Monday, 20 June 2011

A Nightingale Gives Pause For Thought

"Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: But woe to him that is alone when he falleth, and hath not another to lift him up." Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

Last week the issue of assisted suicide made the news, after the BBC broadcast a programme on the subject. The issues surrounding this controversial subject are far too important and far too complex to be given adequate attention in a small blog such as this. However during the week while listening to the discussions of friends and acquaintances, one principle thought entered my mind and persisted there, and I have decided to articulate it here. If it contributes anything to the discussion in any way whatsoever then I will feel that I have achieved something worthwhile.

Before I begin I feel that it is important, for the sake of honesty, to elucidate my own position regarding this subject. For a variety of reasons I myself am not in favour, and not supportive of assisted suicide. This unquestionably influences what I will subsequently write. However I feel I understand the reasons why its advocates support it, and I strongly believe that those in favour are genuinely motivated by mercy, compassion and empathy. I only hope that those who disagree with my position also recognise that I too am motivated by these same values.

Amongst the arguments in favour of assisted suicide I heard this week, one strongly perturbed me. Several people said that they would wish if possible to end their lives, or have their lives ended, in order to spare their children or others the burden of caring for them in their infirmity, a situation they dreaded. Some were very frightened of being in a situation where they would have to be cared for in such a way. In both cases it was clear that fear was a strong motivator, a fear of what they might inflict upon their loved ones, and a fear of having to be cared for. This fear was significantly greater than their fear of illness and even of death itself. This put me in mind of something that Florence Nightingale once said:

"How very little can be done under the spirit of fear."

I remain deeply concerned by what effect on our society assisted suicide might have, when that selfsame society more often views care as a burden and not a blessing. The appalling and heartbreaking manner in which some frail and elderly people had been treated in some of our nation's hospitals, nursing homes and homes, an abomination so graphically revealed over the past several weeks, including a damning report just out today, testifies to a profound chasm in the ethic of care even amongst some of those professionally charged with its fulfilment. Many elderly and vulnerable people, and we may all know personally at least some of them, are rarely visited even by their own families let alone strangers, and I would be unsurprised if some are left in no doubt that they and their needs are viewed as a burden or inconvenience. It is soul-destroying to imagine that instead of remedying this sorry state of affairs, we may instead acquiesce to the sadness and sometimes despair and fear it creates and bring to an early end, lives which could have grown in purpose and happiness even as they reached their end. Hopelessness and purposelessness are surely some of the darkest emotions and should be healed not reinforced.

Modernity has brought us many gifts. So much has been invented and developed to make life easier for all of us; labour saving devices are present in every home, and the hardships and efforts that were the daily lot of our ancestors in the not so distant past, now only exist in memories and history books. For these advances and for this blessed progress we should sing paeans of praise to the Most High, who implanted in our minds the wisdom to accomplish all of this. However even blessings can have their darker sides. We are now so accustomed to ease that difficulty is seen as a curse to be avoided at all costs. Just as Jesus taught that one cannot serve God and Mammon, likewise the same can probably be said of serving God and Ease! No one can doubt that caring for others, especially those who are in the most need of it, can be very arduous on both mind and body. People who care for the most disabled and distressed people often have to struggle with exhaustion, stress and unsparing hardship. Who would not wish to spare someone, especially their loved ones, from this?

But what is often not appreciated and certainly not championed enough, is that ministering to the needs of others can be the greatest of life's blessings. To know that you have used your strength, your whole self, to improve the life of another, to diminish their pain and suffering and to lift their spirits, can be the greatest of all possible joys. Many mothers and fathers could testify to this. And while we may all wish to avoid being placed in such a situation, if it should sadly occur then the option to perceive it as a privilege and a sacred entrustment should always be seen as possible.

Caring and its ultimate realisation in the nursing of the sick and dying is a precious art, a sacred task that deserves the highest acclaim, or as Florence Nightingale said:

"Nursing is an art: and if it is to be made an art, it requires an exclusive devotion as hard a preparation, as any painter's or sculptor's work; for what is the having to do with dead canvas or dead marble, compared with having to do with the living body, the temple of God's spirit? It is one of the Fine Arts: I had almost said, the finest of Fine Arts. "

Can we honestly say that our culture, our commonwealth, has elevated care, support and nursing onto the pedestal they deserve? Are our youth inflamed with a passionate desire to extend themselves, to sacrifice their personal physical and emotional comfort, for the sake of those most at need? Are those professionals who dedicate their lives to the care of others, sometimes in the most unpleasant circumstances, duly honoured and acknowledged? Do we vigorously chase the opportunities to bestow care and support? If the answer is no, then is this the correct atmosphere the correct time in which to introduce the concept of assisted suicide?

I feel that it is not. Others will conclude otherwise and the debate will have to be had, appropriately, sensitively, honestly and carefully before true conclusions can be made.

Florence Nightingale has left us with yet another pearl of wisdom:

"You ask me why I do not write something... I think one's feelings waste themselves in words, they ought all to be distilled into actions and into actions which bring results."

She was right, and those who feel as I do have an added duty to work actively to strengthen the care-ethic in society. To put into action our doctrine, and to draw as many people as possible into a work so universally relevant that all considerations of creed, colour and culture are set aside. As the words of Holy Scripture with which I began this post make clear, all such efforts can only succeed, when we support one another and lift each other when we fall.

Whatever position the wider Unitarian denomination adopts on the issue of assisted suicide I hope and pray that despite any differences, we will be at the forefront of resurrecting the sacred virtue of care for others. And remove the need for anyone to contemplate ending their precious life, for fear that they may be any sort of burden. I pray that we play a leading part in transforming the attitude of society, so that caring will be seen as a privilege and those who are in receipt of it will be in no way diminished as a result. And I pray that we do all we can to celebrate, support and encourage those who devote themselves to care for others.

"If your soul, with power uplifted, yearn for glorious deed,
Give your strength to serve your neighbour's every need.
Have you borne a secret sorrow in your lonely breast?
Take to you your sorrowing neighbour for a guest.
Share in full your bread of blessing, sorrow's burden share;
When your heart enfolds a neighbour, God is there".
Theodore Chickering Williams 1885-1915

1 comment:

Yewtree said...

Well said.

I am undecided on the issue of assisted suicide, but I certainly agree that people should not feel obliged to do it for fear of being a burden on others. My misgivings about it largely revolve around this issue, and also the possibility that people might recover from something that looks terminal and then be glad that they had not opted for assisted suicide.