Posted in musings

marriage, celibacy, chastity, and grace

When it comes to sex, it seems that there are two very different basic mindsets: the Church’s ideal of chastity and the more pragmatic secular view of our culture. In the first, sex is part of the covenant of marriage, a way in which two people develop intimacy and practice mutual self-giving, and the means by which new human life is created. Sex isn’t about pleasure-seeking, or about fulfilling physical urges, but rather about offering one’s whole self to another, under God; the married individual has no more permission to lust after or use another person for personal pleasure than does the unmarried. And of course, considering all these boundaries around the understanding and act of sex within marriage, sex outside of marriage is not allowed at all, and celibacy, in which the individual dedicates his or her self-giving toward Christ and the Church rather than to a spouse and family, is honored and encouraged.

In contrast, our culture today tends to view sex as a means to enjoy ourselves – preferably with another person in a loving relationship, but not necessarily so. Sex is divorced from child-bearing as much as possible, so that physical pleasure can be had without the fear and burden of unwanted pregnancies. Masturbation is accepted (although never seen as the ideal) because how can making yourself feel good, without affecting anyone else, possibly be a bad thing? People have sexual needs, after all, and to deny them the chance to satisfy those needs is damaging and unrealistic, just as it would be damaging and unrealistic to expect people to go without eating or drinking. Even among Christians, this idea that people have physical sexual needs (as opposed to desires) is prevalent, with the result that marriage is turned into a vehicle to sexual fulfillment rather than a chance to give all of oneself, even one’s sexuality, to another person. While most Christians, looking at the example of Paul, admit that some few people are called to celibacy, the thought that large numbers of people might be called and equipped for it is simply bizarre.

There’s a third camp out there, probably the largest one to be honest, that ascribes to the ideals of the Church but denies (typically not in so many words) that those ideals can be lived out in a fallen world. Marriage provides the release for the sexual urges our sinful minds are unable to control, and thus the encouragement of celibacy opens the door for secret sexual sin as men (primarily) are left to burn with passion without an acceptable outlet.

What this third group omits from their understanding of sex and chastity is the efficacy of God’s grace for His children. I will grant that if we were simply left with a law to follow and no grace to help us follow it, and if that law specified heterosexual monogamy as the only acceptable setting for sex, than we would want as many people as possible to be happily married so that their physical drives wouldn’t lead them into sin. (Or, of course, we could seek to change the law so that those drives that aren’t satisfied in heterosexual monogamy could also be fulfilled… that is what our culture does, building off of the Christian misunderstanding of marriage as an outlet for sexual need to paint the whole concept of marriage itself as a constraining and damaging force on human sexuality.) But the whole beauty of the faith is that we are not left on our own with just a law to obey: we are given the ability to obey it, by grace, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us. His righteousness is transmitted to us, not just as a legal covering, but as a reality that begins to transform us body and soul. Do we doubt the presence and power of His grace?

God has called all of His people to chastity, whether within marriage or out of it, and His grace will enable us to live chastely if we seek it. He doesn’t command and then leave us to obey on our own, but gives us His own life – Christ Himself living in us – that we might walk in righteousness. For some, that means the continual giving of oneself to God through giving oneself to another person in marriage, sexually as well as in all other areas of life, as marriage becomes the occasion for self-sacrifice, mutual submission, and radical service; for other, it will mean the continual giving of oneself to God through sacrifice and service to God’s people, giving up the pleasure of sex, the joy of biological children, the happiness of monogamous love, to be able to focus more completely on the work of God and to be free to serve God’s people wherever and whenever the need arises. Both paths are hard, and both are made possible by the free gift of the grace of God, who desires us to obey and gives us the ability to obey in Him.

(For a really good talk on this, in the context of celibate priests in the Catholic church, check out Father Eric Bergman’s talk at the Institute of Catholic Culture. He is a married priest, having originally been Anglican, so he has an interesting personal perspective on it!)

Posted in musings, quotes

when fear skews our ethics

“…a growing body of research suggested that investing in education and work for women propelled economic development and led to lower birth rates. Later in the 1967 meeting University of Chicago sociologist Philip Hauser alluded to this research when he asked the delegates: ‘Do we really know whether the classical approach of family planning propaganda and clinical services is more useful in reducing birth rates than the same effort spent on building a road into the village or constructing a soap factory where women can work or furthering education for girls?’ But population control activists tended to dismiss an emphasis on female workforce participation and education as a strategy dreamed up by unrealistic feminists. And Polgar [head of research for Planned Parenthood Federation of America] didn’t mention the alternative approach from the podium. Instead, he gazed out at the delgates and, according to minutes from the meeting, ‘urged that sociologists stimulate biologists to find a method of sex determination, since some parents have additional children in order to get one of specified sex.'” – Mara Hvistendahl, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, pg 99-100

“Others talked about the necessity of an Asian pregnancy police, foreshadowing China’s system of birth permits under the one-child policy, and suggested flying planes over India once a year to spray it with a ‘contraceptive aerial mist.’ And the racist application of birth control was no longer confined to the developing world. In 1973 African American and Native American women across the American South and Southwest alleged in federal district court that they had been sterilized under threat of their welfare benefits being withdrawn. Gerhard Gesell, the judge who heard Relf v. Weinberger, concluded in his ruling that the women had been coerced. He estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 poor American women had been sterilized under federal programs, adding, ‘the dividing line between family planning and eugenics is murky.'” – Ibid, pg 104

The idea was that families would have fewer children if they didn’t have to keep trying and trying to have a child of the sex they desired. Instead of a family having 3 or 4 or more daughters before having a son, and having 4 or 5 total children, the parents could eliminate those daughters, or most of them, and end up only having 1 or 2 children. In the 1960s, when the world was as scared of population growth as we are of climate change, that reduction in the birth rate was the pot at the end of the rainbow. But instead of choosing to support economic development and female empowerment (which has historically led to lower birth rates on its own), Western nations and foundations decided to tie their aid money to population control programs, leading to mass sterilizations, countless abortions, and the eventual skewing of the gender ratios across the world due to Polgar’s final vague and understated observation above.

Was it all just a response of fear to the specter of a world overfilled with people, starving and suffering and dying? While I think that played a role, there was a definite racial component to the issue, as the decreasing birth rate in the West combined with the economic development of the rest of the world struck fear into the hearts of white Americans and Europeans worried about losing their hold on global power and wealth. And the result of those fears, both the altruistic and the selfish racist fears, was death and suffering – for the men who underwent forced sterilizations during Indira Gandhi’s rule in India, for the women whose babies were aborted because of the one-child policy in China, for the aborted babies themselves (mostly girls), for the men who are growing up to find themselves consigned to singleness due to a shortage of women.

It is never wise to forsake the path of righteousness in response to fear. We must have a more constant moral compass than that of pragmatism and self help, or the very things that we think good, in our efforts to avoid what we fear, will end up hurting us (or others) in ways we never dreamed of, just as much or even more than the things we were trying to avoid. Such a moral compass will also help us determine whether or not our fears are ethically just – as a fear of humanity starving and suffering would be, while a fear of the global gains of other races would not. Population control wasn’t the solution for the fears of the 1960s; economic development and education accomplished the same ends without the oppression and injustice. Maybe Christianity was right when it said that children are blessings; and maybe if we worked together for the common good instead of seeking our own good at the expense of other human beings we could conquer the evils we fear without causing greater evils yet to roam the earth.

Posted in musings, quotes

the politics of anger

I have been trying not to post much overtly political content on this blog, because it’s not my area of expertise and because it’s not what I typically enjoy writing about.

However, I wanted to share a quote from Mitt Romney’s recent speech condemning the candidacy of Donald Trump, because I thought it was particularly eloquent and historically informed.

I understand the anger Americans feel today. In the past, our presidents have channeled that anger and forged it into resolve, into endurance and high purpose, and into the will to defeat the enemies of freedom. Our anger was transformed into energy directed for good.

Mr. Trump is directing our anger for less than noble purposes. He creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants. He calls for the use of torture. He calls for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists. He cheers assaults on protesters. He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit First Amendment freedom of the press.

This is the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss.

When I was younger, and would think about the beginnings of WWII, I always wondered how the leaders of those nations had risen to power. What was there about Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini, or Adolf Hitler that appealed to the average citizen in their countries and enabled their positions? Believing (naively, I suppose) in the basic decency of humanity, I couldn’t understand the draw of a strongman manipulating society’s anger and discontent for hateful and violent purposes.

To be honest, I still don’t understand. I know that Germany was broken after WWI, poverty-stricken, ripped of her national pride, and that there was an easy opening for a leader who could ride that anger to power without the constraints of conscience. But that anger could just as well have turned to national reform, to the iron strength of will needed to accomplish the slow and difficult task of national transformation – as in fact it did in the years following WWII. Did the anger lead to all that evil simply because one man decided to use it for his own advantage, for the fulfilling of his own twisted ideology and vendettas?

This election cycle is forcing me to admit that my people, my fellow Americans, are not at heart such a good people as I had always hoped and believed them to be. They are angry – maybe justly, maybe not – and they are letting that anger carry them away, without watching their feet, without taking care to stay within the boundaries of morality and good conscience. The strongman is playing off their emotions, using and manipulating them for his own purposes, and they don’t see it. Or maybe they do see it, and they don’t care, because it feels so good to be able to openly blame someone else for all their problems and struggles, whether or not that scapegoat has any rational basis. So anti-Mexican rhetoric is spewed forth in the southwest, anti-Cuban tirades in Florida, and anti-Muslim attacks on a national level. What happened to liberty for all, my racist conservative compatriots? Does freedom only extend to those who look and think like you?

I used to think that America was a great nation because her people were great, because her people held a basic set of principles that were good and noble. Maybe she was, once, but she is not anymore, because her people have forsaken their calling and their creed. Maybe she will be again, if enough people care enough to begin rebuilding the traditions and principles that gave her beauty and strength through the centuries, but when the siren of the strongman sounds so sweetly in the ears of her people, I fear for when it comes time to pay the piper.

Posted in musings, poems

side by side in the common good

What is the duty of the person who sees injustice, oppression, or need, and has some ability to protest or make amends?

Is it to step daintily around the problem, hoping that the filth and blood will leave your feet unstained?

Is it to click a few “Likes” on a Facebook page, or write a vaguely angry status, and then move on to happier thoughts without even a prayer?

Is it to give thanks for your own more comfortable situation, and avoid the suffering that your happiness may not be lessened by their pain?

Of course not.

It’s easy to see that, on paper; it’s harder to see it happening in your life, everyday, in the major decisions and the small choices: in your quickened steps and averted gaze as you walk past the homeless man with the cardboard sign; in your fear of personal heartache that prevents you from fostering or adopting a child in need; in your unobtrusive isolation from the other in jobs, neighborhoods, and churches made up of people who look and think like you. Every little thing builds up, until one day you have completely blinded your mind and numbed your heart to the ache of the world around you, content in your own personal happinesses, and you don’t even realize the small and withered thing you have made of yourself and your life – your one precious and beautiful life, that could have been a source of good to better the whole world.

In the 1950s, a poet named Maurice Ogden wrote a poem called The Hangman about a village where everyone is murdered, one by one, by an ominous hangman of whom they all live in fear. Each time another is hung, the rest of the villagers sigh in relief and continue with their lives, until at last only the narrator of the poem is left – and he realizes that the hangman has now come for him as well:

“…’I answered straight and I told you true,
‘This scaffold was raised for none but you.

‘For who has served me more faithfully
‘Than you with your coward’s hope?’ said he,
‘And where are the others who might have stood,
‘Side by your side in the common good?’

‘Dead,’ I whispered; and amiably,
‘Murdered,’ the Hangman corrected me.
‘First the alien, then the Jew…
‘I did no more than you let me do.'”

“Side by your side in the common good” – for we are not solitary and independent creatures, no matter how much our culture values individualism and autonomy. We need each other. We need to receive help from each other, and we need to give help to each other, both for the common good of our community and for the private good of our own soul. It is so easy to let our fear and our desire for comfort and convenience shutter us away from the needs and gifts of other people, especially people not quite like ourselves, but it leads to broken homes, neighborhoods of strangers, and the general fragmenting of society that is so painfully being put on display this election season.

I write this not as someone who is living this out well, and has the answers figured out. To be honest with you, I’m only just beginning to see how my own fear and selfishness have prevented me from following God boldly in the midst of a broken and hurting world. Will you come join with me, hand in hand, to learn again how to share our hurts, carry each other’s burdens, and sing each other’s songs of joy and of lament?

Posted in family life, musings

unplanned babies (the blessing of limerick)

After Rondel was born, we struggled a lot with the transition from “couple” to “family.” I had PPD for months, my husband was exhausted from being up with a sleepless baby and trying to encourage a miserable wife, and Rondel was becoming anxious and easily overstimulated. We were all on edge and our margins were just about the lowest they’ve ever been. And so, clearly, we thought it was the worst imaginable time to have another baby.

Although at that time I didn’t quite grasp the theology of the body that informs the purpose and ethical applications of sex, I had an instinctual dislike of contraceptives, for various reasons: I didn’t like having to take a pill everyday with hormones that were going to influence far more than just my reproductive system, barrier methods felt awkward and incomplete, like we weren’t actually coming together in the one flesh of marriage, and we obviously weren’t at a point to consider permanent sterilization as a means of contraception. So we were charting and tracking and being really careful – and then we found out we were pregnant, just 7 months after Rondel was born.

It wasn’t our plan at all. Looking back at the charts, it makes no biological sense that we got pregnant when we did.

But you know the beauty of it? Because it wasn’t our plan, because we were walking through the tension of stewarding our resources well while remaining open to God’s plan for new life, we were relieved of the constant fear that we’d made a mistake every time that things were difficult. This baby wasn’t our choice – he was God’s choice, and God is someone we can trust.

And as the months went by, we saw the profound good that Limerick brought to our family: the pregnancy hormones that snapped me out of PPD, the reevaluations of my lifestyle and parenting choices that made me a gentler and less anxious mother, the small and vulnerable baby that showed Rondel how to care for someone weaker and more needy than himself, the bold and mischievous toddler who is helping Rondel learn to share, negotiate, and adapt even as he learns those things himself.

If we had made it about our plan and our wisdom and our choices, Limerick wouldn’t be here, bringing his incredible blessing into our family – and that is a huge reason why, now, I would not choose to contracept or sterilize. Who knows what other unforeseen good God wants to bring into our lives? Why would I want to close myself off to that blessing, just because I cannot picture it clearly in my mind now?

Posted in musings

sanctity of life

Because of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, many Christians celebrate the month of January as “sanctity of life” month, or at least this past Sunday as “sanctity of life” Sunday. My church had a local pro-life activism group come and speak and set up a table in the atrium, for example. But sanctity of life has to do with a lot more than just abortion.

Sanctity of life means valuing and respecting the incredible dignity and worth of every other human being, not for any characteristic or behavior or ability, but simply because they are human.

It means that I don’t take advantage of my wealth or privilege to destroy another person’s reputation or livelihood.

It means that I greet an elderly person, a disabled person, a homeless person, a child, or a transgender person with the same kindness and courtesy with which I would like to be addressed.

It means that I give, of my time or my money, to keep people off the street, away from crime, in families and communities that love and support them.

It means that I treat the potential of new life in my own family as a great gift and blessing instead of a burden and a pain.

It means that I prepare financially and emotionally to care for my own parents or my husband’s parents as they reach old age and return to dependence and need, as they once cared for me.

It means that I listen – genuinely listen, seeking to understand – to the stories of people whose worldviews are diametrically opposed to my own, instead of resorting to personal insults or deaf ears.

It means that I care about the vulnerable around the world – the oppressed in my own country, the immigrants, the refugees, the orphans and the widows – and use the opportunities I have to make a difference for them, even if sometimes it can only be through writing and prayer.

And yes, it means that I fight for the lives of the unborn, the voiceless among us, equally human, most vulnerable and yet least protected.

We should not forget about the reality of abortion, the pain and horror of it for everyone involved – the mother and father robbed of their parenthood, the medical personnel betraying their healing profession, the baby robbed of life itself. It is good to be reminded of those things, to renew our strength for the long work of protecting the unborn. But we should also remember that life continues after birth, and that the ideal of sanctity of life can only truly be fulfilled when humanity is respected through all the long or short years of that life.

Posted in musings, quotes

a brief thought on contraception

“Only by the hypocritical ignoring of a huge fact can any one contrive to talk of ‘free love’; as if love were an episode like lighting a cigarette, or whistling a tune. Suppose whenever a man lit a cigarette, a towering genie arose from the rings of smoke and followed him everywhere as a huge slave. Suppose whenever a man whistled a tune he ‘drew an angel down’ and had to walk about forever with a seraph on a string. These catastrophic images are but faint parallels to the earthquake consequences that Nature has attached to sex; and it is perfectly plain at the beginning that a man cannot be a free lover; he is either a traitor or a tied man. The second element that creates the family is that its consequences, though colossal, are gradual; the cigarette produces a baby giant, the song only an infant seraph. Thence arises the necessity for some prolonged system of co-operation; and thence arises the family in its full educational sense.” – G.K. Chesterton, What is Wrong With the World

Nowadays we have the promise of contraception to hold back these “earthquake consequences” of the intimacy between a man and a woman – the ability to prevent the occurrence of a baby tying the two together and piling upon them that shared responsibility. So a man and woman can share their moment of love and not fear that a baby will come to demand their cooperation and attention, and they can afterwards abandon each other for new love without a corresponding betrayal of the new person they’ve created.

But do we avoid this treachery against our potential children by betraying our own selves? Do we avoid the creation of splintered families by splintering our own souls? When we set aside the natural purpose of an act that we might solely pursue our own pleasure, or even the pleasure of another, we do ourselves a great disservice, and sin against ourselves; beyond that, we frustrate the great powers that could work through us and in us for the redemption and beautification of the world.

It is good not to beget a baby only to abandon him. It is good not to form a family when there is no intention or desire to endure with and labor for the good of that family. But it is not good to pursue the pleasure that is meant to accompany the formation of the family while simultaneously refusing the family; it separates the act from its purpose, like the ancient Romans vomiting so that they could continue to enjoy the pleasures of the table. It damages our souls like prolonged vomiting damages the body – slowly, subtly, but surely.

(caveat – there is so much more to be said on this topic and this isn’t intended to be a complete argument – it is just a thought, a consideration, a part of the bigger picture of human dignity and sexual ethics.)

Posted in musings

Refugees, immigration, and the United States

I remember learning, as a child, about the ship St. Louis that sailed from Germany in 1939, carrying over 900 Jewish refugees to a Cuba that had just closed its doors. Turned away from her destination, the St. Louis asked President Roosevelt to give them safe harbor (a choice he could feasibly have made using the power of the executive order), but he never even replied. In the end, the passengers were scattered throughout Britain and Western Europe; half of those who returned to the continent were killed in the war. Hitler received the clear message that the rest of Western civilization was not particularly concerned about the fate of the Jewish people.

The "St. Louis," carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees, waits in the port of Havana. The Cuban government denied the passengers entry. Cuba, June 1 or 2, 1939.
The St. Louis at Havana. Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Museum.

Why was the United States so cavalier about the fate of these individuals, so cold to their plight? The USHMM has a good summary:

Despite the ongoing persecution of Jews in Germany, the State Department’s attitude was influenced by the economic hardships of the Depression, which intensified grassroots antisemitism, isolationism, and xenophobia. The number of entry visas was further limited by the Department’s inflexible application of a restrictive Immigration Law passed by the US Congress in 1924. Beginning in 1940, the United States further limited immigration by ordering American consuls abroad to delay visa approvals on national security grounds.

In short, substituting anti-Islamic sentiment for antisemitism, the United States was facing exactly the same attitudes in 1939 that she is today in 2015. Her citizens were afraid – afraid for their own economic security, afraid to be drawn into global problems, afraid of war, and afraid of people whose appearance, culture, and beliefs were different than their own. We have our own problems; let those people take care of themselves and leave us in peace.

In C.S. Lewis’s book That Hideous Strength, he allows the characters to muse for a while on the particular genius or defining characteristic of several different nations – in essence, the way in which those nations, despite the grime and decay of sin, most especially reflect some aspect of the coming kingdom of Christ.

He doesn’t make two blades of grass the same: how much less two saints, two nations, two angels. The whole work of healing Tellus [Earth] depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each. When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China – why, then it will be spring.

Since the first time I read that passage as a teenager I’ve wondered what could define the United States, my own country. It’s only now, as I consider the refugee crisis, that I think I see what is best, most characteristic, most beautiful about us – and what consequently is most violently attacked.

The United States, in theory, as a concept or an ideal, is a nation that welcomes the poor, the oppressed, the pioneer, the explorer, the entrepreneur, the “huddled masses yearning to be free,” and offers to each of them the opportunity to labor, live, learn, and love to the best of their ability. We’re not, historically, a country that supports and provides for each other well, but we are a country that provides opportunity well. In every age people have come here seeking that opportunity, and it has been here waiting for them. And as representatives from all nations and cultures have come here seeking that opportunity, we have taken them in and, though we have most definitely not always embraced the diversity they bring, we have given them the freedom to be and express who they are. With time, they become American, but they don’t need to lose their heritage to do so.

It is the same with God’s kingdom. All nations will come to it, seeking life, seeking love, seeking to learn and labor for a better future, and all those peoples will be assimilated into one people, His people, but they won’t have to lose their traditions and history to do so. We will be proudly and beautifully ourselves, carrying the full rich textured fabric of our past and our culture, as we walk into His kingdom, and all nations will be represented there in the fullness of their glory as well.

Is it any wonder, if this is the divine spark within our nation, that it should be so constantly besieged? It is always our fear that impedes us – our fear of the unknown future and our forgetfulness of the past.

Throughout our history there has been this countercurrent running, this voice that whispers fear in our ears. It tells us that letting in these new people will compromise our own position – steal our jobs, endanger our families, threaten our comfortable way of life. Having received opportunity for ourselves, our temptation is to withhold it from others. Having been born to privilege, safety, and relative wealth, we fear that offering the opportunity for others to work for those things will entail losing them ourselves. Having lived in freedom, we condemn others to oppression even as they beg at our feet for us to open our doors, or risk their lives to enter illegally.

I pray that this time, in this hour of need, our borders would open to those seeking shelter, desiring a new life, wanting simply the opportunity to pursue happiness and love that we have declared an inalienable human right; that we would overcome our fears of different cultures and religions and see the humanity behind them; that we would risk our comfort and security ever so slightly to save families and children from torture and death. I pray that we would not repeat our failure of the 1930s, ISIS terrorism standing in for Hitler’s Holocaust.

Is it too much to ask? I think not.

Posted in musings

love, fear, and inauthenticity (brief thoughts on a huge topic)

It seems to me, from casual observation, that many (perhaps most!) people feel intensely pressured to think, act, feel, and be a certain way, to fit a certain role or social expectation. We’re scared to truly be themselves because we’re afraid of what people might think or how people might respond, so we limit ourselves to the parts of ourselves that we think will be approved, and try to force the other parts down into hiding. And the pressures can come from all sides, making it even worse. For instance:

…a relatively reserved and morally conservative young adult may feel unable to admit his homosexual feelings for fear of disappointing his parents, whom he loves deeply, but after acknowledging them may find it equally hard to express his desire to stay celibate when the gay community that has given him encouragement and relief from his feeling of being isolated pushes promiscuity and sexual experimentation.

…a young mother, torn between wanting to maintain her career and to stay at home with her babies, may feel so overwhelmed by the “should’s” thrown at her (e.g., you should stay at work and contribute to the economy, to show your children that women don’t need to be tied to family and home! or on the other hand, you should stay at home because your children need your attention and time to develop to their fullest potential and why would you have kids anyways if you’re just going to pay someone else to raise them?) that she can’t even reach down to identify what choice would be most true to herself and her own unique personality and desires.

…a newlywed struggling with her marriage might feel social pressure to make everything look ok, while inwardly she’s drowning in confusion and sorrow, and try to bury the “inappropriate” feelings deep inside her so that no one will know and think less of her or be disappointed in her.

We see it in each other, adults all grown up in our inauthenticity, hiding the “unpleasant” and “uncomfortable” parts of ourselves in the deepest and farthest reaches of our hearts – which may be good for casual relationships and acquaintances, but isn’t sustainable in our closest, most intimate friendships. Our inauthenticity will smother our joy, wither our hope, and weaken our faith; it will poison our own hearts and sabotage our relationships with the people we love the most. It’s ironic and tragic, isn’t it? Our efforts to protect ourselves and the people we love from the “bad” things inside us just end up causing more pain and more isolation, and our fear – fear of rejection, fear of hurting the people we love, fear of letting down everyone who’s expecting something great from us – speaks its own self-fulfilling prophecy.

And what I’ve noticed is that it is typically the people we love the most, who mean the most to us, who create in us the strongest feelings of unworthiness and give rise to our wildest inauthenticities. We’re willing to sacrifice our very selves, who we are in the fullest sense of being, to keep them happy, because we love them so much – and most of the time (barring cases of abusive or psychopathic relationships here) it would devastate them to know that we were doing that. These people whose rejection and disappointment we fear (our parents, our friends, our spouses) typically love us just as much or more than we love them, and they want to see us live in fullness and joy. If only they knew – if only we could tell them! – that sometimes joy comes through suffering… that the sun can only rise after the night has spent its full course… that our “dark” and “bad” feelings need to be spoken before they can be healed.

Posted in musings, quotes

thoughts on the principle of “respect for persons”

I’m doing my human research ethics refresher training at work this week and ended up rereading parts of the Belmont Report (the flagship document on the ethics of human subjects research in the United States, written in the 1970s in response to some of the atrocities uncovered during the Nuremberg trials as well as some of the horrors unearthed in our own history). The section of “Respect of Persons,” deemed a “Basic Ethical Principle” by the authorial committee, particularly stood out to me:

“Respect for persons incorporates at least two ethical convictions: first, that individuals should be treated as autonomous agents, and second, that persons with diminished autonomy are entitled to protection. The principle of respect for persons thus divides into two separate moral requirements: the requirement to acknowledge autonomy and the requirement to protect those with diminished autonomy.

An autonomous person is an individual capable of deliberation about personal goals and of acting under the direction of such deliberation. To respect autonomy is to give weight to autonomous persons’ considered opinions and choices while refraining from obstructing their actions unless they are clearly detrimental to others. To show lack of respect for an autonomous agent is to repudiate that person’s considered judgments, to deny an individual the freedom to act on those considered judgments, or to withhold information necessary to make a considered judgment, when there are no compelling reasons to do so.

However, not every human being is capable of self-determination. The capacity for self-determination matures during an individual’s life, and some individuals lose this capacity wholly or in part because of illness, mental disability, or circumstances that severely restrict liberty. Respect for the immature and the incapacitated may require protecting them as they mature or while they are incapacitated.” (emphasis added)

I wish this principle was applied more broadly in our society, and not merely codified into our human subjects research policies. Can you imagine what it would look like if, instead of shunting the homeless and mentally ill to the back or our minds and the sides of our communities, we considered them to be fully human agents able to make decisions and entitled to protection, not neglect or abuse, when incapacitated through disease or lack of opportunity, education, and health care? Maybe it would pave the way for people to reintegrate into society; maybe it would end some of the isolation and stigma surrounding people and their loved ones who are going through a situation in which they need help and aren’t fully able to advocate for themselves.

Can you imagine how the next generation would live if we raised our children with these principles of respect? If we valued their autonomy, took seriously their opinions and decisions, gave them the freedom to try and fail and learn and succeed, and equipped with the information and logical skills to choose wisely? If we stopped viewing them as possessions and status symbols and means to our own self-fulfillment, and instead truly considered them to be autonomous agents (immature and in need of our guidance and protection, yes, but not for us, or belonging to us, for our pleasure or our reputation)? We wouldn’t have the wounds of a child who can no longer live up to his parents’ expectations and feels like he’s going to bring their whole world crashing down, or of a child who is scared to try because he’s scared to fail and doesn’t believe he has the ability to think and act for himself, or of a child who is abused or neglected by parents thinking only of their own pleasure or convenience. And we wouldn’t have all those old wounds festering in the hearts of the adults who are leading our country, our businesses, our churches, and our families…

Can you imagine what the tender and vulnerable bookends of life could become if we viewed those people as entitled to our protection? Instead of the womb being a place where life only continues at the whim of another person, where the vulnerable human who cannot yet speak for himself or make his own decisions isn’t even given the basic protection of his own life, maybe it could become a place where the vulnerable are valued and protected with gentleness and love, preparing the baby within for the autonomy that will grow and mature within him. Instead of the last years of illness, frailty, and dementia being felt as a burden on the greater society, and the less autonomous being pressured to end their lives to reduce the strain on the community’s resources, maybe it could become an opportunity for the healthy and strong to learn love and sacrificial service in protecting and comforting the sick and dying.

Research isn’t the only thing that needs to be governed and informed by basic ethical principles.