I was speaking with a woman recently who asked me, “Do humans always have value? When do they lose their dignity?” I told her I believed our human value is inherent to our being, so that our value cannot be lost or lessened. “But,” she interjected, “What about the dementia patient who sits by herself all day?”
I acknowledged that that is a problem; however, I pointed out that the solution is not to say she has lost her value or dignity, but rather for people like you and me to affirm her value and dignity: to slow down our busy lives and, to borrow a phrase from the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, to “Celebrate Being” with such an individual. We could visit that lonely person, I said. We could hold her hand. Humans are made for relationship—for connection. We could foster that. We could listen to music with her. We could sing to, and even with, her. I talked about the proven effectiveness of music therapy.
The woman, ever the “Negative Nelly,” asked me to think about all the dementia patients in a hospital ward and how it would be impossible to have individualized music styles for each person.
I find it fascinating how, when some people see the largeness of a problem they so easily reject any solution. Maybe we can’t help everyone, but how is that an excuse not to help someone? We would do well to remember a paraphrase of the words of Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
With that in mind, on the last day of 2016, I spoke about euthanasia to over 100 university students in a workshop at the CCO Rise Up Conference. After equipping the students about what to say regarding euthanasia and assisted suicide, I ended with what they could do about it. I told them that if the law is followed then no one should be euthanized who does not ask for it. So our job is to make sure no one asks for it. And we do that by intentionally spending time with the sick and lonely. I left the students with a 2017 New Year’s Resolution that I’d like to challenge all readers to do:
Make a commitment to visit a sick, disabled, elderly, and/or lonely person one day/week in one of these ways:
1) In your own family, or neighborhood, regularly visit a lonely person.
2) Contact your church and ask if there is a member of the church who is a shut-in and who would benefit from a visitor.
3) Sign up at a local hospital or elderly care home to volunteer by visiting patients.
Are there more people than you alone can help? Yes. Does each individual person ideally need more time than you can give? Yes. But remember this: doing something is better than doing nothing. Starting is better than staying still. As Anne Frank once said, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
Will this work? Consider these stories:
My friend Kathleen LeBlanc shared this experience she had a few months ago: “Every Friday morning, I've been spending an hour playing Scrabble with a lovely 93 year old lady at a local care home. It's my simple way of helping the elderly find joy in their daily life. I'm always praying for opportunities to talk to her about God, or to simply show her that she is loved. Today, that opportunity came in full force.
“After our game, she outright asked me, ‘What do you think of doctor-assisted suicide?’ and pointed to an article from the paper on the topic. I told her that I felt it was very sad that anyone should feel the need to take their life, and it's our failure as a society when anyone is left feeling this way. After some time discussing this, she expressed to me that she can sympathize with people who don't feel they have a reason to live in their suffering, as she too, often wonders why God still has her ‘stuck in this wheelchair.’
“With tears in my eyes, I was able to tell her what a joy she is to me, and that I look forward to visiting her every week. She teared up as well, shock in her eyes, and said, ‘Really? Is that true?’ I nodded, unable to get more words out. ‘Well then, perhaps there is reason enough for me to be here.’”
Or take another friend of mine, a nursing student. She saw on a patient’s chart that the patient had made an inquiry about euthanasia. My friend intentionally visited that patient more than others. She never discussed euthanasia, but she did spend time getting to know the woman. She became interested in her life; she connected over common interests and common backgrounds; she smiled and was joyful; she engaged the patient in conversation. In short, she poured love out on her. A few weeks later when my friend checked the patient’s record, there was a note indicating the patient was no longer interested in euthanasia.
So please, make 2017 different. Make it better. To borrow a concept from St. John Paul II, resolve to respond to someone’s suffering by unleashing your love.