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August 23, 2011

On dying alone and being keepers of sisters

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We all die alone, no matter how many family and friends crowd into the room at the end. But before the final moment family and close friends can be a great comfort. Being connected to others who care for you and for whom you care helps us ease the hurts that life inevitably brings to all of us. We may want to be alone during certain times of crisis to process a situation or to make sense of things, but eventually we need the comfort and counsel of trusted friends and family. I suspect we all know this. It is the rare person who deliberately and consistently shuts out everyone. Everyone needs somebody—we social creature do not make successful islands!

     That is why the striking complaint of the psalm writer—“no one cares for me” (Ps 142:4), evokes such pathos in even a casual reader. Apparently, the writer had reached a point in life where s/he felt completely isolated and utterly alone.

     A recent experience brought home the psalm writer’s sense of abandonment to me with a force. We noticed an unusual number of newspapers in a neighbor’s drive, and took it upon ourselves to place them out of sight. Upon finding the back door standing open, and receiving no response from our knocking and calls, we called 911. The police found her dead on the floor of her home with only her dogs for company. I have since pondered at what point in the preceding days she may have died, and wrestled with the idea that had I been more observant, she might have gone to the hospital rather than the morgue. But she was a private person and we didn’t want to intrude.

     We did our civic duty, I suppose—seeing something irregular, we checked, and called the police. But I can’t help but feel that perhaps a higher human obligation went unmet. We are all members of the human family and have obligations for each other’s welfare—even for those we do not know. Meeting that higher obligation requires a personal involvement of more than just a casual “good morning.” Clearly, however, there are limits to how involved we can be with those around us every day, but being sensitive to what is going on with even casual acquaintances is something toward which we should all aspire.

     What I am suggesting, however, raises questions. For example: when does unsolicited care become unwanted meddling? Are care and meddling two qualitatively different sorts of intrusion in someone’s life, or are they both simply “intrusion,” and the only difference is a matter of perspective. In other words, what one person considers a welcome expression of concern in the mind of another person can turn out to be an unwanted intrusion.

     It puts me in mind of Cain’s answer to Yahweh’s question: “how goes it with your brother Abel?”(Gen 4:9). Cain’s dismissive and curt response has become proverbial in our day: “am I my brother’s keeper?”—Cain says (Gen 4:9). Of course in Cain’s case he was his brother’s executioner! But it is the wont of proverbs to apply in a variety of situations—in my case Cain’s question became: should I have been my sister’s keeper?—meaning, should I long ago as a concerned neighbor have interrupted her privacy? A saying, attributed to Jesus, suggests I likely should have done precisely that: “Treat others like you want to be treated” (Luke 6:31), he said. The saying, however, assumes that the other party wants what you would have wanted under the same circumstances, and that may not be the case.

     Cain’s answer raises another question. By intruding myself into her life unsolicited would I have been looking to meet her needs or mine? Or does that really matter if one is reaching out to meet what one perceives as a need of a fellow human being? The answer likely turns on what one perceives—yet, what I perceive about another may not be what the other perceives about herself.

     After assessing a few of the vagaries of such unclear social situations, we are still left with the disturbing image of a woman dying alone with only dogs for company—and the plaintive complaint of the unknown psalm writer: “no one cares for me.”

What say you, gentle reader? Are we our sisters’ keepers?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 3:39pm

Dr. Hedrick,

About a month ago, my husband who is much older than I and has had years of poor health, was rushed to the hospital. I met him in the emergency room. The hospital wanted to admit him. His heart rate had dropped so low that they were certain it would stop. When my husband told the doctor that he just wanted to go home, the doctor turned to me as if waiting for me to coerce him into staying. I am not sure why, perhaps my counseling and determination to not take responsibility for any one’s life but my own, perhaps my efforts to never use coercion, but I found myself calmly saying, “Dr, that is not a decision for which I am willing to be responsible.” The doctor looked surprised. paused and then turned to my husband and said, “She’s right, you are of a sound mind and the decision must be yours.” We did go home but later that evening my husband decided to go back to the hospital and the medical team did a remarkable job of turning things around.

Something changed in me through this. Mostly, something changed in my husband as he felt the weight of the responsibility for his own life. I feel a sense of certainty that in the end we each must really take responsibility for ourselves. The decision must be ours to reach out, to accept or reject the initiatives of others, to surround ourselves by many friends or to live a life of solitude. So although I feel we must make ourselves available to others, the ultimate responsibility is that of the individual.

Your old friend Richard Christian took total responsibility for himself, even down to writing his own eulogy. I learned so much from him.

Rita Moore
Posted by Rita Moore on 9/3/2011 at 6:59am

Hi Rita,

I agree completely with what you say! There are times that we can help, but we cannot assume the responsibility for the lives of others. If they have full control of their mental capacities, the decision must be theirs—even if they make mistakes, or choose the wrong course of action. Still, that said, we can be of assistance when called on—and carefully done, even when not called on. But, I agree, where possible the decisions must be made by the party principally concerned. I appreciated you invoking the name of our common friend, Richard Christian. I gather that his counseling goal was always geared toward helping people take control of their own lives.

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 9/4/2011 at 7:02pm

Hey, Dr. Hedrick,

Your question made me think of Aristotle's "Golden Mean", and how we need to try and find a moderation between "virtues and vices"--although in some cases (adultery, theft, and murder) the actions are always forbidden. Aristotle's Golden Mean is easy to ponder, but it is not easy with finding that "moderation." Your story with your neighbor, and the questions that you asked, is very similar. When do we assist others (our sister's/brother's keeper), and when do we leave them alone? I'll be honest. I don't know the answer to the question, but it is a great question to ask.

Cody Hayes
Posted by Cody Hayes on 8/24/2011 at 1:53pm

Hi, Charlie,

Frankly, I wouldn’t eschew the company of dogs.

But to respond to your article, generally I agree that we are to look out for one another and intercede if the situation warrants. However, I’m a very private, independent person and, while I recognize the good intentions of those who try to help me and sincerely appreciate their efforts, there remains in me some irritation at the intrusion and, in some cases, the seemingly patronizing disrespect for my ability to deal with life.

For example, suppose I were diagnosed with a cancer and decided that I’d rather not go through treatment for it. (This is hypothetical; I definitely would want to be treated and cured.) Do people have the right to enforce treatment on me for my own good? I don’t know the answer to that. Somewhere there must be a balance between individual will and society’s norms or the common good. An individual may not know what is best, or perhaps what s/he deems best doesn’t contribute to the good of his or her community. And those who would help, of course, have limited information with which to make a decision whether to or how to help the individual.

But I suppose the real issue here is the very natural feelings of loss and guilt whenever someone dies in such a manner as your neighbor did. Similar to how I felt when a friend committed suicide or an abortion (or any other sad loss), the question naturally arises, “Could I have done more to prevent this?” And maybe it is this natural sympathy and responsibility that answers your question: we are made to live with each other and to be responsible for, and accountable to, one another. And even if our attempts to care for each other are clumsy or seemingly inadequate, we are still obliged to honor our commitment to ourselves and our community.

Thank you, as always, for stirring my brain so early in the morning!

Take care,
Posted by Jane Terry on 8/24/2011 at 8:19am

I had a similar experience 30 years ago when I was a new pastor. The elderly lady in the house next to the parsonage died during a summer heat wave. The tiny parsonage was air conditioned and my wife and I stayed comfortably indoors unaware of our neighbor's demise.

I think that the certain answer is that we have become too disconnected from neighbors, family, community. This has become so, in part because of modern technology has taken us out of the yard and front porch and bottles us up indoors with air conditioning, TV, telephone, and computers. We have human interaction differently now and it is rarely rooted in a street address. I think that those of us who live alone also have an obligation to make certain that we have regular, predictable human contact but all of us have an obligation to reject Face Book as being our circle of "friends" and to maintain the more challenging disciplines of acceptance, tolerance, forgiveness and love which make closer human connections possible.

At some level we know this. Even though televangelists frightened the church 30 years ago and now we worry about the megachurch, the neighborhood/family church still exists because most of us know that even though we could hear a better sermon on TV or in a mega church than we can here in the little congregation where we go, we still have a more profound spiritual experience among people we know.
Posted by Roger Ray on 8/24/2011 at 6:35am

Roger I think I disagree. Given the “right” community church we could not hear a better sermon in the Mega church! Of course, not all community churches are the same.

Posted by Charles Hedrick on 8/31/2011 at 7:48am