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A Humanist Quandary
Posted: 23 June 2011 03:24 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I received a call from a woman I’ve worked for and with over many years.  I’d consider her a very good friend, but not a close friend.  She’s married to a holistic chiropractor and they have a strong belief in the supernatural.  She’s the sort of person I’d usually stay clear of, but our relationship developed through our crafts.  I do architectural ironwork and she does high end interior design.  She’s brought me the most interesting and lucrative work I’ve had, been fun and easy to work with, and she’s backed me up when a project has run into serious trouble, largely due to my flakiness.  While I rarely see her outside of a working context, I respect her and care about her.  We’ve never discussed our belief systems.

She told me last night that she has been undergoing radiation for uterine cancer.  It’s hard to assess, but it sounds like her situation is very bad, but not hopeless, and she is struggling with severe side effects from the therapy.

She asked me to pray for her.  Gulp…...

What is the moral, ethical, and humane response?  The choices I’ve identified so far are:

1.  Mutter something reassuring and vague about keeping her in my thoughts and “sending energy her way”

This has been my response so far and I’m pretty uncomfortable with it.  Somehow it seems cowardly, insincere, and disrespectful.

2. Express my concern but attempt to explain my Skeptical/Humanist philosophy and that I don’t think prayer would have any effect on her condition.

This may be a more honest approach, but she’s lying in bed, bleeding steadily, with a feeding tube down her nose, radiation sores on her back, facing the fact that she may very likely die miserably and soon.  She clearly is comforted by her faith.  For me to respond in this manner seems like it would be superior and cruel.  An extreme result might be to instigate some kind of crisis of faith.  It would be hard to imagine that being a good thing in the circumstances.  Maybe she’d feel I was an arrogant, unfeeling, jerk unwilling to support her.  I really don’t want her to think that of me.  As I’ve said, she’s treated me better than I’ve deserved.

3. Go along with her request and tell her I’ll pray for her.

This seems dishonest.  I suppose as a skeptic I can justify praying by telling myself that there is some infinitesimal chance that her supernatural world is valid, it can’t do any harm and, if she’s aware I’m doing it, may provide her emotional support.  It also raises the question of whether I actually go through some kind of prayer ritual, (an idea that is pretty repellent to me), or basically just “shine her on”.


For me, this quandary really raises questions about the idea of “Supportive Humanism”.  I’m not aware that the accepted philosophical structure of Humanism really deals much with illness and death.  I’m comfortable with that.  Death, in my opinion, isn’t some graduation ceremony where if you’ve followed all the rules you get the big reward.  Living, here and now, is my focus, death just means I have to stop. But do we have a language of comfort?  How do we express our concern and the awareness and regret we feel for another person’s pain and fear?  Can we translate our ideas benevolently into a language suitable for such a situation as I find myself in?

I’m sure I haven’t thought of all the possible responses.  I respect, and, (maybe more accurately), admire the quality of thought in this forum.  If any of you who read this have thoughts or suggestions I’d very much appreciate your responses.

Thank you.

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Posted: 23 June 2011 04:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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“If you need to talk, don’t hesitate to call me.”

She’s not respecting your boundaries. Maybe she’s just not aware of them.

If she pushes it, it could suggest that she’s wondering whether you are among the saved and is taking her illness as an opportunity to probe. In that case, she’s obviously strong enough for a battle, and you might say: “I think honesty is very important, so I have to be honest with you. I don’t pray. I don’t believe in it. But I’ll help you in any way that I can.”

Sounds like she’s afraid. It may not be an appropriate time to try to open her mind a bit. On the other hand, it might distract her and could be what she’s looking for.

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Posted: 23 June 2011 04:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Jeciron - 23 June 2011 03:24 AM

I received a call from a woman I’ve worked for and with over many years.  I’d consider her a very good friend, but not a close friend.  She’s married to a holistic chiropractor and they have a strong belief in the supernatural.  She’s the sort of person I’d usually stay clear of, but our relationship developed through our crafts.  I do architectural ironwork and she does high end interior design.  She’s brought me the most interesting and lucrative work I’ve had, been fun and easy to work with, and she’s backed me up when a project has run into serious trouble, largely due to my flakiness.  While I rarely see her outside of a working context, I respect her and care about her.  We’ve never discussed our belief systems.

She told me last night that she has been undergoing radiation for uterine cancer.  It’s hard to assess, but it sounds like her situation is very bad, but not hopeless, and she is struggling with severe side effects from the therapy.

She asked me to pray for her.  Gulp…...

What is the moral, ethical, and humane response?  The choices I’ve identified so far are:

1.  Mutter something reassuring and vague about keeping her in my thoughts and “sending energy her way”

This has been my response so far and I’m pretty uncomfortable with it.  Somehow it seems cowardly, insincere, and disrespectful.

2. Express my concern but attempt to explain my Skeptical/Humanist philosophy and that I don’t think prayer would have any effect on her condition.

This may be a more honest approach, but she’s lying in bed, bleeding steadily, with a feeding tube down her nose, radiation sores on her back, facing the fact that she may very likely die miserably and soon.  She clearly is comforted by her faith.  For me to respond in this manner seems like it would be superior and cruel.  An extreme result might be to instigate some kind of crisis of faith.  It would be hard to imagine that being a good thing in the circumstances.  Maybe she’d feel I was an arrogant, unfeeling, jerk unwilling to support her.  I really don’t want her to think that of me.  As I’ve said, she’s treated me better than I’ve deserved.

3. Go along with her request and tell her I’ll pray for her.

This seems dishonest.  I suppose as a skeptic I can justify praying by telling myself that there is some infinitesimal chance that her supernatural world is valid, it can’t do any harm and, if she’s aware I’m doing it, may provide her emotional support.  It also raises the question of whether I actually go through some kind of prayer ritual, (an idea that is pretty repellent to me), or basically just “shine her on”.


For me, this quandary really raises questions about the idea of “Supportive Humanism”.  I’m not aware that the accepted philosophical structure of Humanism really deals much with illness and death.  I’m comfortable with that.  Death, in my opinion, isn’t some graduation ceremony where if you’ve followed all the rules you get the big reward.  Living, here and now, is my focus, death just means I have to stop. But do we have a language of comfort?  How do we express our concern and the awareness and regret we feel for another person’s pain and fear?  Can we translate our ideas benevolently into a language suitable for such a situation as I find myself in?

I’m sure I haven’t thought of all the possible responses.  I respect, and, (maybe more accurately), admire the quality of thought in this forum.  If any of you who read this have thoughts or suggestions I’d very much appreciate your responses.

Thank you.

Did a little research and saw a suggestion which sounded ideal under the circumstances.

A small bouquet of flowers with a card saying something like,  “Just a little token of my friendship and deepest wishes for a speedy recovery”, or something along those lines.
This can then be accompanied verbally with something like “we’re gonna beat this thing, you’r not ready for the boneyard just yet”...introducing a more light hearted and positive atmosphere to the scene.

It is non-religious but does indicate your true feelings in a natural non-forced manner.

[ Edited: 23 June 2011 04:57 AM by Write4U ]
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Posted: 23 June 2011 07:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Jeciron;

In my experience a request for prayer is often a religious person’s traditional way of asking for help and support from other humans.  The important matter here is to recognize that you have a friend in need of your help and not the purity of the individual’s philosophical/theological beliefs.  Religious or not we are all human and need each others emotional as well as physical support in times of crisis.  To me the ethical thing to do is to provide your friend with as much support as you are able and not be concerned with the particular form it takes, as long as it is as effective as you can make it.  The religious are humans too.

There is a time for theological/philosophical discussion and a time to recognize our common humanity and do our duty to aid our fellow humans.

[ Edited: 23 June 2011 07:27 AM by garythehuman ]
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Posted: 23 June 2011 10:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Jeciron, given your attention to the question, I think your answer will be as appropriate as anybody here could offer (but I do like W4U’s comments). I often think silence with a caring smile works in some cases as well.

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Posted: 25 June 2011 10:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Thank you all for taking the time to help me out with this.  I don’t know that it will appear you that I took your advice, but in one way or another I did.  There’s a copy of the note I sent with the flowers below.  It may be more personal than is appropriate, sort of a “to much information” situation, but if I were in your shoes I’d be ravenously curious. 


Dear M,

It seems a little odd, for me, an ironworker, to be sending flowers.  But on consideration, it seems to me that flowers are such a powerful embodiment of the idea of Beauty that they form an appropriate means of communication between us.  Our good friend, S, an artist in her own right, prepared them.

You and I come from very different worlds.  We met in the pursuit of Beauty. We’ve shared some fun and deeply meaningful experiences in this quest.  I’m pretty sure that from time to time we’ve caught a little glimpse of it, whatever indefinable thing it is Beauty may be.  Working together we’ve been able to use our arts to transform those fleeting glimpses into Beauty that can be shared with everyone, and is available to all.  I guess that’s what our work really is.

Working with you, we’ve achieved the greatest successes of my career.  I could not have done it without you, your generosity and emotional support.  You are enormously important in my life.

It is ironic and tragic that while we can be aware of another human’s pain, we are so impotent in the face of it.  Often there is nothing we can do to ease the agony, and we can never really assume the physical burden of another’s pain.  I have little to offer, but will share with you an insight that has helped me bear the burden of caring for Esther during her long illness.

When things are very bad here, I have found that I can consciously force myself to look for Beauty.  I’ve always been able to find it. Sometimes it’s nothing more than noticing how beautifully some wrinkle in her aged face curves across her cheek, a star, the smell of the night.  I’ve always been able to find something beautiful, and it helps me get through.  When our world here is clouded with confusion and fear, sometimes it’s hard for me to do this, it can take an almost physical effort to make this search, yet it has never failed me.  Perhaps it is how I pray.

I hope this technique may be of some small comfort.  I deeply regret I have so little else to offer.

We are thinking of you.  If you ever need someone to talk to, or if you or N ever need a service we could provide, it would be an honor to be asked.

With love, respect and deep concern,

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Posted: 25 June 2011 11:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Looks good to me Jeciron. Be interesting to see her response.

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Posted: 25 June 2011 01:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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That was beautiful and sensitive.

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Posted: 25 June 2011 04:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Jeciron, that was magnificent. It is obviously the product of your compassion and love for the person to whom it was addressed. This is what we need in Humanism. Bravo!

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Posted: 29 June 2011 08:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Jeciron:

Nice job.

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Posted: 29 June 2011 01:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Thanks for letting us know, Jeciron. That’s very nice and I hope it helped her a little to get through a difficult time. Sometimes just letting people know you’re there for them is all you can really do.

It also can help to check up with them from time to time just to let them know you’re still thinking of them.

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Posted: 30 June 2011 02:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I received a call from my friend with cancer today.  Things don’t sound good, apparently she’s hemorrhaging, seven units of blood in the last couple days.  The doctors are trying to stabilize her so they can operate.

She cried throughout the conversation and told me that it was “the most meaningful” letter she had ever received. 

I don’t know if the note evinced the tenets of humanism.  It wasn’t supposed to be a tract.  I do know that I didn’t feel hypocritical, compromised, or insincere in anything I wrote.

Thank you all for your support.

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Posted: 30 June 2011 05:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Jeciron - 30 June 2011 02:29 PM

I received a call from my friend with cancer today.  Things don’t sound good, apparently she’s hemorrhaging, seven units of blood in the last couple days.  The doctors are trying to stabilize her so they can operate.

She cried throughout the conversation and told me that it was “the most meaningful” letter she had ever received. 

I don’t know if the note evinced the tenets of humanism.  It wasn’t supposed to be a tract.  I do know that I didn’t feel hypocritical, compromised, or insincere in anything I wrote.

Thank you all for your support.

Thank you for sharing it! Yeah, I got a tear reading this post…

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Posted: 30 June 2011 09:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Jeciron - 30 June 2011 02:29 PM

I received a call from my friend with cancer today.  Things don’t sound good, apparently she’s hemorrhaging, seven units of blood in the last couple days.  The doctors are trying to stabilize her so they can operate.

She cried throughout the conversation and told me that it was “the most meaningful” letter she had ever received. 

I don’t know if the note evinced the tenets of humanism.  It wasn’t supposed to be a tract.  I do know that I didn’t feel hypocritical, compromised, or insincere in anything I wrote.

Thank you all for your support.

Your letter brought tears to my eyes, it was wonderful beyond words. We need to start a book for letters like yours for others who run into the same painful situations.

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Posted: 10 July 2011 12:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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asanta - 30 June 2011 09:11 PM
Jeciron - 30 June 2011 02:29 PM

I received a call from my friend with cancer today.  Things don’t sound good, apparently she’s hemorrhaging, seven units of blood in the last couple days.  The doctors are trying to stabilize her so they can operate.

She cried throughout the conversation and told me that it was “the most meaningful” letter she had ever received. 

I don’t know if the note evinced the tenets of humanism.  It wasn’t supposed to be a tract.  I do know that I didn’t feel hypocritical, compromised, or insincere in anything I wrote.

Thank you all for your support.

Your letter brought tears to my eyes, it was wonderful beyond words. We need to start a book for letters like yours for others who run into the same painful situations.

`
I just want to ditto asanta’s sentiments…......your letter was simply beautiful Jeciron.  So simply/honestly compassionate, caring and kind ~ and there’s nothing more beautiful than that.

And the wonderful thing is that you didn’t intend it to be a ‘tract’.....and it didn’t come across that way at all :)  (to me)

`

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Posted: 26 September 2011 08:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Jeciron,
Being in a very similar situation a couple years back, I can empathize and was moved by your letter, I myself took a more wishy-washy approach in supporting her various supplemental alternative new-age strategies, in addition to standard treatments.  And I said yes I would pray for her and in fact actually did send out a prayer into the cosmos, though probably not of the sort she was imaging…  instead it was a kind of thanksgiving for having known her and a bitch session for knowing how much I was going to miss her.

I was moved by how well your words bridged what I simply avoided.

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