with themselves that there is more joy in giving than in receiving. The words of grandparents have something special for young people. And they know it.”

I think the reason I appreciate this quotation so much is because these are indeed the very things my grandfather taught me and, equally, the very things I most needed to learn from him.

My grandfather was deaf in his 80s and 90s, but his mind remained sharp until his death. I wrote to him A LOT and was the scribe at family dinners, usually transcribing the flow of the entire conversation for him.

One day, several years ago, I decided to ask my grandfather what he hoped I would do in my future, what he thought I would be.

The answer he gave me in this 1-minute clip is one of my most precious memories.

Indeed those words were special, and I knew so right away.

Not Wholly Gone

This Father’s Day, I have noticed many people acknowledging the ongoing influence of fathers, grandfathers, and other father figures in their lives – even after these men have died.

It is interesting to consider the ways in which, through memory and legacy, a person can continue to be a part of a family even after death.

This evening, my mother shared an anecdote with me to this effect about my paternal grandfather.

My paternal grandfather was Polish and he died in 2015.

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“You need to have an accident…”

This evening I was having a phone visit with my friend Don, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

I always enjoy our weekly chats, and tonight he discussed something that I found particularly insightful.

“I have a 7-person health team,” Don told me. “I have a heart doctor, a GP, an ophthalmologist, a dentist, a foot/nails doctor, a personal trainer, and a Chinese massage therapist.”

He named each member of his health team with pride and appreciation.

Then Don told me, “I had some friends who were so successful, so smart, so rich and they’re all gone. I don’t think they had a health team.”

I asked Don why he thinks his affluent friends had not attended to their health like he does.

“They don’t know what they don’t know,” he suggested.

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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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Where is Your Devotion to the Mystery of the Person?

Recently, I sat down with my friend Anna to listen to some of her stories.

It might surprise you that this young woman told me, “The happiest time of my life was working 16-hour days in a retirement home during COVID.”

“My body ached and my heart rejoiced,” Anna testified.

She spoke with such empathy about the elderly residents.

“Imagine! A person who has lived a hundred years might be reduced to ‘June at Table 20.’ The residents might have lived a long, fruitful life only to be reduced to their dietary preferences in their final months and years.”

Because Anna regards these seniors’ long lives with reverence, she does not like to see nor participate in taking such a reductive view of the human person.

Instead, she relishes doing her utmost to serve the residents and considers every conversation as an opportunity for a meaningful interaction.

“My favourite residents are the ones who would get agitated easily,” Anna told me. “And it became a challenge: ‘How can I make them happy?'”

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