the weight of the world

I just finished lecturing on food in my ethics class. Food is a big problem, both for those who don’t have enough and for those who have plenty. The ways in which it is problematic for those who don’t have enough are well known, and well documented. Charities raise funds to fight world hunger; the UN has pledged to eradicate world hunger by 2030. So far, hunger is winning: from 2015 to 2016 the number of hungry people in the world increased by 5%. Have we forgotten about world hunger with all the crises of various kinds happening around the world? I wonder how much the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit campaign (and the aftermath of both) have distracted us all from the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable.

The other food problem I spoke about today, though, was obesity. In the past three decades rates of obesity among adults and children have risen across the globe. Those increases bring in their train an increase in hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. This subject causes uncomfortable squirming amongst the college-age set (and probably the rest of us as well). We have been busy pushing back–and rightly so–against the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to conform our bodies to an unrealistic ideal. I grew up in Southern California, spending my summer days on its beautiful beaches, and lifeguard towerlearning to hate my body with a deep and abiding passion. I push back as hard as I can, for the sake of my daughters. I’m not sure my body-loathing will ever go away, but I’ll be damned if I let my girls grow up hating theirs.

Addressing the health crisis might well make for trimmer citizens. But I’d like to uncouple the body’s health from the body’s image. Good luck with that, says the other half of my brain: plenty of people have been trying to do that for years. Everyone who has been trying to do that ought to keep on trying, and the rest of us ought to join in, because this matters for the whole world. If we are ever going to tackle this problem, the very first thing we need to do is de-stigmatize obesity. The reason for the tension I felt in the classroom today? The phenomenon of fat-shaming. To begin with, that’s got to stop. Right now.

As a society, we have had some practice at de-stigmatizing. Alcoholism and mental illness are two diseases that, like obesity, are noncommunicable. But we no longer lay the blame for the illness squarely at the feet of the sufferer. It’s complicated. Getting better is hard work, but it isn’t self-flagellation. Some of us have health issues, and we need treatment and support to recover. Obesity is no different, except that we haven’t yet had the conversion that we have had with alcoholism and mental illness (which is still underway in both cases). We need to stop thinking of obesity as just ‘getting fat’ and begin to think of it as a complex phenomenon rather than something people inflict on themselves.

We also need to address the rise in obesity in the developing world. This global health crisis is being driven in part by the expansion of fast, processed food and sugary postobondrinks into new markets in the developing world. As US consumers drink less soda pop, new consumers need to be found to keep profits up. Fast food chains are popping up all over the world, and changing the way people see food. Packaged foods compete with healthier local food, and seem to be winning. The results of this corporate growth are devastating: rates of obesity are soaring in the developing world, and the health systems in developing nations are often having to address both malnutrition and obesity-related conditions.

I fear that the wealthy are preying on the poor. So it has always been, has it not? Did Amos not write of the Israelites, ‘they sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals’? I fear that we don’t see it that way, if we see it at all.

Here’s what I would like to see: no more advertising ’empty calories’ as if it were food. Back in the 1970’s, the Marlborough man disappeared. Tobacco companies were banned from advertising, because smoking is bad for you. We know just as surely that processed food and sugary drinks contribute to obesity. Sure, not everyone who ever has a Coke or a McDonald’s cheeseburger becomes morbidly obese. But not everyone who ever smokes a cigarette gets cancer. Not everyone who ever has a drink becomes an alcoholic, yet we are warned about the health risks, and TV advertising is regulated or banned.

If we know about the health risks, and we surely do, then are we not negligent if we fail to inform consumers? The real risk here is doing nothing and seeing the global health crisis escalate. The alcohol and tobacco industries have survived taxation, regulation, and advertising bans. So would Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and all the rest.  Isn’t the health of the world worth it?

 

Advertisements

The end of modern medicine?

Let me first say that I am grateful for advances in medicine and science: without the kinds of procedures and drugs that have become available in the last hundred years, I would surely have lost my eldest child many years ago. She was born with a congenital heart defect (AV canal defect) and has been hospitalised for pneumonia three times, and that’s just scratching the surface.

Nevertheless, I have long been troubled by a certain sort of triumphalism in our attitude to medicine. I wonder whether we have not come to believe that health and life are a kind of entitlement that medicine delivers. Sometimes it seems that death itself might be conquerable, given the right technology. To age and to die, and to suffer along the way, seem somehow inimical to life as we have we have come to imagine it. But it just isn’t so: death is integral to our life as earthly creatures, just as birth is. Avoiding suffering when it can be avoided is understandable, and fighting with everything we’ve got against suffering that arises as a result of oppression and violence is our duty, not only as Christians, but as interdependent human creatures.

27GERM-1464299636802-master768Against this backdrop, I was fascinated to read an article in this morning’s New York Times about increasingly resistant bacteria. The ‘spectre’ of bacteria that would be resistant to every antibiotic in ‘the medicine cabinet’ looms large: the Department of Defense science blog covered it, and President Obama’s administration has begun planning the US response to such a threat. Although such an infection is currently extremely unlikely (but wash your hands well, anyway), it’s scary enough to attract attention at the highest levels of government. I couldn’t help but think, as I was perusing these documents, of a theme of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (the novel is well worth reading): ‘life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free…life finds a way’ (p. 159). Bacteria are like the dinosaurs on that island off the coast of Central America, adapting to the changing circumstances just like we are.

Of course, I expect that scientists will work very hard to keep pace with these tiny organisms that threaten us. But we shouldn’t try to stop them from reminding us of our mortality.

dying right: a recommendation

It’s true, of course, that my being pro-life is part of the fabric of my Christian faith. At the same time, I tend not to wear the label ‘pro-life’ in a bright neon sign over my head. Not because I am ambivalent about abortion or the death penalty (that’s right: being pro-life means opposing the death penalty with equal vehemence), but because life and death issues are complicated, personal, and touch the deepest part of our soul.

Another reason I tend not to shout about pro-life issues is that the language in which such matters tend to be discussed centers on ‘rights’: right-to-life, right-to-die. As if such moments in our lives were actually about rights. As if life and death were somehow a matter of legislation. If only we could get the laws right, our coming into and going from this world would somehow pass smoothly. No. Of course not. Being born and dying are not like voting rights or equal pay. These latter issues should be the subject of vigorous advocacy–and that is part of being pro-life, too. The struggle for justice on behalf of the oppressed, advocacy on behalf of the weak and voiceless, and giving of our plenty to supply the needs of the poor are all pro-life activities. It’s about much, much more than conception and natural death.

As more states legalize assisted suicide, the conversations we have about death should become more serious and thoroughly honest. And we should talk with everyone, not only those with whom we agree. While I am against the legalization of assisted suicide, I do not oppose it automatically because it is not ‘pro-life.’ Actually, I share the concerns of those who support the bill with some hesitation, those who might well disagree deeply with some of the rest of my convictions regarding life and death and the One who holds both in omnipotent and gentle hands. Just this morning, I had the good fortune to come across a thoughtful and honest piece about death and how we approach it. Clare Bidwell Smith writes lucidly and compellingly about the end of life, not only as a professional but as a person who tended both her parents as they approached death.

‘Let us not leap to the last page without at least skimming the last chapter,’ she counsels. Skipping the ‘last chapter’ might save us a lot of suffering, certainly; but, as she points out, there is often important work to do in that chapter, work that earlier chapters leave out. Her account of the last weeks of her father’s life is both moving and enlightening–and should inform the decisions of any considering assisted suicide as a way out. Perhaps she won’t convince everyone to wait, but she might just show us all what we might be missing.

For Claire Tidwell Smith, and all who treat death with reverence, Deo gratias.

you’re having a baby, continued

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about Mark Schrad’s opinion piece in the New York Times. Oddly enough, a friend who is concerned about these same issues saw my comment on the NYT site and got in touch. Like Schrad, she has an 8-year-old child with Down Syndrome. Unlike Schrad, she supports the Ohio legislature and testified in favor of similar legislation in Indiana. A Public Policy Fellow at Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, Mary O’Callaghan holds a PhD in developmental psychology and has written a piece for the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse blog.

Her article highlights the dangers in Schrad’s position, in a professional and reasoned tone. I agree wholeheartedly, and tried to make a similar argument myself in that earlier post. I am so grateful that the work of advocacy is not a solo pursuit, that I have friends who are intelligent and determined and articulate. Sometimes the work of parenting, especially parenting a child with disabilities, can be lonely work–parenting in general is pretty tough and usually thankless. But moments like these remind me that we’re not alone. Children with Down Syndrome need the work of all of us parents–Mark Schrad (whose article has sparked necessary conversation) and Mary O’Callaghan, and many others who advocate for their children and others on a daily basis. Articles like Mary’s in particular need to be written and widely read. Knowing how very articulate and incisive my friend is in her advocacy is a great gift.

If you read my earlier post (whether you agreed with it or not), you should really read this article. She concludes with a punch: Despite the increasingly positive data about Down syndrome, somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of parents who receive this diagnosis choose abortion. I testified in Indiana, not because we are on a slippery slope, but because once we accept abortions based solely on disability, we are already at the bottom.

Indeed so. Let’s hope we aren’t there yet.

‘Happiness is the truth’: brief reflections on the common good

Pharrell Williams may be onto something. Happiness plays a central role in our lives, of course. My hunch is that happiness also reflects the life of God in us–that business about humans being created in the image of God isn’t just about rationality and the freedom of the will. Or, rather, the freedom and rationality that we exercise (on our good days, when we’re using them well) best show forth the divine image when exercised joyfully and compassionately.

We all know that happiness is important. We strive for it but so often fail to achieve it. We find it in the most unlikely (we think) places. And we don’t think of happiness as contributing to the common good. The US Declaration of Independence suggests that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ is one of our God-given rights, yet we miss its profound importance for our life together. We tend to think that people who achieve great things make the greatest contributions to the world. And I would certainly not want to argue against key advances in science, in medicine, even in technology (without which I wouldn’t be writing this blog). But I don’t see that those things make us happier.

I think we need to value far more highly the people whose contribution to our world is happiness–joy, peace and contentment. If those are the really important people, then our priorities have to shift a bit. People with intellectual disabilities often make this kind of contribution, as John Franklin Stephens suggests in a recent blog post. And, of course, children very often make this kind of contribution. Children like these:

CN7i6FwWgAAkkW1

We have got it all wrong, I’m afraid. We, in the comfortable houses in the safe places of the world have come to value our security and prosperity, our comfort. But we’re not happy. We need children and those whose joy has been tested; we need to extend ourselves on behalf of those in need and in danger. Isaiah calls the people of Israel to ‘care your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house’ (58.7).

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily;           your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard…

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,                   then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

If that’s not a recipe for happiness, and for the common good, I don’t know what is.

How to buy happiness

I still miss David Foster Wallace. I wish he were still around to say the sorts of things he said in his commencement address at Kenyon College. Fortunately, some researchers are finding evidence to support Wallace’s claims about the dangers of self-centeredness. This is of particular interest to me just now because both of my sons are overawed by the richest men in the world. Wealth, they seem to think, makes people important, worthy of our interest, and–most of all–happy. The evidence, described in an article in The Week (excerpted from an article by Michael Lewis published in The New Republic), suggests otherwise.

Not only does more money fail to increase your happiness, it seems to infect your soul. The studies found a correlation between selfish acts and even dishonesty (in the service of gain) and wealth. My 11-year-old son, who dreams of being a world-class soccer player (and compensated accordingly), listened as I read the first several paragraphs of the article, and that’s saying something. He listened, because the article begins with a wonderful description of a tennis camp (really, you should read this article–it’s good, and it won’t take long) in which the lines were drawn not between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ but between the ‘givers’ and the ‘takers’.

You won’t be surprised to learn that in terms of happiness, the ‘givers’ are the ‘haves’ and the ‘takers’ are the ‘have-nots’–regardless of their net worth (and generalization extends only to those for whom net worth is an applicable category). In fact–and this is the lesson I took away from the article–the only way some extra money can make you happy is if you spend it on someone else. And there are plenty of opportunities to do that these days, so many opportunities that the whole word could become a happier place if we all were to treat our neighbors to a meal, or a tent, or whatever they need most urgently.

So, in a sense, money can buy happiness. You just can’t buy it for yourself.

What are people for?

Peter Singer is right. He’s recently argued that infants born with severe disabilities are not deserving of the same level of care as you, or me, or our healthy babies. He’s right, that is, if you believe that people are ultimately for walking and talking and interacting with other human beings on this earth. If that were the purpose of human life, if human life had no spiritual or eternal dimension, Peter Singer would be right: use the resources we have for the people who are fulfilling their purpose in life.

But that is not what human life is about, ultimately. Each human being is created for eternal delight in God. And the relationship of each human being to the God in whom we have our being originates with God, not with us. The Scripture tells us that God fashioned us while we were still in the womb; God knows us more intimately than we know ourselves. God gives us our purpose, which is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever (as the Westminster Shorter Catechism has it). Our ability to give glory to God, and to enjoy God, comes from God. Whether or not we appear able to do these things or not is irrelevant: ‘faithful is he who calls you, who also bring it to pass’ (I Thess. 5:24). Delight in God does not depend on our cognitive abilities, but on the relentless love and boundless generosity of the God who brought us into being so that we could enjoy God forever.

Regardless of our abilities, we human beings share one characteristic (which Peter Singer no doubt denies): we are made in the image of God. We who are able to recognize ourselves as participating in God’s being should do everything in our power to allow God’s love and God’s glory to be seen in and through us. Those who are not able to see it nonetheless participate in that love and that glory–and are less able to obscure the image through the evil inclinations of our hearts to which Genesis 6: 5 refers.

Because we are all sharers in the divine image, Nostra Aetate 5 reminds us that ‘We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men as his brothers are so linked together that the Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).’ The council makes no special provision: every person is created in the image of God, and deserves to be treated as our brother or sister. Thus even the relationships we have with one another depend upon a generous self-gift, a love that does not ask to be returned–a love that does not seek its own. We love insofar as we are able, not insofar as the beloved is ‘deserving’ of our love.

No doubt Peter Singer would disagree, and without the belief that we are creatures of a God who has made us for relationship with God and for participation in divine life, what he says makes a lot of sense. But the babies whom he regards as undeserving of our care (and all those whose human lives Singer would find substandard) remind us that we all are destined for the same end, and all equally unable to reach that end without grace. The Holy Spirit who works in us works in us all; we are all in need of the Spirit’s work, whether we have the power of speech, or abstract thought, or mobility. We are for delighting in God, and God makes it possible for each one of us to do just that.

Deo gratias.