Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Do We Want to Die Like Dogs?

I read this blog post today, and quite frankly it troubled me.

It says that a lady had to go all the way to Switzerland to have the kind of death she wanted—an assisted suicide. And the author felt that that was unfair because the lady couldn't die with her family and friends around her—something, the author argues, even a dog is entitled to.

But my question is—why did that lady feel that it was time to die? Are we really so convinced that once we are "drooling and in diapers" that we are useless? That is troubling to me.

Do we value human life so little as to say that once we no longer work as a polished cog in the system that we no longer deserve to live? Is our value defined in our usefulness? And is usefulness defined only as being able to function independently of each other?

I was talking with a friend the other day whose 90-something father is living with him and his family. He said that it has been a great thing for their home to have his father there. He implied that it can be a lot of work to care for him in his declining years, but he said the sweetness of having him there far outweighs the inconveniences his presence brings. This makes me wonder how much the cry for dignity in death is really a cry to not be bothered by caring for the aging. And that's not meant as an accusation—I'm really trying to work this out. Someone can live with dignity even if they are regressing in some abilities. You can treat people with dignity and respect them even as you're changing their diapers—it just comes down to continuing to value them and their presence. Treating someone with dignity and valuing their life will lead to dignity in death, when that comes. And that demands that we define human value apart from productivity, ability to work, coherence, and measurable contributions. Even if someone is unable to take care of himself or herself, that persons still matters, and the service those around him or her are able to render will help them feel more love and positivity in their lives, even with, or perhaps because of, the difficulty it brings.

Are we losing the chance to connect with people by serving them if we make them feel that their "usefulness" ends when their ability to make it to the toilet in time terminates? Or when their ability to recognize family members fades? Or when their mental acuity with business regresses to the math ability of a 6-year-old? Or when pain makes them about ready to pass out?

But wait, that wasn't the question. The question was if it's ok to help someone die quickly and painlessly if they ask for it, and so far I have been making some of my observations from the perspective and feelings of a relative or friend of an ailing person. That may seem skewed because the discussion of euthanasia nearly always assumes that deciding to euthanize someone that doesn't want to die is equivalent to murder. But hear me out. If all of my family members don't want to be around me and treat me as if I'm a waste of space, I am much more likely to feel a great lack of purpose in my life. And similarly, if my friend feels that her grandpa is useless and shouldn't be here because he drools and is only coherent a fourth of the time, she will most likely feel that way about herself—that her value lies in being coherent and able to keep her saliva in her mouth. Our attitudes about the usefulness and value of those around us do matter. And giving the option to kill yourself as a means to escape embarrassment, pain, or big life changes (such as getting older), seems to encourage people to evaluate themselves on productivity and not as much on true value.

This brings me to a personal example, one I'm still trying to work out. After my grandma died, my grandpa rapidly started having one medical problem after another. One particular month, he went from being able to walk and converse with people to losing the ability to walk and only being able to get a few articles of sense from his mouth at a time. It was obviously very frustrating to him, and it hurt us to see him struggling so much with not feeling right. At one point my dad told him I was going to come and see him, and he said he didn't want me to see him in this state. I didn't know that until I was already on the way, so I went ahead and saw him. It was hard to see him like that, but I also reassured him that he was still important to me and I still loved him—I knew that his mind wasn't truly reflected in what he said. He cried when he heard my voice (he was having a hard time opening his eyes that day), and grabbed my hand and we talked. He told me stories from when he was a kid, and seemed to enjoy it.

But still I wonder—Should I have respected his wishes for me not to see him? It was clear to us (family) even when it wasn't to him that he wasn't likely to get better, so not seeing him would mean not seeing him for the rest of his life. And he said that he didn't want me to see him like that when he was having a hard time communicating, so was that really what he meant to say? Was what I was able to tell him able to outweigh his embarrassment at his granddaughter seeing him in such a strange mental state? On a related note, should an ailing person's desire to die be honored, or should we consider it a passing thing, or a result of self-consciousness or shame at regressing to dependency again?

At low points in recovery stories, some people say that they just wanted to die. If they had been vocal about that at the time, would they have made it to recovery?

After reading arguments on some sides of this issue (there seem to be many, and none of them strictly simple), I've come up with some thoughts.

Humanists say that a speedy and painless death is more humane than a prolonged and painful one. In this publication, it says that a speedy release from pain and emotional suffering of those related to the person being euthanized is more merciful and outweighs the emotional pain inflicted on those suffering a loss of a loved one from suicide.

Is avoidance pain the object of life (or death)? is a course of action justified based solely on the fact that it causes less pain or curtails the amount of pain suffered?

Another argument is that if the person is terminally ill and really wants to die, euthanasia is a good solution: it's a painless and quick alternative to treatments that could prolong the pain. But it seems that that argument alone ignores the fact that this alternative is rather permanent—you can't un-kill a person, at least not medically. And once someone's been euthanized, their life is over, and they won't be there anymore—the pain is gone, but so is the person. Do we fear pain so much that we choose death over it? I don't want to minimize the suffering some people go through—but I do want to point out that avoiding pain can't really be the purpose of life (sorry, hedonists).

It comes down to why you believe we're on earth, and what life is for. But there still seems to be a wide range of possible interpretations. . . . Thoughts?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dove Video Conversation

Something interesting happened today (as it does sometimes).

Yesternight I was browsing Facebook and came across this video. I actually thought it was going to be about the unreliability of face sketches for actually identifying criminals or finding lost people. It wasn't. Anyway, I was intrigued, so I watched it. 

I thought it was good. It was far from being wholly scientific (the artist could have tried to make the sketches of the women describing themselves less attractive than the sketches done from people describing someone else), but I didn't worry too much about that—this wasn't posing as a research experiment—it was obviously trying to be sentimental, not scientific. I wasn't sure how to take the presence of the man as the "interpreter" of the descriptions. I'm not sure why that would matter, but that was an initial reaction I had. I also had some reservations because it was produced by a corporation, and they must have ulterior motives, and I couldn't see what they were getting at, besides having a message about beauty...which is related, but seems to be more of a public relations move. I liked the message in it that we can be our worst critics at times.  

After quickly considering my response to the video, I decided it was positive enough to pass the message along. I reposted it without voicing my reservations about its origins or the subjectivity of the "experiment" and the portrayal of its results.

Later I was browsing Facebook (again) and came across a post that linked to a blog post talking about how the video above made them a little angry. Reflecting on my own reservations about the video, I clicked on the link. 

After figuring out that you have to hover your cursor over the words to make them not light grey and therefore readable, I read it. And I found that this person's argument against the videos was interesting. But I disagree on several points. I'll detail my differences below. 

But first, I should say that I'm glad that this person spoke up and voiced concern about the message of the video. That is, after all, what gave me the idea to voice mine in this post. 

Now for some things that didn't quite sit right with me. This will be in more thought clusters than an actual polished argument because I want to get this out and hear what people have to say rather than polish it until it's perfect but no longer being talked about.

This blog post imposes a lot of messages on the Dove video—that it's telling the audience what beauty is, enforcing the stereotypes, etc. 

My response: It's a short video, and I think the most salient message is that women are hard on themselves, too quick to see and amplify what they see as the negatives about themselves. And trying to convey too many messages may make it hard to effectively communicate any of them. Instead of being mad they didn't get all the messages exactly right, I think it would be good to congratulate them on the ones they did get right, and then encourage them to continue working to get down to encouraging women to be happy with who they are, and try to be their best selves. 

On a related note, the blog post says that this reinforces and doesn't challenge the culturally acceptable forms of beauty—the blonde hair, blue-eyed motif. 

My response: What if this is not supposed to be just a message about the literal? What I saw when I watched it was women who described themselves negatively and then came away seeing that they were overly harsh on themselves. 

The message about beauty was taken very literally. The blog post concluded that the focus on outward beauty was an indication that Dove advocates beauty as the number one quality for women. 

My response: Even though the message seemed to be mostly about physical beauty, a woman they spent a long time on was the one who said that one sketch looked "closed off" while the other looked "open and friendly." While they were based on pictures, are those strictly physical features?

The video did focus on physical beauty, but look at the origin of the message. Dove is a company that sells beauty products—it's in their interest to promote physical beauty. I think we could take more positive things from messages like these if we took corporations as participants in the conversation, rather than the sole disseminator of messages. Then we would be free to converse with them about it, including creating our own videos or media to respond, rather than trying to convince them to portray what we want them to. (I do think corporations need to be responsible in the messages they convey, but in this case I don't think they meant to be racist or say that beauty was the only good thing about a woman). And it started a discussion, right? It helped at least a few of us give ourselves some credit—It helped lift the burden, helping at least some women (I know of a few who reposted or liked the video) be less critical of themselves...and all with such a short video length. I think that's great. 

This video could be watched to mean something more significant than just a messages about physical appearance—physical appearance could be the vehicle for conveying a deeper message about how we view ourselves. It's easier to convey a message using physical representations for unphysical realities: a cave for our psyche, a tree for a family, beauty for our intellectual or emotional self. We could see the outcome of this sketching exercise as an encouragement to treat ourselves more kindly and focus more on the things about ourselves that make us happy, rather than seeing the negative so much that it skews our perception of the great people we are. 

It might be the analytical part of me, and I realize that this is subjective, but I wanted to respond to that blog post and point out some additional possibilities. I like when things raise discussion, and I think this—how women perceive themselves and the issue of media messages—are worthy topics to discuss.

Speaking of which, there are a couple things I want hear your opinion on. What do you think of them having a man interpret the descriptions the women gave? Do you think it would have been different if it had been a woman drawing?

Did anything about this video strike you as off? What did you like about the video?

What about this speaks to people? Why has it gone viral (over 4 million views in 3 days)?

Do you find it patronizing? Encouraging?

Do you think it's sending intentional subliminal messages?

That is, what do you say in this conversation?

Monday, April 8, 2013

More on Constancy

These are, as the title suggests, more thoughts on constancy.

So what? Why does it matter that in order to change we need constancy?

Well, it doesn’t really matter unless we want change.

Change in ourselves
Change in the world
Change in those around us.

Used under CC license. Photo By tonynetone.
G.K. Chesterton has some words on constancy.
"Silly examples are always simpler; let us suppose a man wanted a particular kind of world; say, a blue world. He would have no cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task; he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could work away (in every sense) until all was blue. He could have heroic adventures; the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger. He could have fairy dreams; the dawn of a blue moon. But if he worked hard, that high-minded reformer would certainly (from his own point of view) leave the world better and bluer than he found it. If he altered a blade of grass to his favourite colour every day, he would get on slowly. But if he altered his favourite colour every day, he would not get on at all. If, after reading a fresh philosopher, he started to paint everything red or yellow, his work would be thrown away: there would be nothing to show except a few blue tigers walking about, specimens of his early bad manner." (in Orthodoxy).

A dog that doesn’t know how you will act will nearly always act violently—either out of fear or out of an attempt to impose order.

When you act the same way around a dog for an extended period of time, it becomes your friend. If you do specific things often enough and follow it up with reinforcement, we call that training a dog. And that constancy allows for progression, for growth, both of the relationship between trainer and dog and in the dog's and trainer's personal understanding, patience, and success. 


Repetition. Repetition can be boring. It's fun to try different things. Why don't we do that—try a bunch of different things all the time?

I had a professor who said that people who always say "Been there, done that," the ones don't want to repeat what they've already done, will not get far in life. That seems counterintuitive at first blush, but it does make sense. If you never do the same thing twice, you won’t be good at anything. How many times did you have to play the piano before you could play even one song decently?

AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by amoraleda
"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always be what you've always been."

So what about that? Constancy, in the sense of always doing the same thing, yields stagnation in this quote. We need to establish what we're being constant in. Or to. If you're being constant in coming home and kicking off your shoes and parking your posterior on the couch in front of the TV, and constantly remain there for the next 7 hours, it's likely what will change about you is that your mind will fall passive and your girth will grow larger. What do you have to be constant to in order for it to cause (ironically) change, change you want?

Coming back to Chesterton, we need to be constant to an idea, to knowledge, to a code. The man who wanted to paint the earth blue was constant to that idea, but not in his individual actions. One day he would paint grass, the other lions, the next sidewalks, until the whole earth was blue. He was constant in working toward a goal.
Like Ellis said in her comment on the last post, love is worth being constant in. Why do people yearn to have these simple words repeated to them: “I love you.”? That's a kind of constancy and repetition that can encourage growth in a relationship if other things are also constant—kindness, respect, interest, common goals. 

Wouldn’t the repetition be bothersome? Especially if it’s always the same person that says it? It seems like the things that are most worth being constant in are the things that are most important. We need to be reminded of our core, the reason we're living and doing day to day.

Yet it’s not often overdone or annoying; instead it’s reassuring. Call it constancy. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Self-made Man

I came across this picture on Skoticus's blog the other day. It's entitled "Self-made man." 
It made me think. Is it really possible to be a self-made man (or woman)?

I realize it's not usually meant to mean that the person literally did it all alone—no one is that self-absorbed—but it does seem to be disingenuous to have so much focus on the person being made. There are a lot of forces at work there, after all.

How would the sculpture get started if it didn't at least have a chisel and hammer lain by it?
How would the entrepreneur be successful at selling his idea if people didn't buy it? If there was nothing to sell?

There can be no leaders in a vacuum—by definition, leaders lead people.  And those people are free to do as they will...and choose to give their attention or money—to give power—to their leader (whether a business leader, governmental leader, or leader in other contexts). Leaders are nothing without those they lead.

On the other hand, "self-made" people get places either because they preservere and knuckle down and do hard things and hope for a better future.

So what proportion is it from self-made to others-made?

Whatever the answer, I think it's great when people recognize their strengths and are grateful for them, and when they recognize that they've been helped along the way by other people.

A one-man circus is a lonely thing.