In my own case, when I look back at the year, I feel bruised. There have been highlights, such as the wonderful, life-affirming Paralympics, which focused so much on people’s abilities rather than on their disabilities.
Nonetheless, one of my core values, the belief that all human life, no matter how little, or how damaged, or how old, is precious, seems to have been under assault without cease for much of the year.
There has also been a coarsening of public discussion. The rise of social media has unleashed the nastier side of human beings, and given many people permission to say things that one would hope they would never say to a person’s face. Although I am beginning to doubt that, too, as there seems to be a vicious cycle – once people lose their inhibitions on the worldwide web, it seems to have a knock-on effect on public conversation in general.
For many reasons, then, Sting’s melancholy song, How Fragile We Are, has been running through my head. It is an anti-war song, inspired by the death of an idealistic young American, Ben Linder, who was shot by the Contras when working for the Peace Corps in Nicaragua 25 years ago this year.
As Sting’s song says: “Perhaps this final act was meant/To clinch a lifetime’s argument/That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could/For all those born beneath an angry star/ Lest we forget how fragile we are.”
We are extremely fragile, and none so fragile as human beings at the earliest stage of life, or suffering from mental or physical disabilities, or close to the end of life. But issues like abortion and euthanasia are proxies for deeper questions. Are we primarily individuals, who must bear the burdens of life alone, and sort out our own problems without reference to the common good, or are we members of communities, who must bear each other’s burdens?
It always strikes me that the slogan, ‘a woman’s right to choose’ is the epitome of individualism, because it narrows the focus to the concerns of one individual.
Paradoxically, it means cutting off potential avenues of support, because it reduces a crisis pregnancy to one person’s problem, which must be solved by one person.
Take the profound distress of discovering that the child you are carrying has a potentially lethal condition, which may result in death either before, during, or shortly after birth. In the worldview that sees it primarily as a mother’s, or at best, a family’s problem, there is no onus to set up support services such as perinatal hospices, which provide a ‘wraparound’ service from the moment of diagnosis to well beyond the death of the child.
I would urge everyone to look at Prof. Byron C. Calhoun’s presentation at the Dublin Symposium on Maternal Health. An expert in support for high risk pregnancies, his conclusions were that perinatal hospice care allows parents to have the gift of time with their children, and that centres offering this specialist care can be inserted into most major hospitals at minimum cost.
I know from witnessing the experience of friends of mine that giving birth to a severely compromised child and doing everything possible for him or her, has a profound impact on everyone who comes into contact with that family. Yes, these babies are fragile, and perhaps worthless in the eyes of those who have never learnt to see with the heart, but they can teach us vitally important truths.
The reality is that we are all fragile, and there is no-one who can exist for their entire life without the care of others. We are all interdependent and bound to each other in webs of care and responsibility.
Life is a journey of radical insecurity. This reality is in direct conflict with our cherished visions of ourselves as autonomous, independent and secure.
We look in the wrong places for resources to deal with life’s challenges. We seek for ways to re-establish control, but Franciscan Richard Rohr challenges us to take a different route – to open ourselves to the pain and uncertainty, and to pray, “Maranatha, come, Lord Jesus, come”, far beyond Advent. He says that failure to do so is a refusal “to hold out for the full picture that is always given in time by God”.
If more of us, including myself, took that route, perhaps we would have more compassionate and humane ways of dealing with human fragility. Happy New Year.