Monday, November 24, 2014

Let's talk about dying ...just shoot me is not a plan


According to a 2014 Dying with Dignity Ipsos-Reid Survey, 84% of Canadians agree “a doctor should be able to help someone end their life if the person is a competent adult who is terminally ill, suffering unbearably and repeatedly asks for assistance to die”.  While the push to legalize physician-assisted suicide has Canadians passionately debating the right to die and what it means to die with dignity, the debate has had little effect in motivating those who are healthy to prepare for their own eventual date with the Grim Reaper.

We communicate our fear of dying in subconscious ways
Research indicates that most people are fearful of suffering during the dying process. I think we communicate this fear subconsciously through actions that let us believe we can cheat death. These actions are not necessarily bad for us, and may even motivate us to continue living life to our fullest, but they do nothing to ease the way into death or make our dying easier for those we love.

One way we may communicate our fear of dying is to pretend that we are not getting older, obsessing over aging, or jealously guarding our independence, symbolized in our reluctance to surrender our driver’s license, or downsize our home.

We avoid taking practical steps to make our death and dying easier for others. Only 56% of adult Canadians have a signed will, and less than 29% have appointed a power of attorney; fewer have designated a substitute decision-maker for personal care and health matters.  We are highly unlikely to preplan our funeral, even though 75% of us believe doing so would make things easier for our family.

Even our spiritual preparation for death can be limited to our last days when our families seek out the priest to hear our deathbed confession and administer the last rites. 

We think we have lots of time to prepare ourselves to meet our maker and to get our affairs in order, even though death is the one certainty in life and the Grim Reaper lurks in the shadows.

Creating an Advanced Care Plan
The Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association, partly in response to the public discussion about euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, wants to shift the public conversation towards the importance of quality hospice palliative care and away from some of the more negative views of death, which, in my view, have played a significant role in shaping Canadian support for physician-assisted suicide. The organization has a suggestion that can help us prepare for our own death and dying.

It recommends that we start talking about end-of-life issues with our family, friends and health-care providers, and suggests that individuals create an Advanced Care Plan (ACP) that will provide direction for our care when the time comes. An ACP can guide us in articulating our personal beliefs and values, and can help us clarify our own attitude about dying and what constitutes a good death. It gets the discussion moving about the types of medical interventions that we would accept or reject if faced with a chronic illness, or a life-threatening illness or injury. And, it provides information on the legal requirements and documents that will enable others to act on our behalf.  An ACP is not a sign-up sheet for physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia; it is a comprehensive plan that can help us live out our life until its natural end.

While the public discourse has Canadians talking about the death and dying of a small minority, most of us skirt around the topic of our own mortality. We avoid planning for that unavoidable dance with the Grim Reaper.

The Grim Reaper can be a motivating image
The Grim Reaper, incidentally, became embedded in the European psyche during the bubonic plague of the 14th century, when no one could forget the reality of death. It was sometimes depicted in an embrace with a young woman to symbolize that death is an integral part of life. Rather than frighten us, it is an image that can remind us to live well, to never give up on the journey towards wholeness and holiness, and to follow confidently in the footsteps of Jesus who embraced the world from the cross and shows us the way through suffering.

The conversations I have with others about death are largely superficial because the topic can become morbid and depressing. We talk about avoiding suffering, and we would prefer to die in our sleep after a long, healthy and happy life. And, should we become decrepit or senile, we joke about telling our kids to “just shoot me”, which really is not much of a plan when it comes to preparing for death and dying.






Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Lest we forget"


"It may be more accurate to say, “Lest we block it out” when we speak of the necessity of remembering..." 

By chance, I met a Holocaust survivor
I met a Holocaust survivor on a warm August day in Chamonix, France as we were doing the tourist thing, wandering about in the shadow of Mont Blanc, and searching for a place to eat.

We finally decided upon a bustling café that had a large outdoor terrace. As my mother took her seat amongst the cramped tables, she accidentally knocked her fork onto the ground A soft-spoken older gentleman at the table beside us reached down to pick it up, politely suggesting that she might like to ask the server for a clean one.  A conversation ensued. 

We learned that the man lived in Paris, and was visiting Chamonix with his grandson, who had taken the gondola up one of the mountains.  As the conversation progressed, we learned that the man was Polish. Two years before the end of World War II, the Nazis had imprisoned him in a concentration camp. He was fourteen years old at the time. Of the twenty-nine members of his family sent to the death camp, only he and his father survived.  He mentioned this horrific period of his life in passing.  Seventy years later, the power of the memory caused his eyes to fill with tears, and he fell silent, lost for a moment in the past.

"Jewish families with bundles of belongings during deportation from the Kovno ghetto to Riga in neighboring Latvia. Kovno, Lithuania, 1942."
Photo Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum
http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_ph.php?MediaId=1883

Some memories never heal
When I think about this gentle man, wearing a long sleeved shirt on a warm August day, perhaps to conceal a number tattooed into his flesh, my mind wanders to the past, to a dark period in human history that I had previously encountered only in books and film. Then, with a jolt, my mind returns to the present, and I think of the son of a friend, who served as a peacekeeper in Kosovo and did duty in Afghanistan, and whose experiences in those places have changed him and his family forever.

I think of the gentle souls, for whom some memories will never heal, and I wonder at the words “lest we forget”, that, here in Canada, we associate with red poppies and the act of remembrance.  For, as my chance encounter with the man at Chamonix illustrates, war is impossible to forget for those who live through it. It may be more accurate to say, “Lest we block it out” when we speak of the necessity of remembering and the importance of passing down those stories that can orient our hearts towards peace.

“Lest we forget” makes me think of an old veteran that I once saw interviewed around Remembrance Day. For the first time in his life, he spoke about his wartime experience. He broke down on national television as he expressed his feelings of guilt for having survived when most of his comrades had died.  He must have spent a lifetime trying to forget; and although he had tried to block the experience, it hovered over his life threatening to destroy the normalcy he feigned.

There was a time when society expected this old veteran, like so many others, to block the bad memories, when being a man meant ignoring the trauma and getting on with life. Today, we recognize post-traumatic stress disorder, and we are learning that unhealed memoires can reoccur at the most unexpected times and at the slightest provocation – a sight, a sound, a smell, or even a chance encounter with strangers at a café.

The broad strokes of man's inhumanity to man are layered with detail
On Remembrance Day, I will stand with others at the cenotaph, not because there is any danger of forgetting, but because it is important to remember. The broad strokes of man's inhumanity to man are layered with detail. As I stand in silence remembering, I will see, on the canvas of war, a gentle man who bent down to pick up a fork, and touched our hearts that day in Chamonix.  

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Belief and doubt in "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"


The Halloween classic  still gets high TV ratings
Almost fifty years after it first aired, the 1966 Halloween classic, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, remains popular. Despite the simple plot and rudimentary animation, it gets higher television ratings than more sophisticated shows. Its humor and pathos, which communicate some realities of human behavior and experience, may account for the cartoon’s appeal.

The plot is straightforward. Linus believes in a Great Pumpkin, a Santa Claus like figure who rises up from the most sincere pumpkin patch on Halloween to drop toys to faithful believers.  The rest of the Snoopy gang mock and insult him. Even little Sally, who adores Linus, abandons him after waiting in vain for the arrival of the Great Pumpkin.  A secondary plot line deals with the bullying of Charlie Brown, by both his peers and the unseen adults who put rocks, instead of treats, into his bag on Halloween night. The show ends with Charlie Brown and Linus working through their disappointment, and with Linus vehemently asserting his belief that next year the Great Pumpkin will come and everything will be different.

Belief  and doubt are bedfellows in the cartoon
The cartoon touches on a variety of themes.  One of these themes is the relationship between belief and doubt, and it anchors the story. In “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”, belief and doubt are bedfellows, existing in relationship, not in opposition, to one another.

Linus holds fast to his belief in the Great Pumpkin despite the overwhelming evidence that refutes its existence, and the crushing disappointment he experiences annually when the Great Pumpkin fails to appear. Yet, Linus moves back and forth between certainty and uncertainty as he struggles to overcome the doubt that threatens to swallow up his faith every Halloween. The letter Linus pens to the Great Pumpkin sums up his painful struggle to reconcile his belief and doubt, “If you really are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

"True faith is about doubt negotiated..." 
Linus is not alone in the struggle to reconcile belief and doubt.  From the great prophets to doubting Thomas to Pope Francis today, spiritual seekers have always recognized the presence of doubt and its importance to the spiritual life.  To quote author and social psychologist, Diarmuid O’Murchú, “True faith is about doubt negotiated, not doubt avoided.”  And as Pope Francis has said, it is important to leave room for doubt in the quest for God; there are dangers in certitude.

The cartoon probes the foibles of adult behaviour
The cartoon also uses the actions and frequently comical dialogue of its child characters to subtly probe the foibles of adult behaviour.

There is the example of Sally, who blames Linus for her decision to join him in the pumpkin patch. Angry and disappointed because she missed the fun of Halloween, she threatens to sue Linus, shouting at him, “You owe me restitution!” While her reaction is comical given her tender age, it pokes fun at the adult world. Sally’s desire to get even, through the courts if necessary, mimics a litigious adult society as well as our reluctance to take responsibility for our actions and to consider the ways in which we may have contributed to a problem.

Linus and Charlie Brown, like Sally, have great expectations that quite literally fail to materialize.  Linus comes away empty handed from the pumpkin patch; there’s no reward for his sincerity, belief or good behavior. Charlie Brown ends the night with a bag of rocks, although he had every reason to expect a bag of candy. In their disappointment, we might recognize our own feelings of disillusionment when life treats us unfairly, and when our actions fail to produce the desired results.

We have packed around that bag of rocks
In Charlie Brown’s bag of rocks, we find a symbol for rejection and bullying.  Everyone can relate to Charlie Brown’s experience of standing on ‘the outside looking in’. We have packed around that bag of rocks.  Or, maybe we have thrown rocks into someone else’s bag.

“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” holds a mirror up to human behavior and experience in an understated, sensitive and often comical fashion. This may explain, in part, its enduring appeal despite its straightforward story and rudimentary animation in an age of superior technology and elaborate plot lines.



Sunday, October 26, 2014

Synod on the family will test the Pope's credibility


This column was published on October 10, 2014.

A pivotal moment in Pope Francis's papacy
The synod on the “Pastoral care of the family in the context of evangelization” could be a pivotal moment in Pope Francis’s papacy, demonstrating the degree to which the bishops of the world accept the pope’s vision for Roman Catholicism.

In a groundbreaking interview with the Jesuit magazine America in September 2013, Francis spoke boldly about the need for the Church to engage with the world, to focus less on questions of sexual morality and more on the merciful love of God.  He likened the Church to a field hospital, healing wounds and touching hearts; and he cautioned against a Church that is too much like a laboratory, shut off from everyday life and focused on a “compendium of abstract truths.”

It is my view that these two images of the Church will be at odds, vying for precedence over the outcome of the synod. While the synod will not change Church teaching, it could change pastoral practices. The synod will either chart a new course, or reiterate the same old attitudes that a majority of Catholics have already rejected.

In the west, there are great expectations for change in the Church’s attitude and practice towards divorced Catholics who have remarried without obtaining an annulment from the Vatican. These expectations have arisen in large part due to the pope’s pastoral style and the groundwork laid prior to the opening of the synod.

In advance of the synod, Francis took a risk; he asked the world’s Catholics to respond to a questionnaire on the family. This novel approach, coming from a centuries old institution where all decision-making powers reside with a male clergy, engaged lay people, and gave them hope that they might finally have a meaningful voice in the hierarchical church. In the west, those voices make known that the Church is like the laboratory Francis wants to avoid; responses indicate that there is a significant gap between the lived experience of Catholics and Church teachings.

Francis took another risk when he invited his theologian, Cardinal Walter Kasper, to address the world’s cardinals this past February.  Kasper, with support of the pope, spoke to the possibility of relaxing the rules so that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics could receive communion.

A missionary field hospital versus a sterile laboratory
The German cardinal’s approach, which is to re-interpret and adapt Church teaching so that its pastoral practices respond to the realities of people’s lives, is in line with the image of the Church as a field hospital. But, Kasper’s views are not universally well regarded.  Some bishops, notably Cardinal Raymond Burke of the United States, seem attached to the laboratory. They have publicly rebutted Kasper’s position, putting limits on mercy and insisting that nothing around communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can change.

As much as the communion question has galvanized the west, it is only one topic with which the synod will wrestle. There are other challenges facing the family, and these vary around the world. Some of them, such as AIDS, violence and migration, which affect life and limb, are more acute problems, in my opinion, than the question of communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

Still, the question could create some high drama inside the synod room as bishops struggle to balance doctrine and pastoral practice in the face of today’s realities and according to Francis’s vision. 

This pope’s words and actions indicate that he wants a more open and missionary church, a field hospital not a laboratory. Has the pope’s imagery of the Church, and his beautifully evocative language of God’s mercy and love penetrated the hearts of the bishops who will make the decisions? And if not, what will be the pope’s response?

The pope's credibility is on the line with this synod
The final results of the synod on the family, which will not be known until after the 2015 meeting of the bishops, will demonstrate the influence of the “Francis effect”, and the degree to which his brother bishops accept his vision.  While the topic may be the family, the pope’s credibility is on the line with this synod.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

My conversation with "The Walking Monk"

One day in June, my daughter and I were out for a run when we passed, not once, but three times, two strangers walking along our route. The third time, one stopped us to ask for directions. He told us he was walking across Canada, and handed us a business card. My daughter suggested I email him, which I did. Sometime later Bhaktimarga Swami, ,  and I connected via phone.  His blog is  "The Walking Monk"

The light bulb idea 
I caught up with Bhaktimarga Swami, commonly known as "The Walking Monk",  by phone shortly after he completed his fourth “Can Walk” across Canada. Our conversation transcended religious doctrine, dogma and belief systems.


Swami, born in Ontario as John Peter Vis, adopted the Eastern monastic lifestyle of the Hare Krishna movement some forty years ago.  In 1996, he  completed his first pilgrimage across Canada, journeying from west to east. Since that time, he has completed three more cross country treks, each time travelling in the opposite direction, and along different routes.

He conceived the idea to walk across Canada one day while walking in a ravine in Toronto, an activity he undertook initially to rehabilitate low back problems.  “It was almost like a light bulb lit up,” he told me of the moment that led him to walk across the country, “as a monk might do it; (to) travel kind of lightly, and meet people along the way, spend enough time in a place, as long as it takes to milk a cow, as we say in our tradition”,  before continuing the journey.

More than a metaphor
In many religious traditions, the journey is a metaphor for the growth of the soul as it enters more profoundly into an encounter with the Divine. Since Swami has crossed the country on foot multiple times, I asked him if walking is more than a metaphor for him.

Not surprisingly, it is. “It’s a natural position of the spirit or soul to wander in this world and to walk it in wonder and in appreciation. So (wandering) puts you in that spot where you need to be, that place of humility which is the basis of success in life.”

Swami explained that walking along busy highways with vehicles barreling past or trekking through remote and beautiful landscapes is a lesson in detachment. “You learn to take it all in, the heat, the wind, the rain, the cold, the black flies, the mosquitoes, attention by the public, no attention, traffic – with all of that, you learn detachment.”  These external factors, along with the physical discomfort that comes from walking thirty to forty-five kilometers per day, and the spiritual challenges of facing your own deficiencies, help a person learn disentanglement from this world.

We discussed the idea of detachment in light of today’s culture, with its emphasis on self and acquisition. At the core of the self “there is this passion to move about and pick up on all the little nuances the world has to offer”. We shared the belief that our passions may become misdirected, and we may find ourselves walking in a direction that leads us away from our deepest yearnings.

The role of the mantra 
Chanting the mantra is an essential part of Swami’s journey, helping him to keep the spiritual in his midst.  “God is present in sound,” said Swami. “Hallowed be thy name. So, the name, the sound is sacred. We,” by which Swami meant the Krishna and Christian religious traditions, “have the same understanding…The Absolute or the Divine is there with you in their sound.”

The word “mantra” comes from two Sanskrit words, “mana” which means the mind, and “tara” which means to free.  Chanting the mantra frees the mind “so that your mind is not on the acquisitions you’re trying to achieve.” The mantra “pulls you out of that mode“, illuminating the beauty all around, and providing spiritual strength; “it keeps you a bit on your toes, otherwise the forces of temptation could get to you.”

Humility from standing under
Our hour-long conversation ended with Swami providing an exegesis of the verb “to understand” that he picked up from a Catholic priest. In order to understand, it is important to go under, to stand humbly and look up, then “you understand your real position.”

Walking “brings about a lot of revelation and epiphany about our smallness, our insignificance and about how much bigger the universal machinery is than our self. Getting to the point of taking the humble stance is the end product” of the long and arduous spiritual journey, which, I am sure Swami would agree, is always a walk in progress.