The American Heritage Dictionary defines integrity as “completeness, unity.” For human beings, living with integrity means living consistently with all of the aspects of our humanity. It implies exercising our personal freedoms while at the same time owning the limits within us and those rightly set upon us; practicing appropriate autonomy while concurrently embracing our role in community; expressing our independence while simultaneously living interdependently with others.
Why did Terri Schiavo’s story so capture the interest of Americans in recent weeks? It was, in part, because we all struggle with the tension between these aspects of our humanity. In the last century we saw the harvest of bitterness reaped in communist countries where all decisions were made in the name of the supposed collective good of society, while crushing the human spirit’s need for expression and freedom. At the same time, there is a growing uneasiness with the American mindset that the fullest expression of the human spirit consists exclusively in personal freedom, personal fulfillment, and personal autonomy. When we lose the tensions between freedom and responsibility, between individuality and community we begin to lose our identity—and our way.
Many arguments made in support of removing Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube were based on the underlying assumption that the preservation of personal autonomy was the highest moral good in this case. An editorial in last week’s paper stated that “the only justifiable debate, therefore, is what Terri’s wishes would be in this situation.” But is it? Is that an integrated view of the human person? When a person struggles with severe depression and attempts to end their life, we intervene if at all possible. Is that disrespecting their autonomy, or embracing our role as a community? At the time—knowing what they know about their current state in life—the suicidal individual chooses to no longer live. We intervene, not because we can guarantee improvement to their condition, but because we value them as human beings and are committed to their care. We intervene as it is humane to do so—which is to say that it is kind, merciful and compassionate.
Kindness, mercy and compassion are costly acts of community and interdependence. They require something of us. They make us more than we would be otherwise—more than we would be if left alone, self-absorbed in our private world of autonomy. Twenty-first century American society is a culture that glorifies the exercise of personal choice. But we seem to have forgotten that one can also make a choice to be committed to others. We need to recover a commitment to a different kind of choice, the choice to live connected lives that are characterized by mercy. St. Gregory of Nyssa once defined mercy as “a voluntary sorrow which enjoins itself to the suffering of another.” Sorrow and suffering are two of the common threads of the human experience that bind us across generations, income brackets, races and ability levels.
Whose life will you choose to enter into today? If we each make a choice to live with integrity—to embrace all aspects of our humanity—we will begin to find ourselves again and, perhaps, our way in the process.
Never will I sit motionless while directly or indirectly apology is made for the murder of the helpless. In securing any kind of peace, the first essential is to guarantee to every man the most elementary of rights: the right to his own life. Murder is not debatable.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in Mankind;
And therefore never send to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
John Donne (1571-1630)
Do unto others as if you were the others.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
All the starry hosts of heaven and of earth declare with one voice the glory bestowed on these sublime creatures of the Living God, these creatures made just a little lower than himself. We can do no better than to acknowledge our acceptance of Him by our acceptance of them.
Dympna of Gheel (c. 770-795)
If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain:
If I can ease one life in the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
Emily Dickenson (1830-1886)
The accursed everyday life of the modernist is instinct with the four sins crying to heaven for vengeance, and there is no humanity in it, and no simplicity, and no recollection.
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)
The Modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; but their truth is pitiless. And thus some humanitarians care only for pity; but their pity--I am sorry to say--is often untruthful.
G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)