“The last insult to our human nature.”

The distinguished translator of Dante, Anthony Esolen, has a good piece on Public Discourse about aging and euthanasia.

Here is the first part. I hope you will go read the rest.  My emphases:

One Human Heart: Wordsworth’s Old Cumberland Beggar and the Sweetness of Being Human
by Anthony Esolen
May 30, 2012

Wordsworth denounces those who reduce human worth to utility and teaches us that the goodness of being is absolute. We must learn to love those incomparably useless and precious beings, the child, the elderly, the unborn, and the dying, because they and we are one.

I am persuaded that the movement to demand that physicians corrupt themselves at the heart by assisting in the suicides of the superannuated is but a reaction of terror before a perceived inhumanity. We who have become the tools of our tools shudder at the last insult to our human nature, that we should be invaded by all the complicated paraphernalia of delay, to breathe our last in a dull white room, with the pitted panels of the drop-ceiling overhead (reckon up the chaos, O man, and count how many marks there are in one square), while the calls to the nurses come and go, and a television blares out the last few minutes of an inane comedy that was never once touched by youth or mirth or the milk of human kindness.

If I, old and dying, mean nothing at all, then let me mean nothing on my own terms. If I am to be swept out of consciousness, then let me ply the broom! But this is no argument. It is a cry of despair.

Such despair is inevitable, if we accept the notion that our humanity depends upon what we can do, rather than upon what we are. For the knees will creak, and the hands tremble, and the mind wander; and, whether for but a moment or for a year, we will be as helpless (though not as beautiful) as a newborn child, that most useless of creatures, who can do nothing but search for nourishment and love.

Then let us not try to fight unmeaning with unmeaning. Let us look again at the special beauty of being human, a beauty that is especially poignant in the child, the elderly, the unborn, and the dying.

One day the young poet William Wordsworth looked out upon the road and saw a figure from his childhood, a certain old man who trudged along the Cumberland roads, to beg from the villagers in their modest cottages. He stopped at a ledge at the bottom of a steep hill, placed there to help men remount their horses, and, taking his treasures from his bag,

He sat, and ate his food in solitude:
And ever, scattered from his palsied hand,
That, still attempting to prevent the waste,
Was baffled still, the crumbs in little showers
Fell on the ground; and the small mountain birds,
Not venturing yet to peck their destined meal,
Approached within the length of half his staff.

Such is the drama of the old man’s day. Wordsworth grants himself a gentle smile at the fellow, who doesn’t want to lose any of the bread he eats, but loses a little bit anyway, and who is so harmless that the small and timid birds manage to come within two feet of him, this mysterious creature, this man. We don’t know what is going on in the man’s mind. Wordsworth doesn’t allow himself that sentimentality. Whatever it may be, he is a part of both the natural world and the human village. There is a communion of sorts between him and the sparrows, he the more precious of that breed, and a communion between him and his fellow men.

For people are moved by him. Again, Wordsworth is not appealing to easy sentiment, but to action–the action of human souls. The sauntering horseman does not toss the beggar a coin, but stops, to make sure the alms are lodged safely in the man’s hat, and then, upon leaving him, “watches the aged Beggar with a look / Sidelong, and half reverted.” The exchange is not financial but human. The woman at the turnpike, when she sees him coming, leaves her booth and lifts up the latch for him to pass. The post-boy, harried with business, shouts to him from behind, but if the old man doesn’t hear, the boy slows down his horses and passes him on the roadside, “without a curse / Upon his lips, or anger at his heart.”

If the old man cannot earn his keep, can he at least behold with a full heart the beauty of the world around him? If we should insist upon it, then that, too, would reduce him to an object of utility. No, the man is so stooped, his eyes travel the ground at the same slow pace of his walk. He seems, quite literally, to make no mark on the world, as the world seems to make no mark on him:

His staff trails with him; scarcely do his feet
Disturb the summer dust; he is so still
In look and motion, that the cottage curs,
Ere he has passed the door, will turn away,
Weary of barking at him. Boys and girls,
The vacant and the busy, maids and youths,
And urchins newly breeched–all pass him by:
Him even the slow-paced wagon leaves behind.

What good is such a life?

Here Wordsworth turns with a glare at those who reduce “good” to utility, and utility to those economic speckles that can be counted up:

But deem not this Man useless.–Statesmen! Ye
Who are so restless in your wisdom, ye
Who have a broom still ready in your hands
To rid the world of nuisances; ye proud,
Heart-swoln, while in your pride ye contemplate
Your talents, power, or wisdom, deem him not
A burthen of the earth!

What nuisances, one might ask? The poor, whose souls we kill, while keeping their bodies well fed and at a comfortable distance? The simple, who shatter our dreams of Harvard, and whose habits embarrass us? The dying, who remind us of our mortality? The unborn, for whose little lives we are personally responsible? What good are these? But the goodness of being, the poet affirms, is absolute. All things partake of it, even the meanest creatures that creep on the earth; far more, then, does man, no matter how lowly. We cannot scorn that Beggar, unaccommodated Man, “without offence to God.”

But there is more. The old man is not only an object of charity. He is a living memorial to that kindness. He endows it with a human face–what no detachedly benign philanthropic system can do; and so connects his benefactors with their own better selves long past, and with one another:

While from door to door,
This old Man creeps, the villagers in him
Behold a record which together binds
Past deeds and offices of charity,
Else unremembered, and so keeps alive
The kindly mood in hearts which lapse of years,
And that half-wisdom half-experience gives,
Make slow to feel, and by sure steps resign
To selfishness and cold oblivious cares.

For some few, for the sublime and saintly among us, that beggar may bring them their first glimpse into a world of their own kindred amid sorrow and want; so it is that a Mother Teresa, that most unsentimental of women, will say that the poor, when they are loved, give more than they receive.


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  1. ContraMundum says:

    Very nice!

    To me the most disturbing part of dying in a hospital is not dying amid technology, but dying surrounded only by staff who see me as an artifact of technology, a broken machine that they must keep in inventory in order to collect the insurance money, and who themselves have become no more feeling than machines. It does not disturb me when a machine acts like a machine, but it disturbs me very much when a human acts like a mere machine.

  2. HyacinthClare says:

    Professor Esolen is SO clean, so clear. This could not have come at a better day. The son wants the father to die. The father has been in bed, fed with a tube, in and out of coherency, a year next week. I have the POA, although I am not blood relation. The son lives far away, but is here for a visit, the first in several months. I’m here every day. We both love him. He ran out of money a long time ago. It’s easy to “help” him die… just don’t treat his next infection. He is not in pain that we are aware of. He lives. He is a man.

  3. digdigby says:

    Life itself is so mysterious. Terence Cardinal Cooke (Cookie to his friends) hid his leukemia and constand chemotherapy for five years while running New York City in the midst of the VII chaos. I have my quibbles with the man, but Dear God! How did he do it? This is his quote:
    “The gift of life, God’s special gift, is no less beautiful when it is accompanied by illness or weakness, mental or physical handicaps, hunger or poverty, loneliness or old age. Indeed, at these times, human life gains extra splendor as it requires our special care, concern and reverence. It is in and through the weakest of human vessels that the Lord continues to reveal the power of His love.”
    -Terence Cardinal Cooke

  4. Clinton says:

    Marvelous. Thanks for this post, Father. Mr. Esolen is brilliant.

  5. Traductora says:

    A remarkably beautiful article and very timely! I happened to read a recent copy of a magazine in which a woman is lamenting the fact that her mother is not dead yet – and the writer had a point. The mother had dementia and was in her 80s and would probably have died naturally of a heart problem within a year or so (or maybe longer – who knows?), but the doctors encouraged her to have surgery for the heart problem, which unfortunately left her even worse off, with full-blown dementia and rages, and now non-ambulatory and requiring 24 hour “care.” (Yes, in a sterile facility with the TV playing all the time.) The author, in her 50s, was planning how to commit suicide so she wouldn’t have to go through this. Needless to say, they were all modern athiests, so God didn’t even enter into their calculations, and they had no overall concept of life or human-ness.

    But this is what people are afraid of and what is making the idea of suicide so attractive to them: there would be no wandering the roads and gentle decline now, but instead a room with tubes and an always-on TV and care from people who really don’t care at all.

    I worked at a facility in the 1970s where we had an elderly Russian man who had congestive heart failure and a number of other things, none of them immediately fatal in themselves. He had spent the last year trying to get in touch with the daughter in Russia he had never seen (she was born after he emigrated to the US in the 1920s) and had lost contact with at the time of WWII (when she was already a young woman). Finally the Red Cross found her and they communicated and he could send her a little money he had saved up for her. And then he announced in his heavy Russian accent that he was finished.

    Despite his medications, etc. he simply lay in his bed smiling and fading away, and the doctor (an osteopath, incidentally) said that he could intervene aggressively, perhaps, through surgery, but that might leave the man even worse off and in any case the man didn’t want it and simply kept smiling and saying that he was finished. And he died a couple of days later, in a rest home with a nice sunny window, and visited by all of us. Then he was given a modest but beautiful Orthodox funeral.

    Nursing orders need to revive and they need to devote themselves entirely to providing human care for human beings at the end of their lives, whether young people dying from an illness or injury or elderly people simply reaching the end of their road. Otherwise, fear is going to make people only too willing to choose suicide and accept “death panels” and even impose suicide on others through social attitudes condoning it or even laws enforcing it.

    But of course all the former nursing orders are now part of the Magisterium of Nuns, which knows nothing of the Faith and nothing of Humanity.

  6. Ralph says:

    Yet another part of our humanity lost to the industrialization of the world.

    In times not so distent in this country, mother and father came to live with the children when they became too old or inferm to care for themselves properly. They were welcome and no one complained – at least that I reacall. The grandchildren usually loved it – what child wouldn’t love to have granny with them everyday?

    But with this modern life – two income familes, city apartments and the rest – who can safely take in mom and dad? Who will be there to sit with them and make sure they are safe?

    So mom and dad go to an “assisted living center”. Some are nice, but many are not – not much more than a warehouse for the elderly. The children want to visit, but it’s so hard with work and all. The grandchildren grow up without really knowing granny well at all. So sad.

    My wife and I have always told our parents that should they ever feel a bit “overwhelmed” with keeping up the house and chores that they can come stay with us anytime. So far – they are doing really well and have not lost independance at all. But the offer is there. I hope they take it when the time comes. For our sake as well as theres.

  7. Supertradmum says:

    The poor and the old are invisible. The real enemy is socialism, which takes charity out of the hearts of even Christians and makes a person into a statistic. We have created a society which only values success and utilitarianism. St. Benedict Labre, pray for us.

  8. Laura98 says:

    Thank you Fr. Z for posting this… This whole issue is very personal for me – and saddens me deeply.

    My mother suffered from Lupus for many years… and a host of other related auto-immune issues. She also did not take care of herself. She smoked at least 3 packs of cigarettes a day. She became addicted to prescription pain-killers. Needless to say, she became very depressed. At one point she started talking about assisted suicide and wanted a book about it. Since she couldn’t get it on her own (She was too ill to go to the bookstore) and we refused to buy it – she never got it. I hate to think what would happen today if we had lived in Oregon or Washington. She was depressed and tired of suffering, angry at us and especially at God. She passed away within the year in any case.

    My father had lung cancer, because he also smoked… but he came to live with me and we had Hospice care until the very end. He was able to spend time with his granddaughter and we had time to talk and look over family pictures and reminisce. It was hard – I won’t say that it wasn’t. But it was also beautiful. I actually had some family members ask me why I did that. I hardly thought it needed an explanation… He was my father. I love(d) him.

    My cousin has SMA (Spinal Muscular Atrophy) – He is now 6 years old. He will never walk or run. He won’t even live long enough to vote. Is his life worthless? Is his existence meaningless because he can’t “produce” anything in his short life? That attitude makes me so angry… because as I’ve gotten to know that sweet little boy, I’ve come to know the soul of a saint. He’s like your average little boy in many ways, but in so many others, he’s not. He doesn’t complain about his condition, or the fact he can’t do certain things. He speaks almost like an adult and he notices things around him that most people miss. He’s very attuned to people’s emotions and feelings. And he’s helped to heal many of the hard hearts in that part of my family… for which I thank Our Lord every day!

    I’m sorry if I’ve gone on too long.. but these issues really hit home for me… Our lives are such precious gifts from God, I can’t imagine the pain we cause Him when we treat them with less respect and care than we should. When we farm out our responsibilities because it’s “easier” on us (sometimes it is necessary – but often it is not), I can’t image Our Lord is very happy.

  9. Charivari Rob says:

    Traductora: “But of course all the former nursing orders are now part of the Magisterium of Nuns, which knows nothing of the Faith and nothing of Humanity.”


    The Little Sisters of the Poor and the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm, to name two – hardly “former” nursing orders. Look’em up at cmswr.org, if you like.

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