Dying to Anonymity

I recently started reading Carl Rogers’ very interesting book titled, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy.

There are many gems already, but check out this one in particular with my emphasis added:

During this past year the Student Union Forum Committee at Wisconsin made a somewhat similar request. They asked me to speak in a personal vein on their “Last Lecture” series, in which it is assumed that, for reasons unspecified, the professor is giving his last lecture and therefore giving quite personally of himself. (It is an intriguing comment on our educational system that it is assumed that only under the most dire circumstances would a professor reveal himself in any personal way.) In this Wisconsin talk I expressed more fully than in the first one the personal learnings or philosophical themes which have come to have meaning for me. In the current chapter I have woven together both of these talks, trying to retain something of the informal character which they had in their initial presentation. The response to each of these talks has made me realize how hungry people are to know something of the person who is speaking to them or teaching them. Consequently I have set this chapter first in the book in the hope that it will convey something of me, and thus give more context and meaning to the chapters which follow.

This excerpt causes me to speculate that, perhaps one reason why people tend to fear both mortality and public speaking so much is the same: it amounts to a death to anonymity. The person is revealed in an eminent way that is vulnerable and transparent. And, interestingly, this can be attractive and hospitable for others who can be received into a story without posturing and pretence, but filled with sincerity and reality.

More care > Less suffering

This evening I read a chapter from Gilbert Meilaender’s book, Bioethics and the Character of Human Life: Essays and Reflections.

Here is one paragraph that particularly captured my attention:

Thus, although compassion surely moves us to try to relieve suffering, there are things we ought not to do even for that worthy end–actions that would not honour or respect our shared human condition. One of the terrible truths that governs the shape of our lives is that somethings there is suffering we are unable–within the limits of morality–entirely to relieve. Hence, the maxim that must govern and shape our compassion should be “maximize care,” which may not always be quite the same as “minimize suffering.”

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The Opposite of Throwaway Culture

The author of the book Resisting Throwaway Culture has laid out some concrete proposals for how to do so at the end of his newly published book, Losing Our Dignity.

Like Pope Francis, author Charles Camosy agrees that it is our cultural consumerism that is contributing to a “throwaway” mentality extending toward human beings.

The opposite of throwaway culture, Camosy suggests, is to “live out a counterculture of responsibility, encounter, and hospitality.”

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Baldwin: “People who cannot suffer can never grow up.”

Recently a friend of mine introduced me to James Baldwin (1924-1987), an American author who wrote books, essays, and memoirs on the experience of Blacks in America.

I just finished reading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which contains two essays exploring race relations in the U.S. in the early 1960s. “Color is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality,” he says.

Continuing to reflect here on what case there is for suffering being redemptive without sliding into any justification of (or indifference to) real injustices, Baldwin offers a credible voice.

Here is an excerpt on how suffering can be a school in maturity:

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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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The Practice of the Presence of Persons

There is a short spiritual classic by Brother Lawrence titled, The Practice of the Presence of God in which the 80-year-old author exhorts his 64-year-old correspondent to live and die in the presence of God.

This letter says:

I pity you much. It will be of great importance if you can leave the care of your affairs to, and spend the remainder of your life only in worshipping God. He requires no great matters of us; a little remembrance of Him from time to time, a little adoration: sometimes to pray for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, and sometimes to return Him thanks for the favours He has given you, and still gives you, in the midst of your troubles, and to console yourself with Him the oftenest you can. Lift up your heart to Him, sometimes even at your meals, and when you are in company: the least little remembrance will always be acceptable to Him. You need not cry very loud; He is nearer to us than we are aware of. It is not necessary for being with God to be always at church; we may make an oratory of our heart, wherein to retire from time to time, to converse with Him in meekness, humility, and love. Every one is capable of such familiar conversation with God, some more, some less: He knows what we can do. Let us begin then; perhaps He expects but one generous resolution on our part. Have courage. We have but little time to live; you are near sixty-four, and I am almost eighty. Let us live and die with God: sufferings will be sweet and pleasant to us, while we are with Him: and the greatest pleasures will be, without Him, a cruel punishment to us. May He be blessed for all. Amen. Use yourself then by degrees thus to worship Him, to beg His grace, to offer Him your heart from time to time, in the midst of your business, even every moment if you can. Do not always scrupulously confine yourself to certain rules, or particular forms of devotion; but act with a general confidence in God, with love and humility. You may assure – of my poor prayers, and that I am their servant, and yours particularly.

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“We serve with reverence.”

My friend just sent me this photo of the sign outside of Majestic Mortuary Service Inc., a funeral home in New Orleans.

The motto caught her attention, and I can see why.

The dead are not the only ones who deserve to be treated with reverence, of course. For the living, too, this is their due. Yet, if you went to a restaurant that advertised “We serve with reverence”, you might think that’s a bit much.

This, however, shows my point that how we die (and how we naturally conduct ourselves before the mystery of death) has the power to humanize our culture.

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The Humanness of Burial

I was pleased to see Fr. Raymond de Souza’s piece in the National Post titled, “What happened at the Kamloops residential school was an offence against humanity.”

In it, he discusses the thought of Hans Jonas, a German Jewish philosopher about whom I wrote my undergraduate thesis.

Separately from that thesis but very much related to these themes, I wrote this short academic paper in 2017 about what it is that sets human persons apart from animals and machines.

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Can the old and young be friends?

Here is a short piece I wrote a few ago on the value of and the possibility for intergenerational friendships.

During the Year of the Family, Pope Francis devoted one of his Wednesday addresses to the elderly and another one to grandparents. He thinks that part of the culture of death is a poverty of intergenerational friendships: “How I would like a Church that challenges the throw-away culture with the overflowing joy of a new embrace between young and old!” What are the obstacles to such an embrace? In his Ethics, Aristotle observed that young people tend to seek pleasure in friendships and that the old tend to seek friends for utility, but that good, enduring friendships involve being friends for the other’s own sake. Given the distinct tendencies to which the old and young are prone, can they actually be friends?

Aristotle observed “the old need friends to care for them and support the actions that fail because of weakness” and friendships aimed at useful results tend “to arise especially among older people, since at that age they pursue the advantageous.” Because of their frailty, older people may depend on others to ensure their physical wellbeing and because of their age, they may be especially concerned about conserving their acquisitions. He says, “Among sour people and older people, friendship is found less often, since they are worse-tempered and find less enjoyment in meeting people, so that they lack the features that seem most typical and most productive of friendship. That is why young people become friends quickly, but older people do not, since they do not become friends with people in whom they find no enjoyment—nor do sour people.”

This is coherent with 89-year-old Douglas Walker’s account of life at a retirement home: “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.”

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“If we die, we want to die together.”

Today I listened to this podcast episode that one of my best friends recommended in which Rahf Hallaq, a 21-year-old English language and literature student, speaks about the terror of experiencing the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.

“She’s so articulate in humanizing herself and her community,” my friend told me in offering the recommendation.

When I listened, I was amazed. I think it is the first time that I ever cried while listening to a podcast. In fact, there were a couple occasions that I teared up while listening to Rahf share her story.

Apart from geopolitical calculations and political arguments, Rahf gives us a window into the impact that wider events are having on her own life in a way that is very concrete and personal.

In fact, Rahf’s testimony reminded me of what Eva Hoffman noticed about a Dutch Jewish woman who kept a diary during the Holocaust when she said, “Etty Hillesum lived at a time when the macrocosm of historical events almost completely crushed the microcosm of individual lives.”

Like Etty Hillesum, Rahf Hallaq, through this podcast episode, sought not so much to give a sweeping account of the political situation as to give us an account of her own soul.

It is moving to hear of her speak about her passion for books.

“My dad is the one who made the love of books grow inside me,” she reflects.

Then she shares about the impact of reading Orwell’s 1984 saying, “I mean, when you’re living under oppression, and when you read those books, you feel like you’re not the only one who’s going through this. You feel like these words are actually speaking about you and to you. They give you the power to talk about your own ideas after that.”

Naturally, she was totally devastated about the bombing of a local bookstore that was connected to so many memories for her and her friends.

In the episode, Rahf also speaks about how families in Gaza all huddle together in the same room during the airstrikes because, “If we die, we want to die together.”

Listening to her speak about how her dad used to try to tell her that the bombs were fireworks, in an effort to put her at ease, is also heartbreaking.

My friend was completely right. This story humanized Rahf and the people of Gaza.

It is hard to fathom the real lives of Gazans, but hopefully Rahf will be able to continue bearing witness to “the microcosm of individual lives” by sharing her own experiences with such candor and poise.