Post 8

Expiry Date:
Reflections on the Unpredictability of our Lifespan

I suspect that most healthy people assume they’ve got a decent amount of time left to live. If they’re under 30, then they figure on another 50 years, give or take, and from their perspective, well, that’s forever.

Even people over that age don’t do the math very often, if at all. Do they say, “I’m 55 years old; that gives me about 20 years more”? Seinfeld says that everyone should be allowed to drive their age; if you’re 30 you can drive only 30 miles per hour, but if you’re 80 you should be allowed to go 80 because, after all, you’re pretty short on time! In that world, everyone spends a lot of time thinking about their age and how much time they have left.

If people do pause to do the calculations, they don’t do them the way the insurance companies do – instead, they’ll focus on something like the fact they eat well / never get sick / had a great check-up last year, or the fact that their mother lived to a ripe old age.

We hear stories of the young person who was killed in a car accident, the other person who succumbed to cancer, and another who was diagnosed with the rare fatal illness, but it still does not penetrate into our day-to-day consciousness to be grateful for the gift of time and to be aware of the fragility of life. We aren’t amazed every morning that we’ve been given another day to live, and we aren’t thankful for it. Most of us just assume that we’re going to be here tomorrow and that those we love will be around as well.

It’s something we seem to prefer not to think about at all, and it’s only at certain times, such as during an illness or before taking a long trip, that the thought comes, unbidden, into our consciousness.

We may even be aware that so-and-so is praying fervently to fight their dangerous illness (and we’ll rightly pray for them too), but if we’re healthy, we never think to bring the issue of the length of our own life into prayer. It’s as if we subconsciously think that we get by on our own steam, whereas that person over there needs to depend on the will of God.

But of course, none of us is getting by on our own steam. We’re all, in fact, at risk, and we’re all kept alive for an unknown amount of time by God’s unfathomable will. Who has a guarantee of a ‘normal’ number of days?

I’m sure it’s good that we don’t know how much time we have left on this earth, and I’m sure it’s good that we know our own age as time elapsed since birth (some products are marked with the date of production) instead of the time remaining until death (most products are marked with the approximate date of expiration).

(Imagine such a world — it’d be weird enough if we had an estimated age, but even weirder would be knowing the actual amount of time we all had left! You would see a middle-aged person walking around with the number 6, meaning 6 years left, and next to him would be an elderly lady with the number 20, showing 20 years left. I suppose we’d get used to it, but imagine — in this world, you could easily come across a child walking around with the number 3, showing 3 years left!)

But anyway, wouldn’t it be good, once in a while, to do some guesstimates? After all, even though the amount of time is just a guess, it would be a positive act to put our mind to it, and admit that we really and truly don’t know. At the same time, we’d also notice that the ‘best case scenario’ of living to 115 still doesn’t leave an infinite number of years for us to live.  Perhaps that act of life-math would be enough to stir us out of our complacency and make us grateful for each gift of a day.

Post 7

The Wisdom of the Hospital Patient:
Reflections on the Preciousness of Time

Being a hospital patient reduces us to our very essence. For the moment, we have no occupation, no home, no car, and no (proper) clothing. Our social status, education and connections are really unimportant in this place. Our worldly possessions have been reduced to some flowers in a vase and a mylar ‘Get Well Soon’ balloon.

Here and now, you are who you are, without ornamentation. You possess only your time and your will.

And being thrust into this state, you recognize that those are the only two things that ever mattered anyway: time and will. What is life if not a time to express our will by the choices we make?

The other night I was awakened, struck by the sudden thought of how fearsome a thing life truly is – how what seem to be days filled with inconsequential choices are in fact choices which shape our eternal destiny! It was not a pleasant thought – it was more on the horrifying side. Who can pass this test? Who can live life so purely and courageously, always choosing the better? For a few seconds my mind flailed about, and then I found it – I remembered Christ’s mercy and fell back asleep, knowing it was a fulsome answer to the awful question.

So, back to the hospital patient – here are people who acutely feel the preciousness of time –‘More time!’ is what they want for themselves. They want more days and years of everyday life. Some are inspired to start fresh, to make better choices going forward, but no matter what, time is the canvas on which we paint the story of our lives, and the hospital patient knows it.

They also appreciate the time that others will spare for them. In the context of the illness or injury that has brought them to the hospital room, most people dearly love to be visited, and that gift of time is more valuable than any other kind of gift. All the other types of possessions and gifts that they own are left miles away at home, and they don’t really matter. It’s only time that they want, especially from those they love. How wise is the Church to include ‘visiting the sick’ on that short list of the corporal acts of mercy.

Hospital patients are like people attending a religious retreat, where those attending are given talks on ‘the last things’ (death, heaven, hell and purgatory). These themes (at least the first one) are at the forefront of their mind, surrounded as they are with all the reminders of life’s fragility. They focus on what really matters, and I suspect that it’s often a far wiser person who emerges from the hospital.

[April 1, 2015]

Post 6

Hospital Gowns: Reflections on Dignified Clothing

A person is both body and soul; both have dignity. Sure, the body is the ‘donkey’ of the equation, and Chesterton says you shouldn’t forget that the body is a humorous thing (he says the Romans forgot this, almost worshipping it, and that was part of their undoing), but still, the body obviously has dignity; it’s who we are. We aren’t bodiless angels.

Christianity has a lot to say about clothing, which stands to reason, tied as it is to the dignity of the human person. Both John the Baptist and the Gerasene demoniac lived in the wilderness, but “John was clothed in camel’s hair and had a leather girdle around his waist.” The Gerasene demoniac isn’t dressed, but is like a wild animal living near the tombs. Jesus cures him, and one of the obvious proofs of this healing is that he has clothed himself. When you look at famous paintings and art in a really big museum, one that contains even the ancient Greek stuff, you see that one of the huge differences when you hit the Christian-influenced art is that the statues start wearing more clothing.

To clothe the body is to recognize its dignity, and while the body retains this dignity regardless of external appearances, some clothing has the effect of removing the appearance of dignity. Take hospital gowns, for example.

I’ve been reflecting on why people look so bad in hospital gowns, and in the end, I concluded that it has to do with the loss of dignity, by which I mean the loss of the appearance of dignity.

Is there such a thing as ‘dignified clothing?’ Even a child knows there is. But what are the attributes that are unchanging about it? I asked WiseOne and the first word she mentioned was ‘modesty.’ And of course, it stands to reason! The primary purpose of clothing is to cover, and so if it fails in its ability to cover, to conceal what should be concealed, then it has failed in its basic purpose. A car that can’t quite get you there isn’t a good car.

But then of course, visions of all the exceptions come flooding in – what about bathing suits, what about fencing gear, what about ballet outfits? Are all of these outfits undignified because they’re less modest? Well, yes, they aren’t as dignified, and for that reason you don’t wear them outside those contexts. But the thing is: we all understand that they are exceptions. We accept the bathing suit and the gymnastics outfit in their proper and limited spheres. The rest of the time, we don’t expect to see them. When a good reason exists, we accept diminished modesty.

Whether it’s chosen on purpose, or forced onto you, like the hospital gown, clothing which reveals what it should hide does not do its job of preserving dignity. The effect, subconscious or not, is that it causes those around you to also forget about your dignity, and that’s a real shame. Instead, human nature, almost always curious, is drawn to notice what should properly be hidden, or at least, obscured.

It’s such a complicated topic, and there are whole areas which I’m going to skip, such as the African tribesman wearing so little (still dignified) and the issue of fashion and cultural change which supposedly give license for things unheard of previously, and the issue of age (more modesty with age). I skip these subtopics because I’ve got to get to those hospital gowns . . . —

I’ve always hated them.

Tell me what kind of clothing in the history of humanity has flapped open in the back like that? These wretched things aren’t even as good as the bed-sheet-togas that the university students party in. They are nowhere nearly as good as pyjamas. Sure, you can close the gown at the neck, but nobody is even pretending that you can really close them well anywhere else. It’s all about getting access to the patient’s body, but nothing else. A thin piece of shifting cloth is all they are. The ones I saw were covered with little flowers or snowflakes or some kind of print. Who thought that was a good idea for a unisex outfit? “Here you go sir; here’s your flimsy pale blue gown that might reach your knees, as long as you don’t sit down. This number is adorned with teensy weensy stars. It closes up at the top just like a jumbo bib; you’ll find the ties here. Oh, and please feel free to accent this look with slippers that your wife brings you from home, because you’ll be wearing this get-up the entire time you’re here.” Instant degradation. Someone tell me: is this the best we can do? Is access to the body the only thing that matters?

Does it fall into the exceptions? How similar is it to the other situations where we accept less modesty? Obviously there’s a similarity, but because the other cases are voluntary losses of modesty, and because they often involve situations where there’s at least an equality between the viewers and the less-dressed, it’s quite different. Hospital patients don’t choose their predicament for the most part, and that merits giving them as much privacy and dignity as we can.

I’d say a big part of the shock of visiting a person in the hospital is seeing them as pathetically dressed as they are. The last time you saw them, they had a shirt and the latest jeans, leather shoes and some stylish sunglasses. Now they look helpless and forlorn wearing that smock, sitting in that bed with metal rails and a tube taped to their arm. Add a bit of fluorescent lighting and you’ve got quite the look. Who doesn’t seem 150% sicker with that costuming?

But yes, I know, I know, it’s really important for the hospital to have access to all your – parts – in case of an emergency, and it’s easy to launder, and so on. I get it, but I wish the hospital rule-makers would look at this issue from the perspective of the whole person and come up with something a little more dignified.

Post 5

Some Relationships Are More Equal than Others

We always want that reciprocity with our friends. When they’ve helped us out, we welcome opportunities to do a kindness in return. If things get too lopsided — if you’ve helped me so much but I haven’t been able to give back — the debt grows. I suspect it’s usually worse on the receiver’s side. Sure, someone who gives and gives can begin to resent it, but because giving has its own unexpected joys, the giver can often be generous for quite a while.

Do good friends even keep tabs? They’ll sometimes say they don’t, but I think they do on some level. They are grateful for the good they’ve received from the other, and it can feel uncomfortable to be too much on the needy side of the equation.

So we use actions or words to balance things out. Words often seem so short of the mark, but at least they’re something. (Chesterton’s definition of a beggar is someone who has nothing to give in return except words of thanks.) Imagine if you were unable to do even that! I remember a friend blessed with kindnesses when her husband was extremely ill. Friends and neighbours helped in a lot of ways, but in her state at the time, it was next to impossible to keep track of the various favours and to thank the people the way she would have liked. It must be a drop of sorrow in all that gratitude to be unable to say “thank you” the way you normally would. But it occurs to me just now that her husband would feel this same thing even more keenly. With increasing disability, he needed more and more care. He had already lost his ability to return his wife’s kindness with his own helpfulness, but now, having lost his ability to speak, he could no longer even whisper the words, “Thank you!” How he would have yearned to do so!

It’s a different thing though with the parent-child relationship. A parent expects to be the giver, and gives even before the child knows he takes. The baby will take the very minerals from his mother’s bones, but she does not begrudge this, and as she continues to bear him and then raise him, she will joyfully sacrifice and empty herself. The father too will expend his energy selflessly for his son, for his daughter. At least, this is how it’s supposed to be, in the natural order. It’s the human reflection and imperfect imitation of the supernatural order.

God gives in infinite measure and we cannot even tabulate the ways. We cannot comprehend his generosity. We receive and then we receive again. We take and take, and he gives and gives. The physical world, the intellectual, the emotional, the spiritual — he provides for us in so many ways. Each day he gives us a new dawn, with a brand new painted sky, never before appearing that way, and meanwhile in some far-away ocean, a diver discovers a new kind of coral that nobody knew existed. The abundance, even on the natural plane, is mind-boggling.

So how fitting it is then that God tells us to call him ‘Father.’ He didn’t choose ‘Supreme Being,’ ‘Almighty Power,’ ‘Infinite Deity,’ or something like that. He puts on our lips, ‘Father,’ that word of relationship, a relationship where we acknowledge ourselves as little children. We are indebted, hopelessly and completely.

[March 2015]

Post 4

Seeing the Bad Side: Knowledge vs Behaviour

Today I was flipping through a rather dull publication and I came to a complete stop when I saw some really bad head shots. I don’t remember ever seeing such bad portraits. The photographer used a really tiny depth of field, and they were close-ups, so the nose was in sharp focus but just a few inches back, where the ears were, the photo was out of focus. Strange and unflattering. They even printed a close-up of the woman who had blinked, which is hard to believe in this digital age.

So I’m not sure what happened there.

A good photographer emphasizes the good features, and chooses the angles that show the person to best advantage. So part of the task is being able to compare and notice when things don’t look as good. There’s that funny mix of knowing what’s bad in knowing what’s good.

It can be a shock to realize how much good people actually know about evil. They seem so mild and they behave so tamely that they seem much more naïve, stupid and clueless than they really are. They bite their tongue instead of making that clever put-down.

G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories are inspired by Father O’Connor. One time, Fr. O’Connor needed to enlighten Chesterton about an issue, and in order to do so, had to explain to Chesterton the practical and shocking nature of some morally abhorrent practices occurring in society at that time. Chesterton, intelligent and perceptive, and considering himself well-enough acquainted with immorality, was in for a shock. He writes in his autobiography, “It was a curious experience to find that this quiet and pleasant celibate had plumbed those abysses [of iniquity] far deeper than I. I had not imagined that the world could hold such horrors.

But a few moments after educating Chesterton, this same priest was criticized out of earshot by two young men, who, though they liked the priest a lot, dismissed him, saying that he “didn’t know about the real evil in the world.” One of these men said, “It’s a very beautiful thing to be innocent and ignorant; but I think it’s a much finer thing not to be afraid of knowledge.

Chesterton writes: “To me, still almost shivering with the appallingly practical facts of which the priest had warned me, this comment came with such a colossal and crushing irony, that I nearly burst into a harsh laugh . . .” He writes, “That the Catholic Church knew more about good than I did was easy to believe. That she knew more about evil than I did seemed incredible.

The photographer showcases your best features, but he knows how to do otherwise. The soprano could give you a pop song, but she gives you a cantata instead. The artist paints arches and columns, but he could have given you a splattered mess. Choosing to do better doesn’t mean a lack of knowledge about what’s worse; it’s often part of the package. And that can be a good thing. When it comes to the sacrament of reconciliation, for instance, we never need to worry about shocking the priest – he’s heard it all before!

Post 3

Unprofitable Talents: Reflections on Hobbies

I understand that there was a time when the word ‘profession’ referred to just three types of work: doctor, lawyer and priest. These were distinguished from the trades. This lasted for a long time. (Even in 1990, law students were being asked to research and discuss why law was one of the few occupations referred to as a ‘profession.’) Then, one by one, other disciplines wanted to be referred to as professions. Of course, once it started, it didn’t stop, and the word ‘profession’ came to mean anything you did for a living. A professional came to be defined as someone whose day job was that line of work. A professional hair-dresser means someone who cuts and styles hair for a living. A professional actor implies that the person makes enough money as an actor that he can forgo other types of income.

So along with this comes the notion that if you are really good at something, then you should be able to do it professionally. And then of course, not far behind is the conclusion that if you’re not making money at it, then you must not be all that great at it in the first place. Money equals talent.

So money becomes the final arbiter. The more money you make at something, the better you probably are at it, is the assumption that we make, often without realizing it. The truth is, however, that in pretty much every line of work, there are way more talented people than the number of available positions. Only a small percentage of women work as full-time models, but meanwhile, in countless small forgotten towns and villages, women equally beautiful are busy fetching water or walking a dog. And the same goes for the other disciplines. Who is to say that the community-theatre actor isn’t in fact as talented as a Hollywood name? Even when it comes to the cardiac doctor working in Chicago and renowned through the medical world, we have to admit it’s an unequal playing field. The world has a lot of young people with brilliant minds and a lot of drive, but those first stepping stones to success and recognition weren’t there for them.

But I digress. I had intended to talk about hobbies.

Money as measurement means that we almost consider it ‘thrown-away talent’ or a ‘waste of talent’ when money does not rise up to bless our side endeavors. It’s considered a great compliment to say to someone that they could “do it professionally!” But the truth is, we should celebrate those many talents that we all have by pursuing them as hobbies in our leisure time, giving no thought to the money that they will bring us. In fact, money would taint and spoil these pursuits. That’s the point G.K. Chesterton makes.

In his autobiography, he has a chapter called, “The Man with the Golden Key.” The name of the chapter has a double meaning: it describes a 6-inch-tall prince, made of cardboard and wearing a crown, but it also describes his father, who made the prince.

Chesterton’s father was a house-agent living in Kensington, England. I think nowadays we’d call him a realtor? In his leisure time, however, he turned to his many other interests. Chesterton describes how at one point his father wrote a book:

The book was one my father had written and illustrated himself, merely for home consumption. It was typical of him that, in the Pugin period he had worked at Gothic illumination; but when he tried again, it was in another style of the dark Dutch renaissance, the grotesque scroll-work that suggests woodcarving more than stone-cutting. He was the sort of man who likes to try everything once. This was the only book he ever wrote; and he never bothered to publish it.

Chesterton’s father had a workshop, and the inventions that he made there “created for children the permanent anticipation of what is profoundly called a Surprise.

His versatility both as an experimentalist and a handy man, in all such matters, was amazing. His den or study was piled high with the stratified layers of about ten or twelve creative amusements; water-colour painting and modelling and photography and stained glass and fretwork and magic lanterns and mediaeval illumination.
. . . [I]n my own household, it was not a question of one hobby but a hundred hobbies, piled on top of each other . . .

And then Chesterton says that at one time there was talk of his father using his talents as the basis for a career, but practical considerations prevailed:

There had been some talk of his studying art professionally in his youth; but the family business was obviously safer; and his life followed the lines of a certain contented and ungrasping prudence . . . He never dreamed of turning any of these plastic talents to any mercenary account, or of using them for anything but his own private pleasure and ours.

He created worlds of wonder for his family, while meanwhile the outside world viewed him as “a very reliable and capable though rather unambitious business man.

Chesteron writes:

On the whole I am glad that he was never an artist. It might have stood in his way in becoming an amateur. It might have spoilt his career; his private career. He could have made a vulgar success of all the thousand things he did successfully.

Chesterton identifies it as an American trait that all hobbies get reframed in terms of profit:

When the American begins to suggest that ‘salesmanship can be an art,’ he means that an artist ought to put all his art into his salesmanship. The old-fashioned Englishman, like my father, sold houses for his living but filled his own house with his life.


A hobby is not a holiday . . . a hobby is not half a day but half a life-time. It would be truer to accuse the hobbyist of living a double life. And hobbies . . . have a character that runs parallel to practical professional effort . . . it is doing work . . . it is an exercising of the rest of the mind.

So it is not a matter for discouragement that we cannot turn every single ability into a lucrative thing. In fact, it’s a wonderful thing that you remain an amateur baker, an amateur gardener, an amateur home-organizer. With these talents, undamaged by profit and concerns of profit, you’ll have new ways of sharing yourself with your family and friends. The outside world will know you by your day-job, but your inner circle will know so much more.

Post 2

Mirror, Mirror: Reflections on Self-Perception

When we look at ourselves in the mirror over the sink, we think we’re seeing the truth, the ‘real deal’ – a moment of complete frankness and accuracy. The mirror is the analogy for self-knowledge. But the truth is we really don’t know ourselves even on the physical plane.

We see ourselves straight-on, looking squarely at our own reflection. We think that’s what others see, but it’s not. For one thing, we see ourselves left-right reversed. A photo will show us that we don’t part our hair on the side that we thought we did.

And unless we’re exactly the same height as another, we’ll almost never see eye to eye, the way we do with our reflection. We see short people from above (a flattering angle for women as it enlarges the eyes and shrinks the chin) and tall from below (the larger nose and chin isn’t a bad look, for a man). I recently read that when Michelangelo created David, he deliberately made the head and hands larger, because viewers of the raised statue would see it from below. If you ever study a photo of someone (especially a head-shot) and then see them in person, you’re struck by how much taller or shorter they are than you imagined.

Continuing this theme, others see all angles of us. They see the side of our head, and the back. We don’t see our own bodies from the side, but we observe others this way all the time and think nothing of it. And we don’t see our own bodies from the back, because God is merciful.

We also don’t observe ourselves talking or eating. We don’t even know how our own voice sounds. To hear ourselves on the answering machine – well – do I really sound like that? Do I really talk like that? It’s so . . . strange! We don’t observe ourselves being emotional either. We don’t know how we look scowling or annoyed. Maybe it’d be good to see that side of ourselves, as penance.

Seeing photos of ourselves is a bit surprising, (though not for those who love to take selfies) but at least we’re more used to it; it’s video that takes the cake for pure shock value. It’s an entirely weird out-of-body experience. Who is that person? We harshly assess our appearance, mannerisms, voice and behavior. Someone please make it stop!

And my analogy is that in the same way that our physical self-perception is so limited, so too is our spiritual self-perception. How grossly we misjudge ourselves! How incomplete and inaccurate is our self-examination! One matter, which we thought important, is a mere trifle; another matter, which we thought insignificant, makes all the difference. Meanwhile, everyone around us can plainly see what we can’t.

Post 1

Last Words: Reflections on Talking

Words flow from our lips like water. We say what we’re thinking, we say variations on what we’re thinking, or sometimes we speak without thinking very much at all. Because so much of what we say is said in the context of everyday life, we do not afterwards give it much thought either. And so we go — thinking, talking, moving along.

Then it happens. You discover that someone, someone with whom you’ve spoken, is gone. They’ve left this world and you didn’t expect it. Your mind races back to those last words you spoke to them. What did I say? Was I nice? Were my words ‘good enough’? Did I smile? Did I look them in the eye? Did I pay attention to them? And then we weigh our words — could I have said that in a better way?

And we have to forever live with whatever those words were, and how we may have said them. And though any sudden death will make us reflect on our last interactions with that person, death by suicide causes a freeze-frame effect like nothing else, and leaves the survivors to replay and replay the words they said and the words they didn’t say.

We usually speak as if we’re going to be able to continue the conversation, as if we’ll have another chance to correct the misunderstandings. And we also refrain from offering words from our heart. Those special words, “I love you,” “I miss you,” “Your friendship means so much to me,” or even, “I look forward to seeing you again,” are so rarely spoken. We hold such words in reserve, to preserve their specialness and to save them for that momentous moment.

But perhaps now is the momentous moment. Perhaps today is that special time. The conversation that we have with him, or with her, well – that could be the last conversation that we have with that soul. Those could be our last words.

[11 March 2015]