Yesterday morning as I cleaned up the breakfast dishes and prepared dinner to go into the crock pot, I listened to NPR, just as I do most mornings. The Diane Rehm Show, with which I frequently disagree but which I nonetheless enjoy, was devoting its 11:00 hour to a discussion on assisted suicide.
Now, I earnestly believe that life is precious and worthy of protection from conception to natural death. And I believe that it is so regardless of an individual’s age or health or wealth or mental capacity. So I knew I would find the conversation disturbing. But I figured it would be good to take in anyway: I think there is an inherent good in hearing an argument fleshed out, whether or not I agree with it.
But about half-way through the program, the conversation got to be too much for me. It was indeed disturbing to hear a cancer patient ponder when her life would no longer be worth living, to hear the story of a 90-year-old-man who so wanted to die that he first tried overdosing on pain medication, then slitting his wrists, and then he shot himself.
Yes, yes, it’s good to hear an argument fleshed out. But it’s not good to go through the day with a lurking feeling of gloom, when I have little boys to feed and care for and love. So I turned off the radio. I chose peace over enlightenment.
A moment later, during a quick perusal of my Facebook feed, I came across the following video*. (I can’t embed it, so do be sure to click on the link and watch the first three-and-a-half minutes or so. I promise it’s worth it.) The video provides a brief glimpse into the work of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Or maybe I should say the joy of the Little Sisters of the Poor, because that’s really more like it. The video follows the Sisters, whose mission it is to care for the elderly poor, as they throw a small birthday celebration for an older priest. It includes a joy-filled Sister offering wine and happily telling how they were gifted with extra cases of beer. It shows another talking about why they do what they do:
“We celebrate the gift of life, the joy of living. When we care for the elderly poor, we try to make them happy in whatever way we can and sometimes that’s through parties, it’s through good care, good food. It’s love, attention.”
I was struck with the stark difference between the two pieces of media I had just consumed. In one, there was an over-arching sense of death and hopelessness. In the other, there was life and joy.
Yes, of course, the Little Sisters of the Poor video captured a birthday celebration; it didn’t show the Sisters caring for a desperately ill, horribly uncomfortable person. It didn’t show them holding vigil at a deathbed. But the Sisters do those things too. They do them day in and day out; they see more of age, of illness, of poverty, of death than most of us ever will. Yet they are filled with joy.
I have a friend who is a Sister in another order, who worked for a time in a nursing home. She often posted on Facebook about waiting with residents who were nearing death. Sister would sit at their bedside, talking to them and praying for them. She made sure they didn’t have to die alone.
That type of ministry touches me deeply. I think about my life, about all the people I have interacted with and known and loved and I wonder, who will be with me at my last moment? Will anyone be there at all? Lots of people state the vague, “I want to go in my sleep,” but I don’t know that that matters much. I just hope I have someone with me to hold my hand and pray for my soul.
As a Catholic, I recognize that suffering is part of life. I don’t mean that it’s not significant or difficult. I certainly don’t mean that God wills it. And I don’t mean that it’s wrong for a person to want their suffering to end. I only mean that we do ourselves a disservice when we think suffering makes life “not worth living.”
Our society pounds into us, again and again, this idea that life is for the healthy and the happy. And I’m not just talking about bright, shiny magazine spreads. I’m talking about the things we do in our homes and say to each other: We put our animals “to sleep” when they decline in health or ability; we recite a litany of “I don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl, so long as it’s healthy;” we jokingly ask others to put us out of our “misery;” we tut-tut others’ pain when they mourn a miscarriage or the loss of someone very old or very ill. (Seriously, would you ever say “Well, I suppose it was just his time” to the parent mourning the unexpected death of an 8-year-old boy or the widow reeling from the loss of her 32-year-old husband?)
Given all of this – this idea that a life’s value is measured by its vigor – it can be easy to act like very old or very ill people’s lives have ended before they’re actually dead. It can be easy, even, to want them to be actually dead. I won’t claim to be immune from such thoughts.
But I don’t think the Little Sisters of the Poor fall into that trap. Where others see nothing but pain and suffering, the Sisters see lives with as much dignity as those of the healthy and vigorous. They remember that our value does not depend on what we can do or how we feel.
Our lives are always worth living. When I near the end of my own, I hope I’m surrounded by people who remember that.
The Little Sisters of the Poor are an international congregation of Roman Catholic women religious founded in 1839 by Saint Jeanne Jugan. Together with a diverse network of collaborators, we serve the elderly poor in over 30 countries around the world.
Continuing the work of Saint Jeanne Jugan, our MISSION is to offer the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ, cared for as family and accompanied with dignity until God calls them to himself.
Our VISION is to contribute to the Culture of Life by nurturing communities where each person is valued, the solidarity of the human family and the wisdom of age are celebrated, and the compassionate love of Christ is shared with all.
REVERENCE for the sacredness of human life and for the uniqueness of each person, especially those who are poorest and/or weakest. This is reflected in care that is holistic and person-centered.
FAMILY SPIRIT: a spirit of joyful hospitality embracing all with open arms, hearts and minds; fostering participation in the life of the home and rejecting all forms of discrimination.
HUMBLE SERVICE: the desire to raise others up and to put their needs before our own; an appreciation of simple, everyday tasks and experiences and humble means in accomplishing our work.
COMPASSION: empathy for sharing the weaknesses and sufferings of others; eagerness to relieve pain in all its forms and to make the elderly happy.
STEWARDSHIP: the recognition that life and all other goods are gifts from God and should therefore be used responsibly for the good of all; trust in God’s Providence and the generosity of others to provide for our needs; just compensation for our collaborators; a spirit of gratitude and sharing.
* I came across the video because the Little Sisters of the Poor were recently named to NOW’s “Dirty 100” (oh, the irony) list of organizations that have filed suit against HHS regarding the contraception mandate. See my last post for a few of my thoughts on that subject.