Thursday, March 24, 2005

To Teach Us To Love

Reflecting on Terri Schiavo’s Case

I see at least two angles from which to approach Terry Schiavo’s situation. The first is the moral/legal angle: is what is happening to her right or wrong? In my opinion, the answer is pretty straightforward: passive euthanasia is as indefensible as active euthanasia.

The second angle is the personal one: should her situation affect me personally? There’s probably a whole lot we could say here, but what follows gets to the very heart of the matter. My sister wrote these reflections on Terri’s case in her journal yesterday. Her entry affected me so deeply, I asked her if I could republish it here. (For those who are concerned about such things, I changed the names.) Here’s her post…

The Terri Schiavo case seems to drag on and on, pushing into the numb areas of our brains til we no longer want to hear any more about it. Til we no longer care, really. That’s just human nature—it doesn’t affect me personally, and until it does, please just shut up about it. I went to the website that tells her story, and I felt it begin to affect me personally. So I thought I'd tell why.

I used to work in a huge 24-hour care hospice for mentally retarded, physically handicapped, often self-abusive people. I worked in the children’s ward. Each CNA was assigned a group of 4 to 6 children, often separated by gender. I was assigned the boy’s group more often than not because of my age and physical strength. I grew to love those boys in a way that has never left me.

Brandon -- autistic and mentally retarded. He would play for hours with difficult toys, holding them just out of his vision and operating them perfectly. He walked with gigantic, jerky steps. He was tall for 16, and his autism ran him into a mental and emotional cave. I discovered that he would let me hug him from behind, digging my chin into his right shoulder and humming. He would not only let me, he would actually giggle.

Brent -- he was my first grand mal seizure. I cried. I'd never seen a human form reduced to such helplessness. When it was over, he was limp. It was the only time Brent was ever able to be limp. His muscles were normally stretched taut, poisoned by rigidity. He was sweet and precious in his coos and smiles and huge eyes. He was 14.

Marky -- what a challenge. Tiny, soooo tiny. He was 17, but I could carry him as easily as I carry my 4-year-old today. He would slam any area of his body into his large, pointed teeth. He had sores and green infection all over from his self-abuse. He was born with no eyes. He had the highest cognitive ability of any of our residents. He could feed himself, walk unassisted, bathe himself, drink, use the bathroom. He would go into fits of rage and throw himself around his room, damaging his body horribly. I was afraid of him. Then I found out how much he loved his baths. I had to lay entire blankets into the tub, lining the hard sides, before filling it with water, but every single night I'd go through the ritual for him. He'd let me undress him and put him in, and then he'd grope about, trying to find the hard surface he knew was there. He wanted to bash his face into it, repeatedly. I'd gently redirect him, guiding his hand to the surface of the warm water, hoping he'd relax and begin to pat it with his boney hand, like he loved to do. I'd sing to him, and I'd tell him that I loved him. After his bath, I'd cuddle him on his bed, rocking him and singing to him. He'd relax into me and breathe in a humming fashion to himself. His destructive fits began to take on a personal pain for me. His parents, unlike most of the others, lived just down the street. They never visited. Not once in the three years I was there. They sent a card for his birthday one time, and I don't believe what he did to it had anything at all to do with chance. I read him the card and helped him feel the fuzzy animals on it. He held it, sat still, and slowly ejected a large wad of spit onto it. I felt the same way.

Kendall -- my little doll. He was born normal, but he had a drop seizure at age two. He was forever two, at 16 years old. He would grab his pillow and yell, "BED!!!" Or he'd point at a picture and grin madly while hollering, "BALL!!!!" He had to wear a football helmet because of his drop seizures, but you could always see his grin and big brown eyes through the face. Everyone was
"mommy" to him.

There were so many others. But the one that I think of when I think of Terri Schiavo is a girl named Anna. She was most often in my co-worker Becca's group. I would help Becca with Anna because Anna required large blocks velcroed between her legs and arms/body every night. And a diaper, of course. Everyone wore diapers. Anna was one of our tube feeders. The other was Chelsea, a responsive, smiley little girl. Anna was the daughter of a couple who had died in a house fire. She survived, but barely. She did nothing; she was capable of absolutely nothing. I never understood why she was even alive. Chelsea's tube feedings were three times a day, administered by us with the nurse on duty. She knew she was eating and would even lick her lips as we filled the tube in her tummy. Anna's tube feeding was constant, like an IV drip. One night, fully expecting Becca's ready agreement, I said in a cutting tone, "I don't even understand why Anna is alive or even here. She is practically comatose." Becca dropped what she was doing, and her eyes met mine, rather shocked and horrified. "Do you really feel that way, Danna?" "Well, not to be mean, but yeah, she never responds, never moves, is capable of NOTHING, yet she lives on through the tube feeding and all our administrations." Becca set her jaw, and asked me to follow her. When we reached Anna's bedside, Becca motioned for me to be quiet. She leaned down to Anna, looking full in her face. "Hi, Sunshine," she cooed at her. "How are you tonight? Do you know I love you, Sunshine?" Anna's body made a shifty move and she smiled a wide, contorted, toothy smile, her fingers flexing jerkily. I felt stabbed. With guilt . . . with total regret. I was red-faced as I walked out next to Becca, and I thanked her for setting me straight.

Anna became one of my biggest blessings after that. She changed my life. She would be described as "no quality of life" and maybe even "persistive vegetative state" incorrectly like Terri Schiavo. But sometimes it's not for us to decide quality by our own subjective standards. Sometimes it's just our responsibility to love and care for our weaker brothers.

I have two daughters. I suffered from an eating disorder. I relate to Terri Schiavo on a couple levels, and I relate to her parents on a universal level. I don't understand why Terri's husband will not relinquish his control, allowing the people who are the reason he is WITH Terri to have her back as their child, their responsibility. Terri is not on life support. She is tube fed. Just like Chelsea and Anna. She is loved and her life is valued.

Why is our justice system bent on protecting a man who does not have the best interests of all involved at heart? Eating disorders don't come from nowhere; my suspicions are ALL on him. He has made two children with his current girlfriend. None of this adds up to "loving" his wife. Why can't he let her go to the ones who want to spend their lives caring for their daughter? I think I would pull a "John Q" if I were them, if either of my daughters was being tormented by her husband like Terri Schiavo is. She left no will, he puts words into her mouth, and from her history, it would appear it's not the first time.

I believe Terri's life is worth protecting. As much I believe the lives of my own children are. Anna taught me that. And I believe that's why God allows Anna and people like her to live: to teach us to love.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Scolding Squirrels and Pesky Parents

How Life Doesn’t Come Naturally to Humans

As I was walking out to my car today, a squirrel hopped down from one of our trees, bounced across the lawn, and scurried up one of our neighbor’s trees. He found a perch to his liking on a limb about 20 feet up where he hunkered down and scolded me with all his little might. I noticed that about ⅔ of his tail was missing, which really got my attention and started me to thinking: “Wow, you’re in a bad mood! What’s with the attitude? And what in the world happened to your poor tail?”

Driving away, I kept thinking about my little woodland critter-criticizer. But now I was thinking in broader categories: “Squirrels use their tail for all kinds of stuff. He must be quite a survivor to live with the little stubby one he’s got. How did he do it? I wonder if he had a tail-loss support group for a while…” And then my train of thought derailed entirely and careened off in a direction that can probably happen only my randomly wired mind…

I started marveling at all the amazing things animals do without any training whatsoever. Little birds leave the nest without ever learning how to build one. Squirrels just know that it’s time to gather food in the fall. Salmon swimming upstream, beavers building dams, bees making honey, whales singing their song… who teaches them this stuff? Sure, some animal species do a little more “child-training” than others, but for the most part, life just comes naturally to animals.

Not so for people, though. We don’t “do life” very well if we’re left to ourselves. Infant human beings have a very limited repertoire of innate abilities: sucking, the falling reflex, stuff like that. And it’s true that a normal, healthy child has incredible potential for development, some of which happens naturally: motor skill progression, language acquisition, and all the other cool stuff you study in developmental psychology. But generally speaking, human beings require purposeful care and training to live, or at least, to live well.

Think about it… Imagine if you had to approach life entirely on your own, no teachers, no models, nothing. You’re given all the raw materials of life but no instruction for how to use them. So you start in on teaching yourself the skills of childhood—tying shoes, adding numbers, telling time, reading words. It’s conceivable that you could eventually learn to do it all on your own; after all, somewhere back there in history some pioneering mathematician worked out 2 + 2 all by himself. But can you imagine the inefficiency, the repeated failures, the frustration, the wasted time and energy?

And then you come to the skills of adolescence and young adulthood—choosing friends, making major decisions, developing your own views of right and wrong, learning to handle your own emotions and desires. Once again, it’s conceivable that you could eventually learn to do it all on your own. But just imagine the inefficiency, the repeated failures, the frustration, the wasted time and energy. Our instincts don’t serve us very well when it comes to this stuff; for our species, life goes better with a teacher.

But here’s where it gets a little sticky… For some strange reason, somewhere along the way to adolescence, we get the idea that we’re ready to go it on our own. We come to believe we’re ready to live by our own instincts. We’re convinced that life comes naturally to us, and we don’t need the help of models or teachers anymore. Hmmm… how strange. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself a bit…

Ever think about what God could have done? He didn’t have to set up our world this way, right? I mean, He created this world; He wrote the rules; He could have set it up any way He wanted. He could have created us to be just like squirrels, where everything just comes naturally and we negotiate through life perfectly well from start to finish with very few dependencies or needs. But He didn’t do it that way. He created us with built-in deficiencies, a need for careful training, an irremediable lack if left to ourselves. God made us this way on purpose.

And then He gave us some built-in, batteries-included, complete package, personal tutors to help us learn what we need to live well. Any idea what I’m talking about? Think it’s your school? Nope. The internet? Not really. Angels who come down and help every new generation? Not quite. God’s solution for our inability to live well on our own is our own parents.

These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Dt 6:6-7)

God commanded our fathers to teach their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments. (Ps 78:5-7)
Why all this strange contrasting of human development with squirrels? Cuz I want you to take full advantage of the access God has given you to your own personal life coaches. Here’s what I mean…

If you’re still living at home or simply away at college, realize that God gave you parents for a reason. Don’t be so foolish or so arrogant as to assume that you’ll do perfectly fine negotiating through life on your own, thank you very much. Remember how nice it was to have parents who could help you learn your multiplication tables? Well, why not ask them for help with that problem at your lunch table… or with that really huge question you’ve been afraid to ask… or with that temptation you’re struggling with… or with that relationship that you’re mulling over… or whatever else it is. God gave you parents; use ’em!

But not everyone has that option cuz their situation is different. Know what? The family is still the answer even for people with really dysfunctional parents… or only one parent… or none at all. How is that true? Well, that’s where the church comes in as the “family of God.” What your own parents lack in character or wisdom or influence, God intends for you to get from a church family. Even when you’re out of the house and on your own, God still wants you in a family. He gave you the church; use it!

So here’s the deal… You might as well give up on the idea that you’re ready to tackle life on your own. It’s not gonna happen. Ever. Life doesn’t come naturally to humans. We need instructors, teachers, models, and friends. In short, we need family. So quit acting like you’re some squirrel. It’s time to quit reading this blog, get off the internet, and get talking to your parents!

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Get Real, Part 2

Making It Happen

Nick asked a really good question after reading the post “Get Real” below: “How can we fight the easy but disappointing tendency to keep to ourselves?” I thought a lot about it, wrote out ¾ of my answer a couple days later, and then tucked it away with all my other unfinished posts. Until now…

How can we fight for community? My answer falls into two parts, a two-directional approach that targets our own heart first and then our approach to relationships second.

In our original created state, complete openness extended all the way to our physical forms: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Gen 2:25) The point here is not nudity; it’s community. They had absolutely nothing to hide. Total openness, nothing concealed. But obviously that state of perfect community didn’t last beyond the first recorded human meal. The first two things they did after their dinner of forbidden fruit were to get dressed and to hide from God. The lesson is pretty clear: sin destroys community.

This realization is a pretty important part of the answer in and of itself, because we don’t usually fear sin for what it will do to our relationships with others. Typically we fear sin because we like a clean conscience or we want to stay out of jail or we want to keep up our image in the eyes of other people. Rarely do we fear sin because we love being so close to people and we know sin will pull us apart. But the simple realization that sin ruins relationships—even sin that is not inherently related to the relationship itself—this awareness heightens the stakes considerably. Temptation loses lots of luster when I realize that even my secret sins or my little problems like greed and pride and laziness ruin the intimacy in my marriage, my friendships, and my community.

So the first way to fight for community is to fight sin in our own lives. My own sin is the biggest obstacle to intimacy in any of my relationships. Peter makes this point when he writes: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” (1 Pt 1:22) In other words, we can’t connect when we’re covered with crud. It’s like trying to hook up a trailer that’s been sitting with its hitch in the mud: the connection isn’t possible until you get the gook out.

The second way to fight for community is to develop a cross-centered approach to our relationships. Put most simply, a cross-centered mindset works like this: “I’m completely forgiven and accepted by God because of Jesus. So how does that impact this friendship?”

For example, genuine community demands openness: no secrets, no fa├žade, no desire to impress. False pretenses make pretend friendships. The alternative, of course, is to be who we really are, but yikes! What if we open up and we get rejected? Ouch! What a risk!

Enter the gospel… The cross minimizes risk in a couple ways. First, since the most important Person in the universe accepts us, it matters a lot less if other people don’t. Second, the cross means that the crud people might see when we let them in isn’t our permanent crud. We’re actually a guest on God’s “Complete Makeover: Soul Edition.” People are a lot more forgiving when they realize there’s a transformation going on, like when they see those “Please Excuse Our Mess” signs at the mall when they’re remodeling a store.

The need to be cross-centered is pretty obvious, if we think about it. After all, the cross fixed what the Fall ruined. If we understand that the Fall ruined community, we can intuit that the cross restores it.

One of clearest examples of people living in really close community, sharing their stuff, and enjoying intimate relationships is the Jerusalem church. “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.” (Acts 4:32) Where did that kind of community come from? The very next verse says, “And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” I take that to mean, among other things, that this was a group profoundly centered on the gospel. The gospel is the garden where real community grows.

So, that’s my answer. The first step is directed inward; the second is outward. Fight sin in your own life; live the gospel with others. There’s probably a whole lot more to it that these two things, but I am pretty sure that these two are at the very heart of the matter.

One more thing… I think we’re going to need some very powerful motivation if we’re going to break out of our comfortable but uninspiring habits and pursue community like this. We need more than technique; we need inspiration. So how about this…

John takes up the theme of community in his first letter, and he hits it pretty hard. He’s arguing with all his might for close fellowship, extolling our love for each other, commending forgiveness, going on and on. But just a couple verses into the subject, he gives us his motive for writing: “we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 Jn 1:4). Catch it? He’s stirring them up to pursue community so that his joy and theirs will be full, perfect, complete. So there you go…

Want to be fully, perfectly, completely happy? Get real.