Friday, September 28, 2012

"Right to life"

This phrase started spinning in my mind this afternoon, driving home from work. What was the fragile stream of thoughts that brought it up? Thinking is such a fleeting activity! Especially good thoughts -- they alight for a moment, like a shy forest creature, then they bound away. The bad thoughts, on the other hand, the worries that keep me up at night or memories of petty conflicts -- those linger! (I'm getting better at telling them to get lost, though!)

I was remembering my best friend's dad, who died of Lou Gehrig's disease, surely one of the crueler ways to die. The mind stays intact while the body disintegrates and stops functioning. Eventually, the person cannot swallow or eat unaided anymore. This man, Paul, and his whole family, were pillars of Christian faith. His daughter led me to the church, where I remain today. But the end of his life was a great struggle for Paul. He wrote a letter about it, which his family distributed to friends and family when he died. He said that where he was going, we all must go, but he did not go there willingly. He was kicking and screaming the whole way to the end!

So it seems that whether or not we are people of faith does not necessarily change how we face death. There was Henri Nouwen, who had a near-death experience and an encounter with his Lord and savior, and did not want to come back to life, the great vale of tears, ever again! But there are many people like Paul, who cling to life until the last breath is drawn.

The attitude of the faithful toward the plight of Terry Schiavo always confused me. If deeply religious people believe that we go to heaven when we die, why would they want someone to remain here in the lowest condition, force-fed, possibly against her will? The crux of the matter in that case was that no one knew the will of Terry herself, just what her family desired. Different family members wanted different things, and we all got to watch the drama unfold in our living rooms.

The religious right have a "culture of life" they want to promote to give everyone the "right to life." I dispute that we ever have a right to life. If that's true, why do so many people die young? What happened to their rights? Someone trampled them! Was it God, or Satan, or some merely secular force at work? Some die before ever being born, some in the process of birth, others soon after, and on and on.

There is no right to life if you are living here on earth. It's a ludicrous idea. People in African countries have even less right to life than the rest of us, apparently, given the younger average age at which they die. Having a "right" to anything is a particularly human concept, I think, not helpful but clinging to the illusion of control (as Buddhists would say, the root of all suffering). Life is never a right. It's a precious and fleeting gift, and there is no guarantee that you will have it for any particular length of time.

I wish that the outrage directed at abortions could also be directed against the atrocities that full-grown people commit against one another all the time. If an unborn child is deserving of that much respect and attention, what about people out of the womb? I don't like to think that some people may be using the emotional attachments that babies command to manipulate people's emotions, and their beliefs, and their vote. And what about all the causes of a shortened life that we could control or end -- malaria, AIDS, poverty, disease, violence, lack of access to clean water and food? While we sit in relative luxury in the U.S., most of us hoarding our money and other resources, people are dying around the world. These are our brothers and sisters. What are we doing about it? I don't have the answers. I'm as guilty as anyone else of having my blinders on, so I can continue doing the things that are comfortable for me in my little insulated box that I call a life.

Honestly, I don't sit down with the intention of ending up here, but I always seem to get to this big question -- it's the BIG one, honey! -- why so much suffering? Why can't we end it?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

On change, again

I've got two "Great Courses" lectures I have been listening to. One on Buddhism (what else?) and the other on Communications. The second topic is addressed in a more scholarly way than I had expected, talking about our subjective unconscious mind vs. our conscious mind and a number of experiments that help shed light on the way we perceive and communicate with others.

The Communications lecturer spoke briefly about self-fulfilling prophecies in the context of other people living up (or down) to our expectations of them. Here's a link to Professor Dalton Kehoe if you are interested.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are especially at work with our own children. The conscious and subconscious expectations we place on our children helps determine who they become, so watch out for them. That's not the whole story with children, by a long shot. I think that who children already are (even at birth) is the biggest determinant of who they become, and that is completely outside the control of parents.

It's easy to see the effect of our expectations on our interactions with adults, as well. If we act abrupt and condescending, we receive a much different reaction than if we greet another person in warm, positive ways. Look at the way that old grudges just never die, both between people and groups. It's because people treat one another in the same ways and anticipate the same problems and conflicts, year after year.

I notice the way we box other people in to the "schema" (mental preconception) we have formed and don't allow them to change over time. I guess it is the way our brain avoids hard work, but it's beneath the level of intelligence and compassion that we are capable of. Think of someone you dislike intensely, and the way you view that person. Do you leave room for that person to grow and change in significant ways? Do you look for that kind of change in others, anyone at all?

I think one of the most inspiring messages of Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" (which we watched last night again -- Andrew picking it out and seeing it for the first time) is that people can change in dramatic ways, at any age. Look at Eastwood's character, a bitter old racist who is transformed by the end of the movie. How realistic is that? Yes, it's a legitimate question. I think that the people who change are the ones who first, believe they can; and second, work very hard at it. It can take years -- but it also can happen in a moment of decision. (I think of Thomas Merton's decision to become a monk. He had the sudden conviction that he should become one, though he did have to go through his own spiritual desert to get there.)

Too many people receive the message from our society (parents, teachers, authority figures, their spouses, etc.), that they will never change. Period.

One of the freedoms that the Buddhist philosophy conveys is impermanence, the knowledge that nothing stays the same and everything changes. Rather than being a threatening message, this can also be an invitation to enjoy the adventure of life! Our lives and even our selves are a flowing river, constantly in motion. This moment is precious because it is fleeting. Pay attention to it!

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