thoughts personal, public and everything in between

Monday, January 08, 2007

illness, friendship, and moral agency

"For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith."--Philippians 1:21-25

I’ve just returned from the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics in Dallas, where, among other things, I heard a very edifying paper by Sarah Moses titled “Why Survive?: Discipleship, Friendship and the Elderly.” She puts forward “an understanding of Christian friendship as the mutual relationship in which Christians enable one another to live out discipleship” as a better model for engaging with the elderly than prevailing models of caregiving, in which the elderly are viewed primarily as passive recipients in need of services.

At one point, she references Barth’s discussion of friendship and aging in Church Dogmatics III. Barth’s point there is that when we stop calling upon people to participate socially as responsible moral agents we dehumanize them. It belongs to the human vocation to have something to give to one’s community and to live in a manner that serves the larger common good. Whatever acts of assistance we give to those in need of help, if they are truly acts of friendship, are given not as unilateral gifts of charity, but as steps toward enabling the other person to live out his or her calling for the sake of us all. When we stop expecting and calling forth the best in each other, we cease to be true friends.

Of course, this applies not only to our relationships with the elderly, but also with the seriously ill. As grateful as I am for many words and acts of indulgent kindness and encouragements to go out and do whatever will make me happy, the times I feel most fully human—fully alive—are when I remember that I still have work to. This is why I’m glad I dragged myself out to Dallas in the first place, even though I’d been virtually bed-ridden for several days leading up to it. I had something to present to the group of Baptists ethicists who met on Thursday, feedback to receive, people to interact with. I come home reminded that the long hours of research and writing are pointed in a direction, and that my work is of real benefit to others.

On the other hand, the utter disregard for my responsibility as a moral agent is part of what makes the weekly experience of receiving chemotherapy so horrible. For two hours I sit comfortably in a chair as a patient among patients, none of us with any other duty than to relax, think happy thoughts, and receive medicine from the professionals who take care of us. More than the pain in my hands and feet, more than the itching or trouble swallowing my food, I dread those two hours. And I think it is because, for that time, I am not a responsible member of a community that benefits from my life and work, but a patient in need of unilateral care. Perhaps if I can think of my treatment in more mutual terms, as an act of friendship maximizing my ability to give back, I will be able to do something better with the time than squirm and wish it would end.

The reason I attended Sarah’s reading in the first place is that the title question was one that I had been pondering over the last week. This recent round of treatments gave my body a pretty serious beating. The question arises: what exactly am I fighting for, and at what point do I stop? How many trips to Yosemite or the San Juans, how many visits with old friends, how many movies or card games, how many evenings alone with Karla, before I can finally say “enough” and go peacefully? But this is the wrong question. The better question is, what has God given me to do? What am I to contribute in the time I have? How does my life relate to God’s intention to bless the nations?

But this way of relating to one another is difficult for many of us to grasp. Culturally, we’ve more or less agreed to place no expectations upon each other, to give each other absolute freedom to do whatever one pleases. But such freedom has a dehumanizing, alienating effect. It sends the message that we are not connected to each other, that one person’s actions have little or no meaning to another, that we do not belong to something larger than our own selves. Absent some kind of moral and communal connection, especially as people grow old, sick or needy, we become at best objects of charity with nothing to give in return, and at worst a nuisance. If instead we can talk more seriously about common good and the responsibilities we have to one another as members of communities, perhaps we can move into disease, old age and death with the confidence that, as long as we draw breath, we have something worth giving.


Blogger EMC said...

I think that one of the things God may have for you to do is writing your blog. It has been a source of blessing and insight for me and for others.

8/1/07 11:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As long as you draw breath you are certainly a blessing to others. Love you, Mom

8/1/07 12:04 PM  
Anonymous Laura said...

Scott, you have been a blessing since BEFORE I arrived in Pasadena and met you!! Thanks for going to that meeting and learning cool things. I'm glad you contributed by dragging yourself there and by writing your blog. I might wind up quoting you in a paper that I'm writing about children as moral agents... LOL:) (Not that the whole world is about papers, but you know--you were a good catalyst for something I was trying to fish out of my brain... Hey, I always have to work my classmates in somehow. I quoted Kent in my major paper for Glen last Fall).

8/1/07 12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scott... you see so much. Your capacity to perceive what the right questions are, what the real issues are, have been and remain a gift. We who are the recepients are grateful for every day you're granted breath.

9/1/07 7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scott, you are my brother. Just knowing you are on this earth helps me through my day. Knowing that I can call when I need to hear your voice, that you will laugh at my lame jokes, that you will advise me when I need help, educate me when I need to learn and that you love me as I love you, makes your existence in this world so important to me. Looking forward to our time in February. Your brother, Todd (the handsome one, with just a bit more hair)

10/1/07 10:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Scott and Karla, my mom spoke with your mom and she said they will try a different treatment. Hope you feel better, you are an inspiration to alot of people, you have so much courage and faith, you are in my prayers and thoughts always, love, cousin Janet

13/1/07 10:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scott, I have intended for some time to read your blog. Having read, I am blessed! If your hope for your life is to continue in participation and contribution to Christian community and discipleship, you do so. Re: you most recent entry, having worked many years with people with developmental disabilities, I have long felt that absolving them of responsibility to be full participants in the greater community has been the greatest disservice we "typicals" have done to them. We diminish them to a lifetime of being taken care of, "fixed", consumers. You and Sarah Moses have strengthened my conviction about this. Thank you! On a more personal note, I am praying for you and Karla and hope you pray for me and my family as disciples together in the family of Christ.
Julie Eby-McKenzie

18/1/07 11:26 AM  
Anonymous Emmie Johnson said...

God is man's best friend, philosopher and Guide, and he proves this more often than not..Thanks for rejuvenating this whole idea once again through your blog

15/2/07 4:29 AM  
Anonymous robert said...

You are blessed with all the body parts essential to be independant, you are blessed with a roof to cover ur head and u have money to serve ur u think anything else is required in life to live? God is our best friend and our first guardian..u know why? thats because...our mortal parents only know about our thoughts when we tell them but God comes to know it even before we realize...have a look at my sure u would like it :)

1/3/07 4:50 AM  

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