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In Defense of the Elders

July 22, AD2014 21 Comments

Action, fantasy, westerns, or any movie including a hero and a villain will usually peek my interest. The Marvel films captured my imagination’s child-like side. The side which wants to believe in the ultimate triumph of good through the feats of a few broken yet resilient individuals who refuse to admit defeat for no other reason than people need them to keep going.

One of my favorite moments in The Avengers, and one which may have passed unnoticed by most, comes when Loki was in Germany gathering his “necessities” for war. As he is forcing all those gathered to kneel and submit to him one individual stands up. Not a brash, hot head youth ready to do battle, but a solitary old man, an elderly soul weathered by life’s trials. What could he do? Nothing, but simply stand and resist. Loki’s response is to obliterate the man, or try to, but before Loki does he mockingly tells the people to “look to their elder” as an example. In traditional super-hero fashion, the Avengers come in and save the day.

Let’s return to the old man, though. Why did the director choose an old man? Why not a damsel in distress or an innocent child? Both could arguably be better choices given the two heroes who arrive are Iron Man, billionaire playboy, and Captain America, forever self-sacrificing good guy. So, why the elder?

Who We Look To

I would argue that most societies in history have assigned special significance to those who reach a ripe old age (whatever that may be). When we meet a silver hair, we might ponder what that person has seen, experienced, accomplished, or what they’ve survived.

Until recently, we’ve looked to them for leadership, guidance, and strength. Now, many believe passing youth holds all the answers for the life they have not yet lived. These youths often reject their elders’ beliefs and example because they are ‘outdated’ and ‘out of touch’ with modern sensibility and reality. The examples of the previous generations, both good and bad, used to help the following generation calibrate society toward the Truth when they came of age.

It is then a paradox that a society should draw strength from the very individuals who are often the weakest physically, but hold tremendous interior strength. Just as the smallest child causes hope and joy to spring up inside us because of their innocence and innate potential to create a new and brighter day, we may draw strength from the elders who’ve lived through life’s many sufferings.

You can sum up these things in how our grandparents and great-grandparents are greeting Death and old age, an example to observe. How they greet death sets a tone for subsequent generations whether we would accept it or not.

As One Would a Friend

The euthanasia debate has raged for years, so I shall not seek to add to it directly. Instead, what has euthanasia given us as a society? There is a very subtle difference between welcoming death calmly and seeking a premature death to end someone’s suffering.

Please, take note: I say ‘someone’ intentionally. Whose suffering is ending exactly is often up for debate. Initially, and even now, I believe some supporters of euthanasia only desired to alleviate the suffering they saw in a patient or loved one who is terminally ill.

The Catechism (2276- 2279) clearly states the Church teaches that euthanasia is ‘morally unacceptable’. But, the Church differentiates between ending a life and the ‘refusal of “over-zealous” treatment’ in accepting death’s inevitability. Care of the dying rather than speeding death on takes priority.

As usual, intent plays an integral role in determining the route to take, and each case possesses its own difficulties and confusion. The teaching might be direct but discerning how best to follow it when your loved one is sick and suffering is another story.

St. Francis de Sales wrote the following to an ill friend,

If only our hearts were to be fixed upon this holy and blessed eternity, we would then say to our friends: “Go, dear friends, go to that eternal Being in the hour he designates; we will follow right behind you. And since this time here below is given to us for the sake of eternity…our going there will have accomplished all that we had to do.”

The Path Most Traveled By

I heard Dr. Michael Barber once say “everyone wants to go to Heaven but no one wants to die”. We focus so much on the DNRs, the treatments, the rest homes, and the bills that I wonder how much thought is given to the thing itself. The moment of death.

As Catholics, do we help our elders when they are dying? Do we show them love by praying with them, spending time with them, making sure they are given the sacraments to aid them? Do we walk them towards death as they helped us take our first steps? Do we help them prepare for death? Or, do we simply hit the fast forward button?

It is a matter of great reproach for a mortal to die without having prepared for death, but it is twice as serious for those to whom our Lord has given the gift of old age. Those who arm themselves before the warning bell has tolled are always better off than those who, when the commotion breaks out, are running here and there looking for helmet and shield…We must be ready, and not in order to leave before the hour, but to await it tranquilly.-St. Francis de Sales

Given the seeming large amount of support for euthanasia and physician assisted suicide for the elderly, I would assume the answers to the questions wouldn’t be where one would hope for the population at large.

Despite Life Site News’ dramatic flare, they do have a point in the link between elderly or adult euthanasia and the new laws in Belgium and the Netherlands concerning child euthanasia. I remember the shock and outrage from those against euthanasia when this first came to light. I did not think the shock was warranted. There is no reason to be shocked when old age and infirmity have already been deemed not worth living. In other words, life is only precious to the point.

Defend the Elders

The right to chose and die with ‘dignity’ and to alleviate suffering, for both the patient and their loved ones, are the reasons given for why the elderly and young should be euthanized in certain situations. Dignity is never defined beyond seeking to die or to prevent suffering. Never mind the insanity of reasoning that a child, who is not allowed to drive, vote, marry, or drink, should be given the ‘right’ to make the ultimate decision to die (for no decisions follow).

We live in a world which actively encourages the old to ‘prepare’ for death by making sure their end of life procedures are in order so as not to be a burden on their loved ones. Loving someone may be hard or difficult at times but it is not a burden. DNRs and the like are not wrong in themselves, but, telling someone their death is only ‘not a burden’ and is dignified if it’s quick is wrong.

The line of reasoning in euthanasia debates began with alleviating suffering in the elderly, terminally ill patients, grew to include the suffering of those around the patient, is expanding to include the young, and the next step are those whose life expectancy or quality is not up to some arbitrary medical standard. All in the name of dignity and easing suffering. As if there is no suffering outside of death or dignity may only be found in a quick, chemical death. Because Christ never suffered or died for us, comforted us in our suffering, or bequeathed a miracle of a few more years with loved ones.

Our parents and grandparents’ lives are as much of an example to us as their deaths. How we, the young, treat them now as they age and draw near to death will be the most we can hope to expect from our children. How we treat the old is indicative of the love we do or do not bear for them.

Currently, our society tells us the old should never burden the young. Our world is fast, they are slow. Better to end their lives when disease presents itself rather than enjoy the gift of any additional time we have with them. Our God-given human dignity is dishonored and diminished when we throw away the life we hold in stewardship. Not to mention the fact that we ignore the gift their prayers and presence is for their family and the Church.

If we wish to defend against a culture of death, we should begin by focusing more on healing and helping our elders prepare for death rather than how best to make the ‘end’ come and go as quickly as possible.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Michael is a Texan living in self-inflicted exile as he finishes his PhD. in the history of early modern Britain. After completing his undergraduate degree at Baylor (Sic 'em!!), he decided his faith life needed re-evaluating and reinvigorating. He quickly realized that spiritual growth is a life long affair and not a quick fix. This created a thirst for a deep knowledge of the faith and a desire to share every nugget with others who may benefit. Michael is addicted to movies and books and enjoys quality time with friends and family.

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