Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Choc-o-holics' Dream

One for real addicts: how long would it take for you to eat it?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Life is Messy

Life is messy. It is an illusion of childhood and adolescence that attaining adulthood means acquisition of control over one’s life. Our adult life often represents the struggle to maintain this illusion in the face of a variety of events which threaten our equilibrium and prompt periodic adjustments to our plans. Some of them are ultimately welcomed and embraced, others less so.

In pastoral work I regularly encounter people in life moments where all semblance of control is lost: standing with a parent outside a surgical unit while her teenage son is undergoing surgery after an horrific car accident; sitting with family whose loved one has suffered a stroke wondering what the next few hours will hold; weeping with a woman who has been learned that breast cancer has returned and metastasised; staring into space with parents of a premature infant struggling for life; sharing parental anger when a child is diagnosed with a terminal illness. In these places any sense of control is shattered, and one’s human limitations are laid bare.

It has not only been in pastoral work that I have encountered these limitations. I have watched my emaciated grandmother lying in a bed wasting away; struggled with infertility for ten years; watched my own parents battle cancer; sat by a warming tray as my 600 gram son struggle for each breath and fought against the constraints which the tubes inserted into his body represented. How I wanted their struggles to end, feeling acutely the helplessness which comes in the face of such circumstances. Something deep within me yearned for some semblance of control, an ability to step in to reduce suffering, to find a constructive way forward. To sit as one engaged in these struggles was often excruciating, but there was no escape; no place to dodge the pain. Even when not present with them, I carried the pain pulsating within.

I understand the impetus which drives the call for the legalisation of euthanasia. These are very difficult places to be – to watch someone ebbing away before our eyes, seeing our relationship dissolve as the progress of insidious disease gradually tears our loved ones away from us, stripping them of much of what we consider to be components of human dignity in adults – down to the very basics such as control of bodily functions, and ability to communicate. To sit with and speak to someone without response, all the while watching them slowly slip away from life, tears at the very fabric of our being. When final hours linger into days, sometimes stretching into weeks or excruciating months, the pain becomes more than we can bear, both for our loved one, and for ourselves. Words fail to articulate what such journeys involve, let alone mean, for those who are pressed into them. The desire to ‘take control’ in the face of life’s last enemy offers the opportunity of at least a pyrrhic victory – a final declaration that we are in control of our own destiny. But it remains an illusion.

Early in pastoral ministry I learned an important and sobering lesson. A member of my congregation had suffered a debilitating stroke and lay uncommunicative in a hospital bed for a number of days. When she made an unexpected recovery, she expressed one of her frustrations during that time – that she had been able to hear and understand all conversations that took place around her, but was unable to respond. She was locked inside a non-responsive body. Although from the outside her humanity appeared to have been stripped away, it remained, locked away, oblivious to those around her. Her expressed fear was not that she had lost some control over her bodily functions, but that she found herself being ignored –the greatest indignity for her, to have others pretend that she was no longer there, even in her diminished and somewhat emaciated state.

The equation of euthanasia with ‘dying with dignity’ is a distortion. As the life cycle turns, we recognise that the ageing years can often bring a shift in relationship balance, where the child becomes the parent and the parent needing the guidance and support of their children. We feel the discomfort which comes when we find ourselves taking a parental role with our own parents, and seek to do it in the most caring and dignified ways we can. When cancer or dementia begins to overtake, the nature of such parental care can even mimic that of caring for our infant children, particularly when it comes to hygiene and cleanliness. But we do not such acts to be undignified towards our infant children. We talk with them and relate to them in the process in order to build and maintain the relationship. I have seen the expert and gracious care of many palliative care nurses towards aged patients in a similar manner – actions which maintain dignity even where the body makes it more difficult without assistance.

I do not judge or condemn those find it difficult to remain present when the last days drag on. It is confronting at times to journey those last hours and days with someone we love; to know that the person shrinking before our eyes was once hale and robust, full of life and energy. To talk to someone without eliciting a response where once their witty repartee brought raucous laughter or punctured the tension evokes a deep grief which cannot be readily expressed while they still live, even less so while we are in their presence.

Ranjana Srivastana’s column in The Age on Wednesday was refreshing for its honesty and humanity. As are her reported comments of the son. That death has its own timetable pushes us into uncomfortable and apparently inhuman spaces, spaces and experiences which we do not talk about enough, either about death or grief, or our own human limitations. Yet to gain the illusion of control may be to lose something at the very fabric of our being, something of our deepest selves.

I find myself asking what I would fear about a lingering death such as Sanjana describes? I identify pain levels which can only be known by those who experience them, much of which can be controlled or ameliorated with medication. I note the loss of control of bodily functions which threaten one’s dignity, but which can be cared for both physically and emotionally. Then there is the slow decimation of the body, slipping into being a shadow of my (former) self. But I realise that one has to learn that by degrees as one ages in any case. And then there is the sense of being left alone to die. I realise that it is the relationships that make me who I am; the people around me who give meaning, purpose and joy to life. These are those who celebrate success with me, who chide me when I fail, who urge me on to other things, and with whom I share a similar privilege. To be human is to be remembered, to be re-membered as part of a community. This is perhaps the greatest fear to be faced, particularly for those who believe that there is no comfort in death, and no company with us through the shadow of death’s valley.

There is a need to be there with a loved one in those difficult last moments not because they have anything to give to us as such, but so that we can be with them, showing that we remember, and that we care. This is the greatest gift anyone can give and receive in life. I fear that an acceptance of euthanasia may serve to undermine that gift, and therefore undermine our very humanity.

Life is messy. Let’s not make it clinical.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Beyond Ground Zero

The call by an American pastor to mark the September 11 anniversary by burning a copy of the Koran is not only an inflammatory gesture, but represents a misunderstanding of not only the gospel which the pastor seeks to represent, but of the events of September 11 themselves. It has become acceptable to link the September 11 attacks with either an attack on American religious freedom (more particularly its Christian heritage) or an attack on American culture and prominence itself. A closer examination of the events of that day demonstrate a far more simple statement was being made in a rather more complex manner than the pastor suggests.

American dominance throughout the second half of the twentieth century was rooted in a combination of its economic power, its military might, and its political power. It is hard to separate these from one another, so interlinked have they been. As we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, each of these three pillars has lost some of its sheen, and the gap between the USA and the rest is reducing. US budget deficits are measured in the trillions, trade deficits continue to grow, and the might of the US military machine has been tested and stretched significantly on the Iraq and Afghanistan stages, where not only its expertise has been exposed as insufficient to bring out the desired outcomes, but the overall cost has significantly impacted the local economy’s capabilities in responding to the financial crisis. All of these, together with the shambolic outcomes of some presidential elections as far as the integrity of the voting process is concerned, have combined to undermine the political authority of the USA, particularly when further taking into account issues of diplomacy and in addressing global concerns such as Climate Change and the Millennium Development Goals in addressing global poverty. Whilst still the preeminent nation on the planet, there are reasons to question where the present directions of the US might lead, and what the pecking order on the list of countries might be like at the end of this century.

An arguable turning point can be anchored in the events of September 11, 2001. The events of that day are deeply entrenched in American culture and in global perspectives on American responses. The images of the World Trade Centre Towers collapsing are burned upon the minds of all who lived through those days. The residual anger in the community makes analysis of the events problematic and prone to misunderstanding. But rather than regarding these atrocities as random or completely senseless acts, we should look more closely to examine the import of the events of that day. Of course, one does so with a sense of trepidation, realising the tremendous cost, both in terms of lives lost on the day, but also its damage to American pride. The tragedy of that day and the deep grief which continues for a nation, and many individuals within it needs to be respected.

The visual imagery conveyed in the events of September 11 wield a coherent narrative, seeking to challenge the very structure of power which facilitated and underpins American dominance. In fact, in spite of the apparent wanton and random nature of the devastation it caused, the combination of events on that day exhibit something far more strategic. Consider the three targets: the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon, and the White House.

The World Trade Centre has remained the single enduring memorial image of the events, thereby masking the overall imagery of the day. It stood for decades as a symbol of America’s dominance in the world economy and of its engineering capabilities. It supplied 15% of the available office space on the island, and housed major multinational corporations. Billions of dollars of transactions passed through its offices annually. Its size related not only to its importance architecturally, economically and culturally to New York, but to America’s economic influence internationally.

The other two targets are remembered only in passing, perhaps because the impact was much less obvious – the symbolic skyline of New York being reshaped far more dramatically – and the loss of life in those other places less so. One of the airliners crashed into the Pentagon, causing not only the loss of life of passengers and some on the ground, but also significant damage at the point of impact – yet not enough to change the shape or the functioning of the buildings in any significant way. Similarly, Flight 93 was brought down by the courageous act of its passengers over fields in Pennsylvania, well short of its intended target, the Whitehouse, which continues to stand physically unscarred by the events of 9/11. In light of these outcomes one might suggest that the overall effect marked as a failure for its perpetrators, failing to significantly scar the three pillars of American dominance on that day, and allowing the reframing of the story by the victims for their own purposes.

However, a long-term analysis suggests that the damage might be more significant to Pentagon and Whitehouse than the scars of the day itself. The US response was to send its troops into Afghanistan and then to Iraq, ostensibly as revenge for these attacks, and as a pre-emptive response to any future acts of terrorism. Convinced that the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were involved and complicit in the 9/11 attacks, a massive commitment of troops succeeded in overthrowing both regimes in reasonably brief time frames. However, due to inability to establish a lasting peace or a stable government, the troop commitments are nearing the end of their first decade, involving significant loss of human life, with over 4000 US troops alone killed in action, and thousands more civilians and enemy combatants added to this number. In addition, the economic cost to the US economy of the two wars already exceeds $1 trillion dollars, with no end in sight to US involvement in both theatres. While these significant costs related to the conduct of action in Afghanistan and Iraq escalated, a new threat on the home front emerged – the global financial crisis. Already under significant budget stress, the financial cost of these wars has severely hamstrung the US administration in its ability to formulate meaningful and significant responses to the economic downturn which has pushed unemployment levels in the USA to double figures and created significant pain for its people. Economically and militarily, America’s vulnerabilities have been exposed, and any belief that the economic and military might of the US could shape the world as it pleased has been undermined. While only the World Trade Centre was brought down on the day – and is on the brink of re-emerging in a new form, the military and economic scars may well endure for many years to come.

And along the way, we have seen the gradual undermining of America’s moral authority on the international stage. There is no doubt that the practices of rendition, the images of Abu Graib, and the existence of Guantanamo Bay, where “enemy combatants” have been held indefinitely without charge or trial have done America’s reputation no favours. When you consider the restrictions placed on American citizens in order to “preserve America’s freedom,” including “no-fly” lists, wire-tapping, and other intrusions into privacy, the emergent paradox is how far one’s freedoms being removed in order to protect one’s freedoms can be justifiable and morally sustainable. While we may well understand the strength of commitment to ensure that US citizens are protected on their own soil, many of the legislative responses to increase homeland security have caused heartache for many innocent citizens.

The World Trade Centre (symbol of American economic power), the Pentagon (symbol of her military power), and the Whitehouse (symbol of political power) were all attacked by commercial aircraft – itself another symbol of American freedom and ingenuity – on a date which translates as the same telephone number as Americans dial in an emergency – 911. Can we really claim this was a random act of wanton destruction? Can we really simplify this event as an attack by one religion on another? Is the call to “burn the Koran” merely a reflection of the type of stereotypical ignorance which prompted the attacks in the first place?

We do well to hear the pain of the American people as they remember these events, for the wounds and the scars run deep. These attacks were callous and calculated, and designed to send a message. But if the only response is to “burn the Koran,” we have to ask whether anyone was really prepared to face up to the full implications of this day, let alone the call of the gospel to love one’s enemies and to pray for those who persecute you. But to use one’s power to trample on the beliefs of another is to continue to pour fuel on the fires which stoke such acts of violence. At the same time we need to remember that this attack was on much more than the area called "Ground Zero" today...