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February 23, 2020: “Dignified Indignity”

Former UUA President Peter Morales once described our occasional way of being as arriving to the conversation “pre-offended.” He was talking about the indignity that many of feel, in our association of congregations and in the world, as being roadblocks to genuine engagement.  But there must be some way to use that indignity in for a higher purpose. 

Personal Reflection “Stronger Than I Had Been”    JT Hillen

When I think of resilience I think of persons who have suffered major trauma, like a young suffer who had an arm removed by a shark & is still surfing, or stories of veterans who have lost limbs but with artificial ones are now living their lives as fully as possible. Even running in a marathon, something I would not do even when I was able.

I think of various people I know who have disabilities but find ways around the disabilities to do what they want in life. Or persons who have an illness, & in between treatments live life fully as possible, People who have endured huge losses but carry on.  This is resilience with capital letters.

So upon sharing my thoughts with other persons I was asked the question “what about you?”  What do you mean what about me? I haven’t experienced any life threating traumas like the above mentioned. And I got that knowing look, you know the look, you probably have used it yourself, the one that says” oh yah”.  This made me pause and started me looking back over my many years and lo and behold I did find some examples. Not major traumas but ones where I had to find ways to spring back and carry on with life.

One of which was that I was working as a casher in a store about ½ miles from home so I would walk there and back. One winter day I was part way there when I slipped on ice and down I went hurting my knee, a kind driver stopped , helped me up, even drove me to work, I should have gone home for later the knee had swelled up to the point I could no longer stand on the leg. When I went to the doctor they removed lots of fluid & informed me that I would need surgery to repair the meniniss, recovery was painful, learning to maneuver myself around with crutches was interesting especially going up stairs, going down was the easy part, for sitting on ones butt worked great. Was this resilience?

In my mind it was just accepting the accident and figuring out how to handle a, b, & c. . Now if someone else had experienced the same thing I would have been very impressed with their outlook and determination to overcome the obstacles that were in their path. Having the resilience to do what needs doing in order to return to a normal life. It isn’t easy to see that in oneself. Instead I saw it as one of life’s curve balls.

Moving forward in my life I remembered a bigger curve ball. I was separated from my spouse, dealing with major depression and going to school. Now I was going to school for I could see divorce in the future and knew I needed a means to support myself,  (for I was terrified of becoming a bag lady). As much as I loved learning, school was hard and for me fearful plus I was an older student so I had much to prove to myself and others. I did graduate with a degree in radiology, there was a divorce and I did deal with the depression.

Some years later I was talking with a friend and I asked her did she realize that I dealt with the depression, got my degree in radiology, went through the divorce all at the same time and I was doing “ok”.  There was silence you could hear a pin drop over the phone, then she said “ do you realize what you did? Slam balm…she threw the question right back at me… I was forced to admit out load and to someone else that I did know what I achieved. Not an easy thing for me to do. We then went on to talk about other things. After that call I did feel a sense of pride that I plowed through 3 difficult challenges, all at the same time.  

School and the divorce ended close together working thru the depression took a lot longer. but I came away a stronger person then what I had been. Was this resilience I’m still not sure, but it was a turning point in my life. I had to become an independent person, learn to ask for help when needed, and be thankful for family and friends who were there for me.

What I have learned over the years is that we all have what I call curve balls to overcome, some big and some not so much. I have learned that if I give the problem space an answer will come as to how to handle the problem.  

Sermon “Dignified Indignity”           Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

Diane Rehm hosted her own talk show from 1979 to 2016, produced by WAMU and distributed through National Public Radio.  When she retired from the show because of spasmodic dysphonia, a degenerative disease that made it increasingly difficult for her to talk, she was one of the more respected journalists in the country.   

She married John Rehm in 1959, early in his career with the State Department.  He died in 2014, after making the difficult decision to stop eating and drinking.  He’d been living with Parkinson’s disease for years, and was just … done.

Ms. Rehm has a made a plan for her own death.  When her time is near, she wants to surround herself with her family, in her home, for one last joyful visit and to say goodbye, then retire to her own bedroom, alone, where she will take doctor-prescribed drugs to end her life silently and painlessly as she sleeps.  

She knows what it’s like to watch a loved suffer, and she knows what it’s like to live with a disease that takes away the thing that has given life the most satisfaction.   That’s why she wrote a book of conversations on the right to die.  She wanted to help protect and expand that right.  For her, the topic is profoundly personal.  And inevitable. 

I read a good chunk of her book last week, and the part that stood out the most to me was her conversation with Father John Tuohey, which JT just read.  

Having grown up in the Roman Catholic Church, and having worked with Catholics on social justice issues through the years, I know where he’s coming from.  The Catholic Church sees its position on suicide — assisted or not — as a matter of embracing a consistent ethic of life.  All human life, according to Catholic  theology, is valuable.  Period.  And nobody other than God has the right to end a life.  

You might not pick up on it by the respectfulness of their conversation, but Diane Rehm and Father Tuohey disagree at a fundamental level, and hold their opinions strongly. She seeks to uphold what she calls “the right to die,” as he fights to stop any of what he calls “voluntary taking of a life.”  

It’s not an easy discussion to have, especially when you see the messiness of what it means for a life to come to an end, as both of them have, in their personal and professional lives.

Like Father Tuohey, in my ministry I’ve journeyed with lots of people coping with degenerative diseases destroying their bodies and leaving them completely dependent on others for basic functions.  I’m sure he doesn’t want to see their suffering prolonged any more than I do.

I’m also sure in his pastorate he’s encountered people like my brother-in-law, who was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and given six months to live. As it is for many parents with teenage children, his imminent death felt decades early, and for Dennis, it was the ultimate indignity that his body would betray him so spectacularly after the universe dealt him such a crummy hand.  He felt cheated, robbed of dignity.

But what does it mean to have dignity?

To have dignity is to conduct your self or to speak in a way that is indicative of self-respect, or respect for the gravity of an occasion or situation. It can also reflect nobility or elevated rank or standing.  In other words, dignity is a sign of respect, including self-respect.

The word evolved from the Latin dignitatem,  meaning “worthiness” or “worth,” and its root is the Proto-Indo-European dek, which means “to take, to accept.”

In other words, in order to have any dignity….you have to accept respect offered to you by others, and respect the gravity and even inevitability of the situation you’re in.  You have to feel worthy of respect in order to accept it. 

It seems to me that if your whole understanding of your life is based on a belief that you require no help from anyone because you are wholly self-sufficient, then it’s impossible to accept help from anyone.  Even when they want to help and  see you as worthy of their care and efforts. 

And if you feel like you don’t deserve help, because others are more in need, or worse, that you are unworthy of help, then you have no dignity. Dignity is cultivated from within, not bestowed from without. 

For Diane Rehm, dignity is in maintaining self-sufficiency, without being forced to accept the help — and therefore the outward signs of respect — from other people. 

But I think Father Tuohey goes deeper.  He gets to the root of dignity.  Acceptance.  For him, dignity in death is accepting it, no mater how difficult it is, and no matter how slow and painful it maybe, AND also accepting the outward signs of respect offered by others, even in the form of help eating, moving, toileting.

Diane Rehm sees indignity in help with personal care.  Father Tuoehy sees dignity in it.  The difference is attitude.

Dignity.  That’s the big issue with prolonged death, isn’t it? 

Studies have shown again and again that people don’t choose to end their lives because they are in pain nearly as much as because they have lost or fear losing dignity.  Both Ms Rehm and Father Tuohey acknowledge that in their conversation and yet, they come to completely different conclusions.

It seems to me that dignity is a choice.  Dignity, real dignity, is like humility.  As humility is the thing that keeps us from being humiliated by some external force, 

dignity is the thing that keeps us from suffering the indignities hurled at us by the universe.

If you spend your whole life believing that you should not be the recipient of any help, that to receive help is a blow to your dignity, that is a false dignity. Real dignity is accepting help.

Perhaps real dignity requires humility.

Nothing could give Dennis dignity as long as he couldn’t accept the inevitability, the naturalness of death.  I’m not sure he would have gone any more easily or gracefully if he were 100 years old, and his body were just shutting down from “general debility.”  He probably would have fought angrily, as he did, until his last breath.

Having the ability to find dignity, self worth, in the face of the indignities dealt to us through no fault of our own, through the circumstances of a world that places more value on the lives of some people than on the lives of others, that’s resilience.

I don’t want to play dime store psychologist with JT, her reflection, and her life.  But there’s something in what she said that makes me curious.  Why do we see the strength in others, but not the strength in ourselves?  Is it because of the messages we were given as children, messages that have become so ingrained in us, and so reinforced throughout or lives?

Vashti Harrison wrote a book called Little Leaders, the first in a series, which set out to explore that question, by illustrating the stories of Black women in history, 

who rose above the indignity of being born female and black in a world that placed higher value on being male and white.

Some of the stories we know.  

Rosa Parks sat down at the part of the bus reserved for whites, and stayed seated saying she was too tired to move, bone weary from living with the injustice of racism.  Her arrest launched the Montgomery Bus boycott, a huge feat of grassroots community organizing that got national attention, and jumpstarted the nonviolent movement for civil rights.

Josephine Baker grew up on the stage in the first two decades of the twentieth century, in St. Louis Missouri, a former slave state where Jim Crow was alive and well.  As a chorus girl, she was derided for her silliness and being a scene stealer, but nobody could deny how special she was.  Her career was limited in the United States, so she went to France, where she was treated like a star, celebrated everywhere she went.  Then she worked in the French Resistance during WWII, smuggling secret messages.  After the war, she was given two of France’s highest military honors.

Some of the women portrayed in the book we don’t know so well.

Alice Ball was a Chemist and Medical Researcher, born in Seattle Washington in 1892.  At a time when resources and convention gave her the constant message that she, like nearly all other black women, could only be a maid or a cook, she was the first African American woman to earn a masters degree from the University of Hawaii, the only school that would accept her.  Working on her thesis, she developed what would become the leading treatment for leprosy.  But her supervising professor took the credit, and that truth wasn’t uncovered by historians until the 1970’s. 

Wilma Rudolph, was four years old in 1944, when she contracted polio, and was left paralyzed in her left leg, told she’d never walk unassisted.  With a lot of determination to overcome the teasing she endured, she was walking with a leg brace by age 12, and only four years after that, she sprinted her way to her first Olympic Gold Medal in Melbourne Australia.  In 1960, she was the first black woman to win three medals in a single Olympics.  Her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee planned a parade in her honor.  when she found it was to be segregated, she refused to take part until organizers agreed to integrate.

All of the women in Vashti Harrison’s book are illustrated as beatific-looking children with their eyes closed, a pose the author intends to be subtle and serene.  She wants Black children to be treated with the same respect as white children in literary classics, all dressing up, pretending, dreaming of their future, as inspiration for their readers.  

One reviewer said the characters in Little Leaders seem to “be looking within, mustering the strength necessary to persevere in the face of daunting odds.” 

Since the success of Little Leaders three years ago, Harrison has gone on to illustrate Little Dreamers about women around the world, and most recently Little Leaders about Black men in American history.

The stories of all these people in all these books is pretty similar in one important way:  They were dealt indignities by the world, told they were unworthy of the things others were worthy of.  And from that indignity, they found their dignity!  

They looked within and mustered the strength necessary to persevere.

Who knows how they did it.

Maybe some of them just shut their eyes and looked inside themselves for dignity, strength, resilience, then used those things to rise above and succeed in life, up until the very last breath.  

And maybe when their eyes were closed, they took a deep breath, rested for a moment, and just blocked out what was right in front of them, avoiding or denying the reality right in front of them, because to have really seen it and confront it would have been be to lose courage.

Either way seems fine to me.  Whatever gets you through.  That’s what matters in the end.

When we live lives of dignity, when we know who we are and what are value is to ourselves, our families, our world, and even the God of our own understanding, the decisions we make about how we die will reflect the dignity with which we’ve lived.  

May it be so.