Thursday, March 26, 2009

Labor of Love: A Caregiver's Reward

One of the most kind, gentle and loving men I have ever known was my dear father-in-law, Edward Jagoda. From the first time I met him, until he passed away some nine years ago, Eddie was a man I held in very high esteem, not because he did extraordinary things, but rather because he did the ordinary things in extraordinary fashion.

What made Eddie so special as a man were characteristics which often eluded many other so-called men. He was sweet, gentle, amiable, soft-hearted, and above all had a supremely understanding nature. During the worst of my personal crisis of mental health, Eddie never once stopped believing in me. Not only did he have faith in me, but he also had faith in his daughter's decision to choose me as her companion for life. Through several hospitalizations and a long recovery road, he displayed a kind of loyalty to me I had never known, and amazingly he did so with few words. It was his calm and reassuring demeanor that was so important in my struggle to relearn trust.

A photographer by trade, Eddie captured many memorable moments while in the Navy during WWII in the Pacific theater. Later he applied and perfected his skills in a long career at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. He kept busy after retiring with a small business of his own in video production and, his first love, still photography.

Fate was beginning to catch up with my father-in-law just as I was seeing some real progress in my recovery. As it turned out, for the both of us, the timing couldn't have been better. I was at a point where relieving some of the self-absorption that often accompanies mental illness needed to be addressed, and, as fate would have it, Eddie's deteriorating health needed something - or someone - to help mitigate his hardship.

The illness that was taking hold of Eddie was not so gentle as he. As liver cancer usually does, it invaded with a virulent aggression. It was Eddie's wish that he die amid the company of his family at home, and because he had already been living with us for several years, he was right where he belonged. The Visiting Nurse Association arranged for home hospice care and, by virtue of my mere availability, the consensus was that I would be Eddie's main caregiver whenever the nurses were away which, much to my challenge, was quite often.

Very soon it was my charge to feed, clothe, bathe, cleanse and otherwise tend to Eddie as he began his voyage home. I never considered these chores as being undignified in any way. On the contrary, before long it was clear to me this task of intimate care was both my gift to Eddie as well as my duty to my fellow man. The struggle was mighty, and the tasks were demanding, right up until it was plain his hours were numbered. At a propitious moment, I was compelled to gaze upon him and utter my profound thanks for all he had done for me. With a firm clasp of his hand and a gentle kiss upon his forehead, I conveyed my subtle remorse for doing 'only' what I had done for him in his last days and not more. The symbiosis of the moment was not lost on me. Eddie and I parted knowing we had given the very best of ourselves to each other.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think my labor of love would be so thoroughly rewarded. I miss you and think of you often, Pop. Thank you for showing me what it really means to be a man.

Friday, March 20, 2009

You Just Don't Get It, Billy

Silence can be so deafening. What's understood between the lines is often more to the point than what's actually written or spoken. Even now I am contemplating an intentionally furtive or ambiguous approach to this very entry so intent am I on putting my message between the so-called lines.

First of all, just what is it I don't get? Apparently, I don't get the viability or wisdom of doing nothing for someone I care deeply about in the face of intractably persistent mental illness and great suffering. But there is nothing wise, courageous or enlightened about inaction in such circumstances.

Many notable people have contemplated the dangers of inaction at moments of challenge:

  • Theodore Roosevelt: "In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing; the worst thing you can do is nothing."

  • John Stewart Mill: "A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury."

  • Norman Vincent Peale: "Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all."

  • Winston Churchill: "I never worry about action, but only inaction."

  • Meister Eckhart: "The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake."
At the very least, failure to advocate for a better solution simply because its adoption is unlikely or may cause discomfort, is a spineless capitulation to the forces of ignorance and fear. The allure of inaction is quite understandable, however, when one recognizes the fear that resorting to action will bring one hurt or pain, or elicit a hostile response. Indeed, we are usually clever enough to remind ourselves of those times in the past when our attempts at intervention, reason or intimacy were met with profane rejection and caused serious emotional pain. What comes to mind here is a slight variation of an old adage: Hurt me once, shame on you; hurt me twice, shame on me.

The goal in these circumstances should therefore be for us to evolve and mature enough to achieve insulation from the effects of anticipated abuse - not shrink from any unpleasantness doing the right thing might bring. Of course this is not at all an easy task given a lifetime's experience in dealing with precisely such hostility and unpleasantness.

There's an unlikely culprit, seemingly always at the ready, offering what is more often than not an excuse for the option of inaction. Reinhold Niebuhr's well worn Serenity Prayer is all too often invoked as a call to achieve the first of its three divine solicitations, the "grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed." As for the "courage to change the things that should be changed" as well as the "wisdom to distinguish the one from the other," these are plainly secondary considerations in the practical application of this prayer. In other words, when someone is touting the utility of the Serenity Prayer, often what he or she is really saying is, "Let it be. There is no point in even trying to do anything." It seems this prayer is seldom employed as a call to action born of courage, as if that option is really only there for show.

Also, it matters not that the Serenity Prayer is an appeal to a personal god. An appropriate secular interpretation can plainly be construed for the purpose of casting a favorable light on its essential meaning.

Maybe there are a couple of things my antagonists just don't get: First, that there is strength in numbers. A coordinated and cooperative effort to inject sober, loving and direct appeals would have a much greater likelihood of achieving a connection. Second, inaction is the worst option. Throwing in the towel on a loved one is inexcusable. Moreover, people sense when others have given up on them, and it only brings them loneliness and self-loathing, a sure recipe for hostility.

After all this, I am left to simply cogitate: Who is it that really doesn't get it?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Was I Ever a True Catholic?

Free Inquiry editor Tom Flynn posed an enticing challenge recently to his readers. After detailing his own efforts to have himself excommunicated from the Catholic Church, he solicited suggestions on how to achieve this divorce from one's religious past. After giving it some thought, I came up with something I believe may have merit. I submitted my idea to Free Inquiry via email:
Re: Tom Flynn’s delightful dilemma (Let My Person Go!), I too, contemplated the very same course of action, i.e., seeking excommunication from the Catholic Church, so badly did I want to be disassociated from this organization. Though I never went so far as to actually solicit excommunication from local church officials, I believe I have legitimately achieved the substantial equivalent of excommunication via another approach.

The approach I am referring to involves delegitimizing my association with, or membership in, the Catholic church from its inception. How, you ask? By asserting my belief in the self-evident truth that membership in a religious organization can only be achieved with the informed consent of the individual in question. And, since I was never informed sufficiently enough to grant my consent to becoming a member—I was an infant when I was baptized—I was never truly a member of the Catholic Church in the first place, all those church records notwithstanding.

Of course this approach asserts that the Catholic church is wholly unenlightened as to the self-evident nature of the truth I am avowing. In much the same way our founding fathers invoked self-evident truths in asserting their independence from the throne of England, so, too, can we former Catholics affirm our emancipation from the church by invoking similar self-evident truths.

The beauty of this solution is that no official act of excommunication is required because our membership in the church from the outset was never legitimate owing to the absence of our informed consent!

Now if I could only get back the years wasted on my unrelenting religious inculcation . . .

To my way of thinking, therefore, I never was an authentic member of the Catholic Church. What was visited upon me in my early life was child abuse in the form of perverse and illegitimate religious indoctrination. I categorically reject the notion that the brainwashing of children for the purpose of making them members of a church can, in any way, be considered an honorable - or legitimate - enterprise.

So to the Jesuit master who proclaimed that as long as he had the teaching of a child up to seven years of age or thereabouts his mind belonged to him for life, I have a message: No, it does not. There is always hope that reason will prevail even against the unrestrained forces of religious ideology.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Rush and the Rudderless Right

When the political opposition's leadership contenders assume the formation of a circular firing squad, it's probably best to stand clear. The ineptitude with which the Republican Party has attempted to package and sell an ideological spokesperson capable of responding to the Democratic mandate of November's elections has been amazing if not entertaining.

Among the more bizarre goings-on has been the over-inflating of the already gargantuan ego possessing the persona of a one Rush Limbaugh. Mr. Limbaugh has achieved novel heights of inanity with his newly found pastime of dictating delirium. The allure of spawning fresh young ditto heads to perpetuate his fringe-anchored agenda is apparently too much for him to resist. Astonishingly, efforts to anoint himself de facto leader of the GOP nearly succeeded! That the rank and file would even flirt with the idea of such a divisive character ascending to this coveted throne speaks volumes as to the remarkably unrestrained level of disarray afflicting the Republican Party at the moment.

Ironically, liberals stand to win whether the soul of the GOP is possessed by emerging moderates or by out-of-touch conservative elements. The days of conservatives piloting the Republican Party appear numbered, and further clinging to the far right wing would likely bring about even more Democratic gains in 2010. The path to Republican resurgence lies in its moderating influences. And while emerging moderates would likely pose a greater electoral threat to Democrats, the point would still be that the core of the Republican Party will have turned decidedly centrist in its bid to remain competitive.

As for the gamesmanship of Mr. Limbaugh, it seems his propensity to offend is by conscious design, a la Ann Coulter. The indignity he displays at the 'lunacy of the left' is as hollow as it is feigned. Nuance just isn't Rush's game. The louder he gets, the less he persuades; the bigger the fish he becomes, the smaller the pond he swims in. Even conservative writer David Frum points out in his Newsweek article this week Why Rush Is Wrong that "Limbaugh's language is not that of politics. It's the language of a cult."

Conservatives aren't going anywhere. They're likely to be with us a long time. It's just that disturbed personalities like Rush Limbaugh serve only to marginalize their cause - which is good news for the rest of us.