Sunday, 8 August 2010
"A virtuous woman who can find? Her value is far beyond pearls...She spreads out her palm to the poor, and extends her hands to the destitute...She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue..Grace is false, and beauty vain; a woman who fears the Lord, she should be praised. Give her the fruits of her hands; and let her be praised in the gates by her very own deeds" Proverbs 31:10-31
The achievements of Unitarians over the years in many spheres of life is well known, and it is pleasing to see how many of these worthies have been women. Over the last few days I have been studying the life of one such woman, who's achievements are simply staggering.
I refer to Dorothea Lynde Dix. The "Florence Nightingale of America". This lady's life is not only an inspiration but is a reproof for those of us who have allowed excuses and rationalisations to get in the way of our ability to help others, and to stifle to voice of our conscience.
Dorothea was born in Maine on the 4th April 1802 and "raised" in Massachusetts. I use inverted commas because she herself said "I never knew childhood". Her home-life, marred by alcoholism and abuse caused her to end up leaving at the age of 12 to move in with her grandmother in Boston. Did Dorothea use this damaged upbringing to make excuses for herself? Did she use it to excuse negative behaviour or selfishness? Not at all, if anything it helped propel her into a life of service, duty and goodness. Very soon she set up a School and soon after that began to educate and care for the children of the poor, her attention always focused on those less fortunate.
In time she began to visit prisons, and was shocked and horrified by what she saw. Abandoned people, suffering from severe mental illnesses were caged like animals alongside hardened criminals. She described the conditions as follows "in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods and lashed into obedience". These human beings, already suffering from illnesses of the mind were suffering the cruelty and indignity of being treated like beasts. Dorothea could not in conscience ignore this, and she set about an indefatigable mission of lobbying, persuading and striving for the creation and expansion of special hospitals designated to help and heal these suffering souls. To this end she travelled all over the United States without the luxury of modern day transport, despite her severely weakened physical health. But she did not end there, instead she travelled to Scotland, England and Europe to bring alleviation to the most needy. In Scotland she secured a government Commission to look into the state of that country's facilities for the mentally ill. Her activities did not go unnoticed and were commented on by Robert Chambers when he wrote;
"it is a disgrace that the existence of such evils was overlooked by the clergy and officials of my native country; and brought to light by a fragile woman of such weakly constitution that she can scarcely walk half a mile, an American by birth, a Unitarian by creed."
Again how many people today make the claim that they are incapacitated from the ability to work? How often have we used fatigue or discomfort as an excuse to not do that which we know we should do? The example of Dorothea should give us much cause to think.
Returning to America in 1861 at the start of the Civil War, she turned her attention to nursing. Utilising the knowledge she acquired in Scutari, she cared for Union and Confederate soldiers alike. Her care and love was not limited by political or ideological considerations. Her nurses were often the only ones available to provide care for the enemy Confederate injured and sick troops. How they, at her example, followed Jesus' teaching to "love thine enemy...do good to those that hate you..therefore you shall be perfect just as your Father in heaven is perfect".
From where did this amazing woman derive her strength to keep going? She herself claimed it was from her constant faith in her Creator. She would arise early every day in order to secure an hour of prayer, and this alongside her passionate love of hymns filled her with a love of God, that flooded over into a love for all His children.
In our day too, we have seen examples of spectacular women of different faiths and backgrounds, reaching out to others including enemies, to bring healing,compassion and love. Sadly in the last few days we have heard the tragic news of the murder in Afghanistan of Dr Karen Woo, a woman who gave up her well remunerated career and comfortable life in London, to go and heal the poor and sick of that benighted country. Blind hatred led to this sanctified life being ended, and how true are the words of her cousin Lorraine Nugent when she said; "killing Karen is like killing thousands, because of all the people she saved". One life is like a world entire, say the sages of Israel, how clearly this truth has become manifested these past few days.
Those who killed her no doubt did so because they could not conceive of goodness or worth in those who do not share the same beliefs as them. They spared the life of a co-religionist of theirs, but they could not see humanity in the eyes of a woman, devoted to the care of their people. How tragic and frightening is the power of hatred to blind the eyes and heart, and how stark a contrast between those murderers and the attitude of their victim. May God keep her in His eternal embrace, and may He bring comfort for all those that grieve her loss.
These women of valour exist all around us. Some like Irena Sendler (a Polish Catholic who despite arrest, torture and death threats, saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children in the Holocaust) are rightly famed for their decency, others go unknown by all except those in their circle, but all, in the words of Peter Hitchens describing his aunt "hold up the sky".