Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Nothing to do but be

My daughter, Allie, has wisely observed that visiting with old folks in nursing homes permits us to understand something about our true status before God: one of passive and humble abiding. We got on this subject of what it means to be stripped bare before God after she’d read a couple of my previous posts. How can it be that, by appearances, some people outlive their usefulness and yet are loved no less by God? Here’s some of how Allie answered her own question.

“I was actually thinking of writing you earlier this week about the topic of old age and some of the problems of longevity. I think I've mentioned this before, but Jon and I have been going every Thursday to a local nursing home as a part of a group called Sant'Egidio, a community started in Italy that establishes groups to work with the poor and marginalized all over the world. From about 7-8pm we sit around and talk with the residents who come (usually 15 or so) and then we close the evening by singing hymns and praying. 

“Walking into Cardinal Nursing Home is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do on a regular basis. I've worked with so many different groups of the poor, and I've been around people in pain, but there is nothing that breaks my heart so much as seeing the people there. Cardinal is very institutional and smells of urine and bleach. Last week Jon and I were wheeling someone back to their room and stopped to greet a woman sitting in her wheelchair in the hallway. She grabbed my hands and wouldn't let go. She was trying to speak but she couldn't and so she just squeezed my hands and looked at me with such pain in her eyes.

“The pain there is palpable and almost crushing. It's just horrible to see people stripped of their dignity, without anyone in the world who comes to visit them. It's tragic to me that these people don't have families to take care of them, or that their families refuse. Their gradual deaths are in utter obscurity.

“Death is natural and inescapable, but it is a great evil when human beings die without dignity. I think that the most I can ask for in my death is that it be in the company of people who love me, or at least out in the world and not in an institution. But I suppose this is what makes it that much more important to visit the residents at Cardinal. To bear witness. To impart a bit of dignity by bringing joy and song.

“Jon commented on our way home that part of why it's so hard to go to a place like Cardinal is that we're not used to seeing pain and suffering on a daily basis. Suffering is common to humankind. It is not the exception, and yet we work so hard to hide it, to institutionalize it, to keep it away from our day-to-day existence. We do this, in part, to avoid having to ask some of those questions you mentioned on your blog ("20 questions"), for to ask those questions disturbs our peace. I’m thankful that God has given me many opportunities to see suffering, to descend into it by accompanying sufferers, and that he has given me the strength not to turn my gaze. So much grace is wrought by simply refusing to look away.”
The matter of having nothing tangible to offer the world, and yet remaining an object of God’s deep and abiding affection, sheds light on the dichotomy of doing and being. Allie added that being is our fundamental nature in terms of our standing before God. We are human beings, not human doings. Yet it is doing that is valued most by the world. The thought of being left with nothing to do but to be can be terrifying, which is why we flee from it.

As Allie and Jon have discovered, there is a blessing to spending time with people left alone in the world and sometimes doing nothing more than holding hands. To be human, first and foremost, is simply to be. There is profound worth in that alone.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Allie and Jon have amazing insight and are to be commended for taking the time to visit these people. I have volunteered in nursing homes and nonetheless learned much from what they had to say. You raised Allie right, Peter, and Jon's parents raised him right, too. I'm sure they brighten these homes by their very presence.