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Of Memory, Metanoia, and Manslaughter

15 Oct

Oh, of thine only worthy blood
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sins’ black memory.
John Donne

An essay by historian Andrew Bacevich scrolled up in my Facebook feed, and I saw that it had been posted by my friend Shawn Storer of Catholic Peace Fellowship. That was enough to make it a must-read sooner rather than later, so I opened it up.

It was entitled “Autopilot Wars,” and it was Bacevich’s take on our nation’s numb embrace of perpetual armed conflict as a norm. “Like traffic jams or robocalls, war has fallen into the category of things that Americans may not welcome, but have learned to live with,” Bacevich writes. “In twenty-first-century America, war is not that big a deal.”

It was a depressing read, yet hardly a surprising one, for our country long ago inured itself to killing as a way of solving problems. A people who’ve come to tolerate abortion through all nine months of pregnancy is a people primed to mow down entire populations without a second thought. Death has become a way of life, and, in the name of patriotism, we don’t even question the motives or objectives. Heck, we can’t even keep count of how many wars we’re in, let alone why we’re in them.

Bacevich’s article was rattling in mind as I drove to morning Mass. NPR buzzed in the background – it was the TED Radio Hour. I could hear a researcher murmuring about manipulating the memories of lab rats.

I turned up the volume.

The researcher’s name was Steve Ramirez, a professor of neuroscience at Boston University. He and his colleagues developed a technique they call optogenetics that allows them to turn memories on and off by aiming lasers at particular regions of rodent brains. The effects are temporary, but Ramirez indicated that he anticipated further research that will lead to more enduring effects.

It creeped me out. I’d just recently seen the new Blade Runner 2049 which prominently features memory manipulation in cyborg replicants, and here was an actual process for doing the same thing in miniature mammals. However, my creepy feelings turned into alarm when Ramirez and his interviewer, Guy Raz, discussed possible future applications of optogenetics – like altering the memories of those suffering from PTSD; to erase, in effect, the crippling memories of the battlefield. Despite the possibility that such memory manipulation might be abused, Ramirez indicated that the potential for good is much too great to avoid continued research in this area.

I found myself yelling back at the radio, “No! No! Don’t do it! Can’t you see?” Consider what the Pentagon would do such memory altering therapies. We already train our soldiers to suppress their innate resistance to exterminating human life, and we push them forward to the front lines to wipe out as many enemy lives as possible. Then, when they come back to us physically wounded, we patch them up and send them forward to kill some more. Is it really all that hard to imagine that the military would draw on optogenetics to do the same with the psychologically wounded? To take, that is, those suffering from PTSD and re-program their memories to enable them to return to the front?

Even if that appalling development could be avoided – and that’s a huge “if” – the underlying premise of Ramirez’s suggestion is itself flawed. The problem with PTSD isn’t the crippling memories. The problem is what caused the memories in the first place: the dehumanizing horror of war. Isn’t there good reason to remember that horror, painful as it is? It seems to me that such remembering could help undo what Bacevich details as our “collective indifference” to war as part of modernity’s landscape.

Ramirez and Raz were concluding their radio conversation as I arrived at church. I shut off the car, went inside, and settled in for the liturgy. Entrance antiphon, sign of the cross, greeting, and then this:  “My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins” – and that’s when it hit me. Memory of agonizing reality is central to our faith and essential for real conversion – metanoia in the Greek of the New Testament.

In fact, we use a different Greek word that translates as “memory” (anamnesis) to describe how it is that Christ’s singular sacrifice on the Cross is made present for us at Mass. The Reformers of the past and our Fundamentalist detractors in the present accuse us of re-crucifying Jesus in the course of our “false” worship. Yet the Mass is not a repetition, but rather a re-presentation – a liturgical and sacramental remembering that connects what Christ suffered on Calvary with our recollected transgressions here and now.

I think of that scene in The Mission (1986) when Robert De Niro’s character, Rodrigo Mendoza, a former slave trader and mercenary, is lugging the tools of his inhuman trade up a muddy jungle slope. He repeatedly slips and falls until one of his Jesuit companions cuts the burden free. Mendoza subsequent silent descent back down the hill, his angry reattachment of the bundle to his back, and then his slow ascent back up the hill again is a powerful image of real repentance. Rather than forgetting the past – cutting it away and rolling it out of sight – authentic conversion requires remembering. It requires revisiting our painful histories and our damnable decisions. Mendoza was a murderer, and his redemption requires that he thoroughly avow his murderous past before he can experience the grace of forgiveness.

Our faith is dependent on remembering violence, for all sin is violence – a violent battering if not rending of our relationship with God. Similarly, our entire civilization also depends on such remembering, and the tragedy of our times is that we’re already re-programming our memories to avoid unspeakable realities, even without optogenetics. “Responding to the demands of the Information Age is not, it turns out, conducive to deep reflection,” Bacevich notes with reference to our war-making amnesia. “Our attention span shrinks and with our time horizon.”

This is the point that Nicholas Carr made in his recent WSJ essay on our contemporary smartphone dependencies. “Now that our phones have made it so easy to gather information online, our brains are likely offloading even more of the work of remembering to technology,” he wrote. “No matter how much information swirls around us, the less well-stocked our memory, the less we have to think with.” No wonder we don’t care about how many wars we’re in – or how many babies are being slaughtered in our abortuaries.

Granted, remembering more means suffering more, which is a tall order for a world bent on avoiding suffering – at least for ourselves. Remember more anyway, and then choose to suffer alongside those whose memories of killing cause them the deepest kind of distress – coming alongside them figuratively and prayerfully, at the very least, but in reality as well if given the opportunity. Such compassionate companionship might embolden them to speak out on behalf of peacemaking and nonviolent solutions to our problems. We’ll be wise to listen to what they have to say – and commit it to memory.


Easter Meditation on a Suicide Averted

17 Apr

“The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair.”
~ Walker Percy

Read more…


Of Friendship, Faith, and Death

9 Mar

“Despite the strife of the world and their own flaws and failures, friends enjoy a foretaste of the peace and rest we’ll experience fully in heaven.”
~ Archbishop Charles Chaput

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Battening Down the Hatches and Waking Up Catholic

6 Nov


“When you expect the world to end at any moment,
you know there is no need to hurry.”
~ Thomas Merton

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Neither Right Nor Left: Voting as a Catholic

21 Sep


“The least of our acts done in charity
redounds to the profit of all” (CCC 953).

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Always Something to Read: On the Pleasures of Bibliochaos

5 Jun


There is no book so bad but it has something good in it.
~ Cervantes

When I moved from Oregon to Chicago, I went to my death – or so I supposed. Raised in the burbs and sheltered from anything resembling real urban life, I absorbed gritty city images from movies and TV (especially “Hill Street Blues”) as if they were gospel, and I was sure I wouldn’t survive my first subway ride.

Nonetheless, I still went, intent on finding out what I could, especially about the Catholic Worker – to glimpse first-hand its traditions of hospitality, selfless service, and the corporal works of mercy. Given all that, and in order to travel as light as possible, I decided to divest myself of all “non-essentials.” I gave away my futon and bike, a bunch of clothes and assorted knickknacks, and books – plenty of books.Cavallucci_-_San_Benedetto_Giuseppe_Labre

It wasn’t easy to whittle down the piles, but in the end, I arrived in Chicago with only one suitcase and one box – although the box was, to tell the truth, mainly books. Still, not a bad job paring down the personal library. Plus, I came to find out that none other than Benedict Joseph Labre, the homeless saint, tramped about 18th-century Europe with more than just the rags on his back. “In a small wallet he carried a Testament,” writes Joseph Delaney, “a breviary, which it was his wont to recite daily, a copy of the ‘Imitation of Christ,’ and some other pious books.”

Note: “Non-essential” is a relative term for bibliophiles.

This is all the more pertinent when two bibliophiles marry each other and the process of entwining two lives includes interweaving two libraries. Nancy and I never have come to full agreement on how to do that – which, if any, volumes to jettison; how to organize those remaining – but it little matters any more. Almost a quarter-century of marriage has steadily swelled our holdings beyond any reasonable limit, and with the blessing of seven kids rummaging around those holdings over the years, bookshelf organization is now a forgotten dream.

That happens to be the way I like it anyway: the more messy, the better. The best used bookstores are the same – Smith Family Books in Eugene, for example, and Pandora’s right here in South Bend. Another is Omaha’s Antiquarium – now defunct, unfortunately. It’s a book lover’s mecca, and I used to visit with Tom, my father-in-law, whenever I was in town.

To get an idea of the appeal of these places, recall Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, when Michael Caine is stalking Barbara Hershey and they wind up in a Manhattan bookshop. It’s a beguiling scene of seduction that ends with the discovery of an e.e. cummings anthology, but the best part is seeing the wild menagerie of tomes piled willy-nilly throughout the store. You could find anything there, you see, especially something you weren’t looking for – adventures abound!

hannahandhersisters08 Such is the scheme of our own family collection that now sprawls through every level of the house. From basement to bedrooms, most shelves double-stacked, and there are haphazard mountains of volumes leaning in this corner and that. When the kids were younger, we at least attempted to parse out the massive assembly by diverting picture books, board books, and children’s literature to the family room, while the living room was reserved for more serious, grown-up fare – the Catholic Encyclopedia, for instance, along with our uniform G.K. Chesterton Collected Works and a set of the Great Books of the Western World that we inherited from Tom.

These days? Forget it. Pick out any random shelf in the family room – the so-called “kids’ library” – and you’ll find a slapdash muddle of genres and age appropriateness. Just now I went there and glanced at the eye-level shelves next to the fireplace: Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar next to Sherlock Holmes; an Audubon guide (North American Trees: Eastern Region) adjacent to Encyclopedia Brown. There was Sophocles and a life of Edmund Campion, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer and the Hardy Boys, and finally (my favorite pairing), Mark Twain’s bleak Letters From the Earth abutting Who Is Coming to Our House, a delightful Christmas board book.

It’s all jumbled, and there are too many (according to my kids), but I enjoy having plenty of books around I haven’t read, and I like encountering books I might not otherwise seek out. Plus, I’m convinced it’s been a good situation for my children as well. Say someone’s looking for a Harry Potter or a Calvin and Hobbes – lo and behold, what’s this? A history of Russia? A novel by Jules Verne or Michael Crichton? How about the Franciscan Omnibus of Sources or Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle? Even if these are merely picked up, flipped through, and replaced, that’s at least some exposure to ideas and images, writers and writing, they wouldn’t have had otherwise.timemachine

If pressed, I imagine I’d trace my quirky passion for wall-to-wall books to “The Time Machine,” a 1960 film based on the novel by H.G. Wells. I saw the movie with my dad when I was a child, and it haunted me for years – less for the scary parts about subterranean monsters feeding on docile humans than for the concluding scene in Victorian England. The story’s hero, George, stops back in 1900 for a brief stopover after a variety of time-traveling adventures. Then, after certain preparations, he returns to the distant future to help restore humane civilization.

After he’s gone, George’s housekeeper notes that he apparently didn’t take any provisions except for three volumes that appear to be missing from a bookcase. Filby, George’s friend, asks, “Which three books?”

“I don’t know,” replies the housekeeper. “Is it important?”

“I suppose not…only, which three books would you have taken?”

Seriously? Three books? To rebuild a world? Why not five? Fifty? Why not make several trips to establish a futuristic depository? You’ve got a time machine, man!

But that’s beside the point. What really bugged me was trying to figure out George’s “THREE” – the Bible, sure, but what else? And that would still wrangle no matter what the number. I wanted to know what those three books were because I wanted to make sure I read them!

wfbIn the end, I decided it didn’t matter which books were transported, but only that they were transported – the more the better. And as far as selection, I’ve settled on: indiscriminate – grab an armful and run. Think of it as a survivalist literary equivalent of William F. Buckley’s famous dictum, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.”

After all, the rummaging can be as much an education as the reading, and I’d take a disheveled Antiquarium over three select volumes any day. Wouldn’t you?

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Best Answers: Of Nursing, Foolishness, and SNL

24 Jan


“There’s a sucker born every minute.”
~ P.T. Barnum

You’ve probably heard that Barnum didn’t coin that memorable phrase. In fact, there’s no hard evidence that the consummate showman and circus magnate ever said it even once. Still, the quotation has become permanently associated with Barnum’s name because he was the quintessential charlatan.

His circus – the “Greatest Show on Earth” – owed its success, at least in part, to exaggeration, dubious claims, and hoaxes, and all of those depended on locating folks ptbarnumwith money to burn and credulity to exploit – “suckers,” in other words. Rubes. Chumps. Fools – as in the old saying, “a fool and his money are soon parted.”

But there’s another kind of fool, and this auditorium is full of them: Nursing students. Students who have devoted long hours to arduous study, the painstaking acquisition of new skills, and the challenges of early morning – very early morning – clinical experiences. And…why – for what?

In pursuit of a profession that’s oriented to sacrifice and service? In the hopes of making a difference in people’s lives, maybe even change the world?

C’mon – really?

The truth is: Nursing is a pain in the neck – literally, along with the lower back, and not to mention the head (pass the Tylenol, extra strength). The demands are constant, the stress, relentless, and the implications of our actions and decisions, enormous – and these guys are signing on voluntarily?

Then there’s this: Nursing stinks – again, literally. I’m confident these students can tell you stories from last semester’s clinicals (if they haven’t already), and you nurses out there in the audience have plenty stories of your own to share.

Moreover: Nursing is lousy – sometimes literally, as in lice-infested. Or perhaps it’ll be any of the other vermin, viruses, and infectious critters that show up in healthcare domains and which ordinary folks prudently avoid.

Not nurses, though, and these students are heading right into all that – and we’re here to honor their bizarre, yet noble professional trajectory.

Some of them will work in hospitals after they graduate, some in doctor’s offices or nursing homes, some will take their nursing skills overseas as missionaries. Regardless of where they end up, they’ll all devote themselves to lightening the burdens others, and, in so doing, brightening up their corners of the world for everybody.

In a sense, they’ll be following in the footsteps of St. Paul, that wacky missionary who seems to have been heedless of all inconvenience and danger as he tramped about the Mediterranean proclaiming the Word – and not just in words. “With such affection for you,” he explained to the Thessalonians, “we were determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well.” That is, Paul strove to match his verbal message with a practical one – to make the Gospel he preached identical to the Gospel he lived.

Isn’t that what we expect of nurses? Isn’t that what nursing’s all about? It’s not just about passing pills, managing tubes, and dressing wounds. It also includes pouring our very selves for others – in most cases, total strangers.

So, are you wondering how we go about equipping these would-be fools for that all-encompassing task? No doubt, you’ve already heard the worst of it from your students – like the exams, for instance, which are unlike any exams they’ve had before.

Yes, those exams are so tricky – the multiple-choice questions often have multiple correct answers, but only one best answer. It’s by design, of course, because we’re testing not only the acquisition of babyaspirinknowledge, but also critical thinking with regards to applying that knowledge in actual clinical situations – no easy task, I assure you.

Let me give you an illustration of how it works – one that’s very familiar to the students, and quite likely personally familiar to many of you gathered here: The daily baby aspirin.

Lots of folks take it these days, but few if any babies – it’s a grown-up thing. Unlike baby aspirin for babies – which might be for fever or pain – a baby aspirin for grown-ups is for one of its other properties: Reducing blood clot formation, which may help prevent heart attacks and strokes.

So, let’s say this comes up in a med pass at the nursing home or hospital. As our students are checking their Five Rights and consulting their drug cards, trying to get everything in order, we instructors might casually ask, “And why is your elderly patient taking a daily baby aspirin?”

The first time this happens, there’s almost always a pause, and maybe a stammer, and then a timid, halting, “for…pain?” We’re never surprised by that answer, and, technically, it is a correct answer, isn’t it? I mean, we do give aspirin for pain, don’t we?

But it’s not the best answer, and explaining why that’s the case is part of the steep, steep learning curve for nursing students. And the next time a baby aspirin is on the menu for an adult patient? The student will reply, “To prevent clots”…hopefully.

Frankly, we expect our students to get things like this wrong – even repeatedly – regardless of how much they study and practice. It’s why they’re in school, after all: For the “nursey” stuff. If they got all the “nursey” stuff right from the get-go, most of my colleagues and I would be out of a job.

Yet, as I’ve already noted, there’s more to it, especially here at Bethel, for we’re also attempting to foster an alignment of nursing identity – the one oriented to meds and treatments and monitoring vital signs – with servant identity – the one given over to charity and empathy and simple kindness.

There, too, there’s a constant weighing and evaluating between correct and best, and it can be a challenge, for straightforward nursing tasks are never optional, and they can’t take a backseat to spiritual and otherworldly concerns. Sometimes we succeed in finding the proper balance; sometimes we don’t. In both cases, we reflect on our experiences, take heart from our little victories, learn from our mistakes – and keep on going.

SNL_Original_CastIt’s like something I heard Lorne Michaels say on an NPR interview. Michaels is the television producer and innovator responsible for Saturday Night Live – basically he invented it. When asked how he manages to put on a live broadcast comedy and variety show each week, do you think Michaels replied that they have everything in place each Saturday? That all the contingencies have been addressed, all the potential problems ironed out?

Not at all. “We don’t go on because we’re ready,” Michaels told NPR. “We go on because it’s 11:30.”

That’s true for lots of endeavors that entail risk and hard work – marriage, for instance, and parenting. Christianity itself, for that matter, and certainly nursing – even while we’re still in school. We aim for excellence, but we can’t wait for perfection, for total confidence – we’d never act! We’d never nurse!

Besides, it’s not the nursing itself that’s the point – as important as it is, the nursing’s not the point at all. Instead (and at the risk of sounding terribly corny) it’s really about the love – moreover, for us here at Bethel, we can specify further and speak of the love of Christ.

It’s the kind of love that drove the earliest disciples of Jesus to radically extend themselves on behalf of others in imitation of their crucified and risen Master. “We are fools for Christ’s sake,” to quote St. Paul again, but the world needs fools like these – and not only to care for sick folks and babies and aging codgers like me.

We need them because their idealism reminds us of what ought to be – what the world could be if only more of us chose to embrace selflessness as they have.

So, congratulations, students, for your foolishness – and thanks. Your future as nurses is a gift to us all and sign of real hope.

This essay was adapted from an address to first-year nursing students at their Nursing Dedication ceremony, Bethel College, Indiana (23 January 2016). A version also appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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