One life together

As of the writing of this reflection, Witness Against Torture, The New York Catholic Worker, and Voices for Creative Nonviolence, among others, are in the midst of a week-long fast for the victims of the recent airstrikes and ongoing besiegement of Yemen. There we see, once again, one of the poorest countries of the world pummeled by some of the richest; not an unusual circumstance, but it’s ubiquity makes it no less tragic.

I was invited to join the fast but unable as my youngest is still an insistent and aggressive breast feeder and my oldest has simultaneously forgotten his ability to listen and enhanced his capacity to test all boundaries. Circumstances being what they are, a well-balanced and consistent diet seems an indispensable tool in order to be an alert and able-bodied parent. Frankly, I felt relieved to have such an excuse. While my younger self would contrive reasons to fast, exulting in the ascetic undertaking and invigorated by the discipline, that aspect of my nature has diminished over the years to such minute stature that I am hard-pressed to find it in me.

On the other hand, I am disappointed to miss out on the communal response. Joining together in mourning, conceiving acts of creative resistance, fasting and prayer are among the few means of response we can identify in the face of escalating and seemingly endless violence and despair. As it is, I am merely one among many who hear it on the news, quietly lament, and continue with the needs and desires of the day. I am at risk of becoming inured to the pain of others, especially that of those who I don’t see in person and who exist in such overwhelming numbers. More than I can remember or recite. More than I can truly imagine.

Before I have finished writing this there will be more to count. Already, the U.S. has chosen to conduct air strikes in Syria in response to the ghastly chemical attacks there, which are a part of a larger, ongoing massacre happening through various means of human-on-human violence. Violence begetting violence. Those who’ve been following the news will be aware too of the atrocity in Mosul, yet another among the countless acts of destruction and devastation in Iraq.

For those of us who live in relative comfort and security, it is all too easy to stagnate in statistics. I often feel I can’t even write or talk about something that tears at me because then I need to mention every troubling incident. Each crisis gets lost in the many and responding feels impossible. I recently heard a poem that addresses this attitude on NPR’s OnBeing called “The Pedagogy of Conflict” written by Pádraig Ó Tuama; a poet, theologian and leader of the Corrymeela community (a place of refuge and reconciliation in Northern Ireland).

“When I was a child, / I learnt to count to five: / one, two, three, four, five. / But these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count / one life / one life / one life / one life / Because each time is the first time that that life has been taken. / Legitimate Target / has sixteen letters / and one / long / abominable / space / between / two / dehumanising / words.”

I believe that throughout Scripture, God has sought to communicate to humanity that we were created with intention, that we are part of a holy human family, that all life is precious and inextricably interwoven. I have found it hard to know how to live out that truth as a citizen of the Western world (the U.S. specifically) where, unlike citizens on the receiving end of our war-making, I live my life removed from the death and disorder in which we are involved. I feel all the more inhibited in my capacity to respond to the needs of others as I endeavor to care for and create a stable, loving, beautiful environment for my own children.

Amy Nee and one of her children.

Yet, even as life as a parent inhibits me from reaching out, from taking risks, it also tends to enhance empathy and conjure the questions—what if it was me in that situation? What if it was my kids?

Ever since reading a book review by Terry Rogers in The New York Catholic Worker’s newspaper I am haunted by the story of a Palestinian father who used to feel great peace watching his children sleep. Now, he gazes on them with anguished anxiety wondering if this will be the night that they wake to a bomb tearing through the ceiling, or if they will even wake at all. He writes of too many friends who have lost their children to bomb attacks and realizes he cannot expect his own family to be spared from the same fate. So to look at his children, vulnerable in sleep—each one a mysterious trove of wonder, laughter, frustration, confusion, tears, expense, effort and attention, both given and received—brings only sadness, fear, anger, despair.

One life … one life … one life … one life.

sleeping-children-courtesy-Any-Nee
Amy’s children, sleeping soundly (photo courtesy of Amy Nee).

Seeing my children sleep, I am most often filled with relief, satisfaction, a wave of affection and admiration for their beauty and gratitude for our shared life. I cannot imagine what I would feel were I to hear them referred to as collateral damage, let alone “legitimate target.” I cannot imagine–having watched with amazement each new developing nuance in language and motion–suddenly seeing them fall limp and mute and forever lifeless. Each blossoming life, so intricate, so very dear, so amazingly new each day. “Each time is the first time that life has been taken.” What a gaping hole there would be in my heart, in our family, even amongst our friends.  Whole communities grieving the loss of what was, of what was becoming.

One life … one life … one life … one life.

I am being interrupted in this writing endeavor. My one-year-old daughter, waking from her brief moment of tranquil sleep, insisting on nursing. I will resist for a moment and then concede. It is a comfort to so easily give comfort. I know it will not always be so easy for me, with nothing more than my own body, to bring calm and contentment to my daughter whom I love profoundly. For one life, that opportunity has been stolen.

One life …  one life … one life … one life.

Come, let us love one another.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

The point of Wanda

The last few nights I have been reading and re-reading Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato Si (Praise be to you, my Lord) on care for our common home. As I do, I keep returning to thoughts of my dog, Wanda.Wanda1

Wanda is not a very friendly or personable dog not a very useful dog. Wanda is a tired old hound dog who spends 23 hours of her day sleeping, napping, or trying to nap or sleep.

She doesn’t play fetch, tug of war, or any other game I’m familiar with dogs enjoying. She doesn’t chase cats or squirrels and she only very occasionally enjoys the presence of other dogs. When I come home, she might come and greet me by sniffing me briefly before returning to her puppy pad—if she feels like it. Many days she just lifts her head, looks at me as if to say “Oh, hey,” and then lowers it again. If it were not me—but rather a stranger or burglar—I’m pretty sure her reaction would be the same.

She has a history of abuse which has, along with her advanced age, left her with a troubled tummy. She doesn’t like to eat most food and is very picky about her treats. She will only deign to eat even her very most favorite meals (that involves boiling chicken, dicing it into tiny pieces, then mixing it into a blend of wet dog food and either kibble or rice) about half the time. Many a morning I have, tired and bleary-eyed and waiting for coffee to kick in, laboriously mushed her special blend together only to have her smell it once and then walk away without taking a bite.

Her tummy troubles also lead her to get sick easily and explosively. Twice in the year she’s slept under our roof I have come home to find she has vomited (or emitted similarly liquid excretions from her rear end) her way across the house. One of these episodes ended with a late-night carpet shampooer rental.

?

And every now and then when I look upon Wanda and see all the trouble she causes, all the effort she costs me, and couple those thoughts with a lack of sleep or patience, I find myself thinking “What’s the point of this good for nothing dog?”

When I ask that question, I tend to get an answer. I feel it rather than think or hear it. But as I read Francis’ encyclical this week, I heard the words that could give voice to the feeling.

In Laudato Si’, Francis reminds me that “the ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things.”

Throughout the encyclical, Pope Francis warns us of how incredibly, dangerously anthropocentric we can be. We think that we humans are the measure of all things and that all things—and all beings—were made for us and are to be used by us. If something or someone does not immediately bring us utility or happiness, then they are to be disregarded or avoided. What Francis says of humans could probably be equally applied to us as individuals as well: we think we are the center of the world and if a thing or being does not serve our ends—if it causes us frustration or discomfort or inconvenience—then it’s a problem to either solve or end.

Which brings me back to Wanda: a living being, a being which God spoke into existence who manifests something of the divine. Merely by being among the multiplicity of creation, by being fearfully and wonderfully made, Wanda gives glory to her Creator. As the encyclical states, “God has written a precious book, ‘whose letters are the created things present in the universe.'” The “contemplation of creation allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us.”

Wanda was not created for me. Her ultimate purpose is not to give me anything. If she gives me usefulness as a watchdog or happiness as a companion then so be it; but if she does not, she has no less a place among creation. I am not the measure of her life. Wanda is alive. She is. And that’s her point. My Father is her Creator— her point and purpose are ultimately His, not mine.

Wanda did not ask to be abused, didn’t decide to grow sick and old and then, as a result, left at a shelter by an owner that got tired of taking care of her. These things happened to her because others decided she would fit into their lives as they wanted her to, or not at all.

We have a thread of dangerous utilitarianism that runs through our whole culture. If we can’t find the “point” of someone, if we can’t discern their usefulness, then we are quick to ignore them or discard them. The sick, the old, the unborn—if we don’t want them, they run the very great risk of becoming a problem to be solved in a most gruesome manner. And Pope Francis is right to warn us of it, and call us to be better.

Is there someone inconveniencing you today that you can choose to serve rather than have serve you? Who do you need to see as a being with dignity rather than just as a means to achieving your interests? Who can be the center of your world today, other than yourself?

As for me and Wanda … I’m going to go make her dinner. She may or may not eat it. But afterwards I will pray night prayer next to her, while she naps, and mediate on the point that the bishops of Japan make: “to sense each creature singing the hymn of its existence is to live joyfully in God’s love and hope.” And I will thank God that I’m privileged to protect and tend to this creature in her golden years, as we lead each other to God. That is, after all, the whole point.