Practicing Healing

One of
the most
valuable
things we
can do
to heal
one another
is to
listen to
each other’s
stories…

–Rebecca Falls

I continue to receive deeply moving stories in response to my commentary on Terri Schiavo.

Whether writers agree or disagree with me, many tell of painful struggles around their own life and death experiences with loved ones. I am moved by the real pain in these stories.

They are changing my skepticism about our ability to have a constructive dialogue about life and death decisions.

If my respondents are any indication, then most people remain open to further discussion of these issues in a civil and responsible manner. That means they are willing to listen but they also want to be heard.

Many have said they have felt no one in the public media has spoken for them. With very few exceptions, they say the language of the debate has been extreme and they don’t like this.

These notes reflect far more thoughtful perspectives than the sharply worded sound bites that we’ve heard. Many writers advocate a point of view, but they do so without rancor, or without taking absolute positions that allow no room for a different opinion.

I think local churches and other community groups would serve us well by offerring dialogue groups on the various issues that cluster around life and end of life ethics. If we truly listen to each other in an attitude of respect, we might begin a process of healing that will move us forward in our common desire to respect life and create a more just and humane world.

Changing the Conversation

We can
draw to
the surface
undiscussable
dangerous
issues
without inciting
people to
anger.

www.thinkingtogether.com

A google search of “dialogue” turned up more than 2 million entries. More than I’ll get read this weekend!

However, I wanted to see if there are guidelines that might be helpful to read as we discuss critical issues in our civic life about which we disagree strongly.

In fact, there are. The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation provides a variety of useful tools and connections to groups that are conducting dialogue for constructive purposes.

First, I’m concerned that the whole culture has become more coarse and crude. It isn’t prudish to not want to be exposed to sexually explicit, dehumanizing language when you’re sitting in the privacy of your own home watching television, for example. But this is a common occurrence and the only way to avoid it is to turn off the TV. I think we’ve done terrible disservice to our children to provide popular culture that is so disrespectful of human dignity.

But I also think that poverty and social injustice are disrespectful of human dignity as well and if we don’t address these we we demonstrate a coarse disregard for the sanctity of life, so it’s not just popular culture that needs attention.

Secondly, I’m concerned that the political conversation has become toxic. It’s common to hear personal attacks, highly charged rhetoric, condemnation and negative stereotyping that only results in response in kind. This isn’t dialogue and it won’t help us to resolve our differences. In fact, it could well undermine our civic community.

As I write, I risk sounding as if I’m pontificating. I’m aware this can be called naive’, or prudish, or unrealistic. Maybe so. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, too. But I think this kind of behavior desensitizes us to the humanity of others and, ultimately, is dehumanizing for the whole of society.

And I think we need to call it into question when we hear it, especially in the political or religious dialogue where we can make a difference. And I think we need to be advancing for discussion alternatives about the important issues that we face and lay aside the personal attacks and inflated rhetoric.

Dialogue

My commentary on Terri Schiavo has drawn considerable e-mail response. The vast majority of writers express appreciation and agreement. Some tell of tortured personal experiences similar in nature. A few are rather sharply worded attacks, but only one is really nasty.

This feedback tells me a couple of things. First, people on all sides of the issue identified personally with Ms. Schiavo’s ordeal, and in doing so, they read their own lives into the dilemma; thus, the rush to prepare living wills and advance directives. Second, people are deeply, emotionally involved in this situation. It is not an abstraction, it is up-close-and-personal.

Can we
engage in
respectful
dialogue?

With her passing, the next phase of the public debate lies before us. This is the debate over public policy regarding end-of-life issues and the seating of judges. This raises a question that continues to perplex me, especially because many, many writers tell me they feel voiceless and ignored. They also express frustration that the extremes have been in the media spotlight and have framed the issues.

The question is this: How can we engage in a respectful dialogue about issues that are important to the whole society in a way that encourages participation? And most importantly, how can we do this so it leads to constructive ends?

It will require the media, political and religious leaders to behave differently. Frankly, I doubt this will happen. I’m not going to bash the media or the politicians in this post. But it’s clear to me that harsh rhetoric only invites harsh response. It’s an escalating war of words. I don’t see how this helps us deal with the tough questions we must resolve.

However, for the survival of a diverse and democratic state, we must change the quality of our conversation or we will lose those values that we have all enjoyed as the “great democratic experiment.” I don’t think it’s rhetorical flourish to say, as Bill Moyers said recently, that the soul of democracy is at stake.

Beyond the important specific issues in the debate about end-of-life decisions are the questions of how we talk, listen and learn from each other; and how we learn to disagree without destroying ourselves or the social fabric. This is an urgent concern right now. It must be addressed as we enter into this next phase of this debate.

I believe we will need to call ourselves to account; politicians, clergy, journalists, and ourselves. What is at stake is more than winning a debate. What is at stake is the quality of our civic society and how inclusiveness and participatory it will be.

Dr. Land Continues

I continue to be fascinated by Dr. Richard Land’s comments about this and other issues. I’m not entirely sure why, but perhaps it is because he is reported to have the ear of the President and speaks weekly by telephone with top White House aides in a briefing session. This quote appeared in The Tennessean this morning.

”This is a sad day for America. It’s a particularly sad day for anyone who is physically or mentally handicapped, or seriously and debilitatingly ill, and those who love them. The judiciary at the state and federal level condemned Terri Schiavo to death by dehydration and malnutrition on the hearsay evidence of a husband who is cohabiting with another woman whom he introduces as his fiancee and with whom he has produced two children.” ? Richard Land, head of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention

Reactions

Here is a morning’s round-up of reactions to the life of Terri Schiavo and lessons to be drawn from it.

Leonard Pitts, writing in the Miami Herald about coming to terms with his mother’s death from breast cancer, says that facing the reality of death is not a betrayal of faith.

Jonathan Chait in the LA Times offers the provocative opinion that the Republican party, rather than being highjacked by religious conservatives, has highjacked religious conservatives. He points to the cynical greed of lobbyist Jack Abramoff who took $4 million from one tribe to prevent another tribe from opening a competing casino. Abramoff and Ralph Reed enlisted Focus on the Family followers to write letters opposed to the gambling casino while pocketing $4 million, nor explaining that they were really protecting the existing casino from competition.

The New York Times editorializes that this family tragedy was turned into an international spectacle by self-aggrandizing outsiders and powerful persons for whom politics is about maximizing hysteria at the margins.

The Washington Post writes that Ms. Schiavo’s legacy would best be served as the start of a national conversation about how we decide complex questions about end-of-life care, among other important questions, given new medical technologies that present us with options to preserve life that we’ve not had before.

The Houston Chronicle says the Schiavo case illustrates that one law cannot accommodate the unique circumstances of the multitude of complicated medical conditions we face. It also comments on the quiet conversation among some medical professionals about the the costs of maintaining persons in irreversible medical decline compared to the need for funds to vaccinate poor children, health insurance for the middle class, health needs of the poor and the nutritional needs of underprivileged children.

It’s About Faith

The news of the death of Terri Schiavo led me to pray for her family and for all of those who have been so movingly affected by her plight. Her life can be a symbol of reconciliation and healing, if we take a step back from confrontation and seek to listen to each other and engage with each other in a respectful way.

I
condensed a longer reflection on the Schiavo situation for a commentary on the
the website of The United Methodist Church, href="http://umc.org/">umc.org.

That reflection, which will be
posted today, follows:

The past few
weeks have been rough for me. The spectacle surrounding the Terri Schiavo case
has evoked personal memories that cut deeply.



I’ve thought about this intensely, prayed
about it and tried to put it in perspective.

Four years ago this July, my
spouse, our daughters and I, sat for three excruciating weeks at the bedside of
our dying son and brother. It was an experience I would not wish for anyone.

To be clear, our circumstances were
different from Ms. Schiavo’s. Matt had prepared an advance directive. We
followed his wishes.

His condition
was different from Ms. Schiavo’s, but the decision to not intervene with
extraordinary measures is the same emotionally devastating decision, regardless
of the circumstances. When House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said that withholding
a feeding tube was a barbaric act, it was as if someone put a branding iron to
my heart. It was searing and
insensitive.

Ms. Schiavo’s 15-year
ordeal is over, but I know that as I write this, parents, husbands, wives and
children are sitting in a hospice, or a hospital room, waiting as we did for a
loved one to reach life’s end.

And
they are aware of the public debate that has raged during the months leading up
to Ms. Schiavo’s death. They have heard the inflammatory rhetoric and have
perhaps questioned their own decisions. As they undergo their own private
ordeal, they will look deeply at their motivations, painfully evaluate negative
characterizations about this most sacred human experience, and struggle with
difficult decisions they must make about life support and palliative care.



The kindest, most loving thing they can
do may be to allow their loved one to die naturally without intervening, but
Rep. DeLay has framed this as a barbaric
act.

They deserve better. They
deserve support, compassion, affirmation and sensitive listening. They wait in
agony, grasping to understand circumstances that none of us is prepared for,
trying to make a loving decision under extraordinarily difficult
conditions.

They face stress now,
and they will face it later. Bereavement following the loss of a child can lead
to mental illness, disintegration of marriages, depression and abuse of alcohol
and drugs, according to a study conducted by the Danish Epidemiology Science
Center and appearing in The New England Journal of Medicine.

But these families are not
receiving compassion. They’re hearing words tossed about such as “starvation,”
“barbarism,” “euthanasia” and “assisted suicide.”

No loving parent wants to watch a
child die. It’s not how life is supposed to be. But rail as we might against the
injustice of it all, it happens. And there’s no way out of it but through
it.

For me, it was the most painful
yet sacred experience I’ve ever been through–and also the most confusing. I
experienced a jumble of emotions that went to the core of my soul. It was
heartbreaking and spiritually elevating at the same time. I never felt more
alone, or more connected to and loved by those around
me.

I became afraid of the dark, and
yet I felt as close to the presence of a loving God as I’ve ever been. As I read
the Scriptures, they came alive in a way I’d never experienced
before.

I’ve not written publicly
about this because it’s been too painful and too private. But I write today
after prayerfully reflecting upon the trauma inflicted by the political debate
surrounding Ms. Schiavo. It’s been hurtful in more ways than the politicians
will ever understand. Their intervention–and that of the clergy who have given
them theological cover–is breathtaking for its insensitivity and lack of
compassion.

The politicians did not
have to step into this broken family’s dispute. They made an extraordinary
effort to create this spectacle, betraying their own claims about respect for
the sanctity of life and the dignity of all persons. And the clergy could have
spoken of the need to offer pastoral care and counseling to the family, of the
fullness of life under God and the great moral challenges that we face in
circumstances such as this. But that is not the path either group chose.

We need serious discussion about
end-of-life care, genetic therapy, medical research and access to health care.
If we had this conversation, we would talk seriously about what makes for a life
of quality. And we would discuss the insight contained in the sacred writings
and holy scriptures of the world’s
religions.

We would talk about our
responsibility to care for citizens with disabilities and ensure their rights.
We would talk about preventive care and guidelines for end-of-life intervention.
We would talk about adequate funding for all of us to have access to health
care.



And we would talk about holistic life, a
life imbued with the sacred; life as body, spirit and
soul.



My family’s experience with Matt was not
barbaric, it was sacred. For me to remain silent in response to the intemperate
language and political grandstanding of the Schiavo case seems a betrayal of my
son and the awe-filled experience we shared together at his
passing.



In a March 23 op-ed piece in The
Tennessean
, Dr. Rubel Shelly, an ethicist at Vanderbilt University wrote,
“Perhaps death itself needs to be reconsidered by all of us. It is not an
absolute evil. Sometimes the real evil lies in forcing someone to endure
existence that is no longer really life.”



As a Christian, I believe death is not
the end. It is a transition. I believe with Paul that “We do not live to
ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and
if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we
are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:7,8)



We are Easter people, and that means in
the darkness we look to the coming dawn, and in the gathering light we see the
renewing presence of a loving God who calls us to heal the wounded, comfort the
afflicted, bring wholeness to the broken and to live a life imbued with sacred
value. Whether we live, or whether we die, we are the
Lord’s.



The end of life is not about politics.
It’s about faith.

Sanctity of Life: Addressing Compelling, Urgent Needs

The Guardian summarizes the report of the World Health Organization that says 10 million children die each year from preventable causes.

The
report says, “The deaths are mainly from pneumonia (19%), diarrhoea (17%),
malaria (8%), measles (4%), HIV/Aids (3%) and injuries (3%). Premature birth
(28%), sepsis or pneumonia (26%), and asphyxia (23%) are the most common causes
of very early death.”

Four in 10 of
these children die within the first 28 days of life, and a significant number
are in southern and West Africa.

As
we talk of the sanctity of life, we must talk of these lives and how we put an
end to the disease, suffering and grief that violates their sanctity.

Traditional Values:An Environmental Ethic for the Planet

Sixty percent of the earth’s ecosystems that serve to sustain life are under threat and will seriously degrade in the next 50 years according the the Millenial Ecosystem Assessment released yesterday.

This is a values issue at the heart of the survival of the planet and most of the world’s religions.

The report is worrisome because it reveals how human behavior is putting the natural ecosystem at risk. The earth’s capacity to carry human life is not unlimited, but we continue to develop and waste as if these have no consequences. In fact, they do.

The challenge we face is to find the same energy and urgency for preserving the earth that we put into other issues. And this, it seems to me, is a major challenge for those who must find the way to communicate the urgency of this message to masses of people around the world, some of whom are victims of environmental degradation and others who benefit from it through consumption lifestyles that are deeply ingrained in the culture.

This is truly an issue that affects all of us and will reveal how we care for each other and for the earth that sustains us. It is issue of ethical behavior and religious values.

Responsible Voices Weigh In

It’s encouraging this morning to read that responsible voices are weighing in on the side of the rule of law and reclaiming the political process.

John
Danforth, former U.S. Senator from Missouri, Ambassador to the United Nations
and an Episcopal priest writes in the href="http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/30/opinion/30danforth.html?incamp=article_popular_1">New
York Times this morning:


href="http://nytimes.com/2005/03/31/national/31schiavo.html?hp&ex=1112331600&en=5ee009b4439f2a88&ei=5094&partner=homepage">The
Times also reports that Judge Stanley F. Burch, Jr., a 1999 Bush
appointee to the 11th. Circuit, went on record with an opinion that the special
law enacted for Terri Schiavo is unconstitutional:


We
need to reclaim the faith and we need to reclaim the democratic process.
Finally, we’re hearing voices of reason from all sides weigh
in.

When the Middle is Shut Out

I’ve had no takers yet on the question about the absence of moderate voices in the public media in the Schiavo case.

Here’s what concerns me about the issue. When the quiet, moderate voices of the middle are shut out by the more extreme, theatrical voices of the poles, the national dialogue becomes distorted. That’s what’s happening, in my opinion, in the Schiavo matter.

Those at the extremes have framed the issues surrounding Ms. Schiavo and have set the terms of the debate. The advocates for extreme positions come at us as if there is no middle ground, only absolutes.

When words such as “starvation” and “murder” are used to describe this complex situation our ability to discuss it in a caring and constructive conversation is diminished. End-of-life decisions require considerably more nuanced discussion than these words capture.

We really need to have this discussion because the ability of the medical profession to intervene in processes that in the past would have resulted in death, is expanding. In many instances this is wonderful, life-preserving intervention.

But, in others, it is not. And the struggle we face is how to determine, in each unique situation, what is best for the individual whose life is at stake.

I yearn for this discussion to be conducted on the talk shows, in sound bites and on the pages of the newspapers. The voices of those who have not been heard are those in middle who struggle between the absolutes and are searching for a way through this complicated dilemma. They know it’s not as clear and easy to talk about complex ethical behavior in absolute language.

But as I write this, I don’t think those voices are being heard. As we move forward, I hope the quiet, moderate folks in the middle find their voices and contribute to the discussion.

And, by the way, I’m still looking for comments.

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