how can the chronically afflicted flourish?

Throughout this year, I’ve enjoyed grazing on Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita’s classic book A Common Humanity. There’s lots to savour — as well as some chewier, harder-to-digest bits.

I wanted to share this morsel with you. It’s about Gaita’s experience as a ward assistant at a mental health facility during the 60s.

According to Gaita, patients were often treated in quite a dehumanising way by the ward staff — and even some of the doctors. He recounts stories of people who’d soiled themselves being instructed to strip so they could be hosed down from the safe distance of a mop handle. (Thankfully, things are very different these days.)

Gaita was drawn to some of the more noble doctors who talked a lot about the full dignity and humanity of their clients (although there were often mocked behind their backs).

But it wasn’t until a nun showed up on the ward, talking and reaching out to the patients with such a sense of commonality — rather than distance, revulsion or condescension — that Gaita realised even the most progressive doctors had still been talking down to their afflicted clients

This realisation has been formative for Gaita’s thinking about ethics. As he puts it (page 19):

An ethics centred on the concept of human flourishing does not have the conceptual resources to keep fully amongst us … people who are severely and ineradicably afflicted

And it’s so true. It’s so easy in practice to avert our gaze. To avoid the sick, suffering, and grieving (finding all sorts of very valid-sounding reasons not to visit in hospital, call, or attend the funeral).

But in so doing we relegate them to a shadow-land of half-existence. And we gut all our high talk of dignity and equality for all.

It even happens in churches.

Aren’t churches supposed to be the refuges for the broken — full of people who know that they aren’t right? Aren’t churches supposed to be places where human flourishing isn’t simply about avoiding or minimising suffering. And aren’t churches supposed to be gatherings of people who are walking in the way of the one who reached out to the afflicted and marginalised, who met them, healing and restoring them to their full humanity?

O for his healing, humanising touch!

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