Switching our focus to the elderly
This Sunday marked the beginning of Respect Life Week, the time of year in which the Church calls us to pay special attention to promoting the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death. Within the scope of the pro-life movement, our focus often falls on these two events: the very beginning of life and its development during pregnancy, and the final rite of passage in the last hours before death. No one will deny that these are extremely important events in the course of life. However, they account for such a short time in the grand scheme. There are so many other opportunities to uphold and celebrate the beauty of life through the simple daily process of interacting with others, treating the least of Christ's brothers as we would treat Him.
One such group of people, often considered out of the loop, out of touch and, for all practical purposes, useless, has a face we see every day, whether at Notre Dame or at home: the elderly. It's so easy to treat senior citizens as fading lights of life ready to burn out, to see them as a group of people whose quality of life is on the decline and whose value to us is diminishing. Sure, we briskly say hello, offer a smile, perhaps to make ourselves feel charitable under the assumption that our insignificant gesture brings a remarkable amount of joy to the person. Let's get real. Whether we talk to a 10-year-old child or a 70-year-old lady, the amount of real attention paid to the person is what really matters, and that kid or that elderly person is as aware as any of this. The cordial phrases and courteous greetings are nice in the sense of acknowledging a person's physical presence, but what real meaning does it have? How do they bear witness to that person's individuality, his uniqueness of character?
They don't, really. Nevertheless, what's the use in identifying our shortcomings if we fail to correct them at the next chance? The opportunities abound to show true interest and respect for elderly life. Many of us have grandparents living today, people to whom we undoubtedly owe a great deal of gratitude that cannot really be repaid. But beyond what they've done for us in the past, beyond their nurturing role in our parents' lives and in our lives, they still are alive and still want to share that gift with us. Grandparents sit with outstretched arms, offering unconditional love, a bent ear and a story to tell. That story is one of experience and wisdom, two invaluable commodities that we as 20-somethings cannot possess. Our only sources of these are the older people we know. Little pieces of how life really works and how people act — these are so characteristic of a conversation with someone who has been in our position before and so important in decision making dilemmas we all face.
For those of you lucky enough to have your grandparents, tap into this incredible resource right at your fingertips. Call your grandma tomorrow, play cards or pool with your grandpa over fall break and talk with them. People who care so much about you not only love to share their stories with you, they also appreciate hearing about your daily journeys.
Grandparents are a smooth case — it's fun to sit and talk with them, and it's easy to love them. There are also elderly people living around us — neighbors, daily communicants and employees at local businesses — who are just as important and deserving of our attention. People who ask for help carrying their groceries and who become ecstatic at the prospect of the ensuing 15-minute visit, a chance to bring out some snacks and have a pleasant conversation with a young and vibrant individual. Those who have belonged to a parish for as long as they can remember are thrilled to see the new blood that will keep the place going, the youth that can contribute the energy they once did.
Next time you go home, take some of these ideas with you. Remember the point of Respect Life Week, and the greatest direction our lives can take: to witness the beauty of life at any stage, especially the last 10 years of it, and to share in its wealth of knowledge, feelings and emotions.
But we don't need to wait until we go home. Here at Notre Dame, a place where the population is predominantly young adult, elderly people walk in our midst and contribute to the daily mission of the University. Think of all the Holy Cross priests spread throughout campus, their lifetime dedication to Christ and to His ministry and the talents they share with the community here. Their homilies, sacraments and classes allow us to share in the lives of a very special, invaluable group of people.
Think of the people who staff the dining halls — many of them elderly, all with unique characteristics and qualities unknown to most of us. If you have the chance to go to the dining hall at a non-peak time, stop and talk for a few minutes with those who swipe your ID card. Let them tell you what they think of our football team, of our campus developments, of the way things used to be here. Talk with the lady at grab'n'go about the grandchildren for whom she's collecting juice box decal stickers and ask to see their pictures. Spend a few minutes each day — actual quality time — with the seniors that work here on campus. The elderly here and at home are not simply a group of society that can be classified as one-dimensional, as one to be forgotten after five seconds of impersonal exchange. They are a functioning, integral part of humanity that will always be with us, ready to offer counsel, support and their own histories.
Often, we who are pro-life become so involved in the more dramatic scenarios we address (troubled pregnancy, the very end of life, death row) that we skip past such a real and important segment: the time in between, filled with so much valuable life to recognize, appreciate and embrace. In this Respect Life Week and beyond, let's remember those daily examples of unique lives that we can honor and share with others, especially the elderly in our presence. One day, we too will be part of the senior generation in society. Will we want to be the lamp hidden under a basket or the one placed on a stand giving light to those around us?
John Linn is co-president of Notre Dame Right to Life whose columns appears every other Tuesday.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, October 5, 1999