Several weeks before she passed away this summer, Shuling Chen gave her friends an opportunity to travel with her on the path of suffering and dying and living and loving. She did so by hosting a time of worship and reflection with us at the Jewish General Hospital where she was receiving palliative care. It was a deeply meaningful service of song and testimony and reflection and prayer, held in a beautiful solarium looking out on St. Joseph’s oratory. It was as human and honest an event as anything I have experienced in my life.
To be human is to travel in company with others. Some of those others are family members and close friends, with whom our truer selves may be revealed. Other fellow-travellers are women and men who walk alongside us more at arms length. Whoever our travelling companions, however, and whatever the degree of openness and disclosure between us, being together on the way defines us as human. In fact, we betray our humanity when we try to walk in isolation. Shuling’s invitation to celebrate and pray and worship with her represented an insistence that even the path toward death is one that we can and must share with others, in faith.
Shuling’s death came at the end of a very difficult year-and-a-half struggle with cancer. And one of the questions I wrestled with through that time was how to remain in company with her – how to remain a friend during her hospital stays, her days at home, and her return trips to the emergency room. I wouldn’t characterize Shuling as an intimate or close friend, but would describe her as a dear friend – someone with whom I shared in work and laughter and friendship over a number of years. So for me it was a question of how to accompany Shuling without my presence being a burden to her; how to speak with her and learn from her on this path while also respecting the nature of our relationship. Continue reading
Who would choose to live without friends? Who could live without friends? We all need friends. This is an assumption that has shaped the lives and thoughts of so many throughout history. From the greatest philosophers to your so-called average Joe, the vast majority of people have believed that we need friends.
The ancient philosopher Aristotle makes precisely this point in his ethical writings. He points out that even if we had all other goods imaginable – wealth and honour and accomplishments of every kind – even then, no one would choose to live without friends. The philosopher asks: If we don’t have friends, to whom will we show generosity? If we don’t have friends, how will we guard our prosperity? Without friends, how will we survive misfortunes and poverty? Without friends, who will stir us to noble action?
There is a wide literature on friendship. Relationships between friends have been portrayed in so many different ways, and our need of friends has been re-iterated in so many contexts. In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein gives us the shadow side of this assumption. Victor Frankenstein (the doctor who creates the great monster) writes these words to his confidant, Margaret Walton Saville: “I have no friend, Margaret. When I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate in my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in my dejection.” Continue reading
Have you ever been involved in a contest of wills? A contest of wills – when two people have become stubbornly fixed in their positions. Each one has dug in his or her heals. Neither one is going to move. It is a contest of wills – each one will try to outlast the other over some disagreement.
It happens sometimes between husband and wife:
We’re going to my sister’s for dinner next Thursday.
I’m not going to your sister’s place for dinner.
We’re going to my sister’s.
No we’re not.
We’re going to my sister’s for dinner.
No we’re not. Continue reading