Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pink Shirt Day: We need a conversion of hearts

Yesterday was Pink Shirt Day; a day to remind kids (and the rest of us) to take a stand against bullying; a day to drive home the message that bullying is unacceptable.

Kids can be nasty, and nastiness has taken on a whole new dimension in the digital age. In the old days, when I was a kid, we'd chant the ditty "sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me" with aplomb when someone was mean to us. Of course, the names hurt us, but someone else would join in the chant and the bully ended up being the person on the outside of the group. The bully ended up feeling like a jerk.

In the digital age, bullying has taken on a whole new dimension. The bully can relentlessly, anonomously, and viciously badger their victim with, quite literally, deadly results. 

It is not only kids who are bullies. Teachers can also be bullies, subtly using their position of authority to demean students in front of their peers. Bullying frequently occurs in the workplace, and carries with it both an economic and social cost.

The newspaper in my home town reported on the activities that area schools had planned for Pink Shirt Day with a front page article and colour photo of students in pink shirts. One high school  gave students the chance to trace their hand and sign a piece of paper as a pledge to raise awareness of bullying and to stop it. While this is an engaging activity, with an admirable goal, it will fail unless there is also a conversion of  hearts. 

We need to become nicer people. 

The Italians have a term, "sympatico", which they use sparingly to describe a person.  It is a hard term to translate.  It is more than being nice in the sense of being pleasant and polite. My understanding of "sympatico" is that the person has an uncommon ability of always being attuned to others, and conducts themselves with sensitivity, kindness, and compassion. Not a push over or a doormat, the person who is sympatico is also humble and self-giving.  To be described as "sympatico" is an honour. 

Our aim might be to become "sympatico", but until we do, maybe we should aim to be consistently polite and pleasant to others, and model it for our kids. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Valentine's Day celebrates loving well

I have always liked Valentine's Day. Its rituals of celebration mirror the way in which our understanding of love develops over time, and deepens as we mature in every way.

 From elementary school ...
From my elementary school days, I fondly recall the paper booklets with punch-out Valentines. They had simple and wholesome pictures with corny phrases that were amusing or promising, depending on your age. A six year old might laugh at a kitten meowing, “You’re purrfect”, while a ten year old might see an invitation in a card with the caption, “Let’s hang out”. 

In those days, teachers did not require us to give everyone in the class a Valentine. Because my mother was ahead of her time, and insisted that no one be left out, everyone received a Valentine from me. Still, like the other girls, I had a hierarchy for giving Valentines. Best friends got the nicest cards. Casual acquaintances got nice cards, and classmates on the periphery got what was left. Selecting cards for the boys required an extra level of attention. While we girls got caught up in this foolishness, the boys were reluctant participants in the Valentine’s Day excitement, until it was time to eat the pink cupcakes with the cinnamon hearts.

I learned something important from those early Valentine’s Day rituals, apart from my standing on the popularity ladder.  Valentine’s Day was an opportunity for inclusiveness. It was a day that encouraged us to extend the hand of friendship to others, and to share in the joy of belonging. I didn’t recognize this immediately because I was self-centered. I was absorbed with the number of Valentines filling the paper bag taped to the side of my desk, and comparing them with those of my friends. My mother was right; it would have been horrible to be left out.

To high school...
In the teenage years, when the boys were more interested, Valentine’s Day rituals celebrated the romantic love affectionately called puppy love. Valentine’s Day was no longer about including others; it was about exclusivity.  It was an opportunity for couples, or would be couples, to declare their affection in some way. I way pretty excited when the guy of my dreams, now my husband of thirty years, offered me a ride home from school one Valentine's Day.

And beyond ...
As a young mother, the focus of Valentine’s Day shifted to a celebration of family. Cards, special treats, and a heart-shaped cake made the day special.  Our little rituals celebrated the uniqueness of each child, and the deep bonds within our family.

An act of will in response to the heart
My appreciation for Valentine’s Day remains undiminished after thirty years of marriage. My husband and I always acknowledge the day in some way.  It’s a chance to express our gratitude for the gift of one another. This is a gratitude that grows deeper with each passing year, and is strengthened in the crucible of life’s joys and challenges. While romance need not fade away, Valentine’s Day is a gentle reminder that love is an act of the will in response to the complex emotions of the heart and the vicissitudes of life.

Valentine’s Day is a celebration of loving well. It celebrates the expansive force of love that moves us from self-absorption towards an ever-increasing awareness of others. For me, Valentine’s Day most profoundly expresses the self-giving love that characterizes the best in human relationships, and mirrors the unconditional, self-emptying love of God.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Benedict XVI resigns

I was stunned to read this morning that Pope Benedict XVI has resigned due to declining health.  Popes don’t resign; they die of old age. This blunt statement of fact should highlight both the rarity and seriousness of the pope’s decision.  (Gregory XII was the only other pope to resign, back in 1415, because of a major schism in Catholicism.)

I was a university student in 1978 when the charismatic Karol Wojtyla was elected pope, just a short time after the recently elected and deceased Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I. (John Paul I died 33 days after he became pope).  It was an exciting time to be a Catholic. The reforms of Vatican II were taking hold, liturgies were vibrant, parishes were alive, churches were full. The laity was taking its rightful place in the Church as participants in the liturgy, witnesses to the gospel, and workers for justice. 

Today, the Catholic Church, at least here in North America, is in many ways a Church in crisis. For many Catholics, the infusion of excitement and hope of the Second Vatican Council has diminished for many reasons:
  • changes in the Sunday liturgy seem to be moving us backwards with an emphasis on form over substance
  • the habit of silencing liberal theologians
  • the sexual abuse scandals 
  • the attitude towards women, most visibly represented in the fight for the ordination of women to the priesthood, but also apparent in the harsh treatment of the Leadership Conference of Religious Women in the United States 
  • Rome’s insistence on blind obedience to the bishops on matters of ethics, morality, and conscience 
It is no secret that parishes across North America are dwindling in numbers, and churches in many towns and cities are closing. Many people, both young and old, are finding it difficult to remain Catholic, and are no longer looking to Catholicism to fulfill their spiritual needs.

It cannot be easy to be Pope. As discussion boards both praise and criticize Benedict XVI’s legacy, let us be hopeful that the Cardinals who select the next pope will be truly open to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and that Benedict’s successor will be a man who can reconcile the disparate and the dissatisfied, and be a compelling symbol of the New Evangelization.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dying with dignity is more than physical

The province of Quebec has responded to the report of its  "Dying with Dignity" commission. The Quebec proposal is recommending that euthanasia/assisted suicide be decriminalized in limited and rare cases. The province is proposing that terminally ill individuals be allowed to request the help of a doctor to end their life. 

Under Quebec's proposal, an individual could make the request providing the individual is:
  • suffering from an incurable disease, with no hope of improvement
  • experiencing intolerable physical or psychological pain
  • receiving palliative care
The proposal places euthanasia/assisted suicide within the realm of medical care; in this context, euthanasia/assisted suicide would be considered an appropriate, and compassionate level of “medical aid in dying”.

In euthanasia, a third party, such as a doctor, takes the action that ends the individual’s life, while in assisted suicide the dying person takes the final action that causes death.

Those who express support do so from a place of compassion
A recent call in show on CBC Radio debated the issue of euthanasia/assisted suicide. Callers from both sides of the debate shared their experiences.  The callers had journeyed with people they loved through debilitating diseases, and the process of dying. It was evident that this experience had profoundly affected each one of them, and influenced their opinions. Those who expressed support for euthanasia/assisted suicide were responding from a place of compassion and love.

While I do not support euthanasia or assisted suicide, I understand why many people favor the Quebec proposal, and hold the opinion that euthanasia/assisted suicide is a compassionate, and humane response to dying. We do not want to watch someone we love suffer, especially when that person is dying from a painful and debilitating disease that robs the body of its ability to function. We have a collective aversion to pain and suffering. Out of compassion for the dying, we want their suffering to end.

Equating human dignity with a properly functioning body
The discussion of euthanasia/assisted suicide is often framed in terms of human dignity, and we hear frequent references to ‘dying with dignity’.  There is a perception, and a fear that we can lose our dignity in the dying process. As a society, we are developing a vision of dying with dignity that, in my view, relies too heavily on our physical capacities.

We have come to equate human dignity with a properly functioning body. In the euthanasia/assisted suicide debate, when we talk about human dignity, we are most often referring to things like the terminally ill person’s ability to communicate, and to control bodily functions, especially eating and elimination.  A body that is in decline is seen as undignified, and an affront, robbing the individual of ‘quality of life’, and causing unnecessary suffering to the dying and those with them.

Human dignity depends on more than the vigour of the body
Most Canadians would agree that human life is precious. Many of us consider human life to be sacred.  In the Christian worldview, which I share, the human person is more than a physical body. In the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (# 364), we are animated by a spiritual soul, and we share in the dignity of the image of God. Body and spirit, precious and sacred, the human person has an innate and inviolable dignity.

A view of human dignity that relies solely on the vigour of the body takes into account only one dimension of the human person. It overlooks the psycho-spiritual dimensions of the person.  Human dignity depends on the whole person, and should never be restricted to the physical.  We do not lose our dignity when our body breaks down.

Death may be a moment of exceptional grace
Medical care, especially when caring for the terminally ill, should consider the whole person. Suffering and death, more than any other experience in life, reveals the spiritual dimension of our existence. A comprehensive debate on euthanasia/assisted suicide must include a rigorous discussion on the concept of human dignity. While death is the disintegration of the body, it may also be a moment of exceptional grace, when we discover fully and completely our imperishable dignity, and meet its author face to face.