Kiwis are losing their religion in record numbers but they’re leaning into life in diverse ways, which would make complete sense to the late theologian James Fowler. After interviewing nearly 600 people, not a bad sample for any research, he reckoned faith is the way we lean into and make sense of life. It’s not necessarily religious or about belief, on the contrary, faith is universal. As the blurb on the back of his best seller Stages of Faith says, ‘everyone who chooses to go on living operates by some basic faith’.
How people lean into life matters at any time but particularly when we are sick, dying or ageing. Understanding how each person does this and helping them harness that powerful source of hope is at the heart of the Transforming Spiritual Care Strategy adopted by MidCentral District Health Board. However, it’s not easy to get traction when spirituality has largely been captured through a religious lens, which in our case has been Christianity. So, first we had to figure out where we were and, in the light of changing demographics and international research, what the future needed to be. The existing and future diagram below captures illustrates our thinking.
My job as Spiritual Care Coordinator is to help make this happen. None of it is easy, particularly in New Zealand where conversations about spirituality must quickly cut through the worry that we might be on about religion, or a religion that has no meaning for the person in front of us. Couple this with our responsibilities under The Treaty of Waitangi and working in a refugee resettlement area that hosts new Kiwis who bring a diverse mix of religious experience to their meaning making.
Key to success is creating a culture change through a renewed understanding of spirituality as an integral part of healthcare and integrating spiritual care into practice. We’ve come a long way in the last six years but the mountain is of Everest proportions.
What often keeps me going are the stories of faith that people share with me day after day. Some are about religious practices and beliefs but most of them are about the unique and varied ways people lean into life to make meaning, sometimes in tragic circumstances. James Fowler was right. I wish we’d listened to him earlier because having faith in healthcare really does matter.
Research is all very well, but what if the results force you to rethink existing beliefs and behaviours? I’ve just been challenged like that about a compassion course I co-tutor.
The course emerged out of hospital corridor conversations where staff talked about how exhausted, stressed and burnt out they felt. My colleague and I responded by creating a workshop that incorporated a wide range of academic literature, practical resources and a safe space for people to reflect on practice.
Most of the people attending have found it worthwhile, in part because we’ve placed considerable emphasis on the idea that self-care is essential for healthcare providers’ health and well-being. That’s appealing, especially if you’re a baby boomer like me, a group so focused on personal development that we became known as the me generation. But does that self-absorption have flow on benefits?
Shane Sinclair and his Canadian research team are turning that idea upside down by suggesting that ‘coupling the concept of self-attitude and self- care with compassion diminishes the inherently relational, prosocial, action-orientated, and selfless nature of compassion’. (Sinclair et al. 2017)
Being selfless is something that my mum talked about, a lot. Her knowing was shaped by growing up in the 1920’s and living through World War II. It also came from her values that were deeply grounded in The Good Samaritan story.
This 2,000 year old parable talks about a guy who is attacked by robbers on a busy road and left for dead. Religious people travelling to a festival at the temple pass by but the Samaritan, seen as the outsider in the culture of the day, takes time to care and what’s more, pays for the guy’s stay at the local inn. Today, the event would be a Facebook sensation.
Naming and shaming the religious people is a common response to this story but it’s not quite that straightforward. Look a little deeper and you’ll find that they had rules, expectations and cleanliness laws to comply with. In short, their higher power, or ruling authority made it hard for them to act compassionately in the moment.
In the 1970’s Princeton University recreated the situation with 67 seminary students. (Darley, John M, Batson 1973) Some had to prepare a talk on The Good Samaritan, variable time pressures were applied to participants and all were set up to find a suffering person on the way to deliver their presentation. 40% offered some help to the victim, however, only 10% helped when they were in high hurry situations and some even stepped over the person in their haste.
The researchers concluded that people in a hurry are less likely to help others even if they are deeply immersed in a classic text like The Good Samaritan. Furthermore, it appears that it’s not callousness that explains a failure to stop and offer help; instead it’s a conflict between the desire to help and meeting the needs of the higher power. Failures of compassion are as much about systems as they are about individuals.
None of this was new to me, in fact we’ve used the learnings from the Princeton research in our compassion courses. What I found so challenging was the awareness that we may have been putting an emphasis on self-care because it was easier than the organisational change needed to embed compassionate action in systems and processes.
All of us working in health are captive to some higher power. It may be procedures and guidelines, cleanliness rules, professional bodies, academic research, politics, targets, all of which can stimulate an internal conflict with our desire to act compassionately.
However, as Sinclair and team point out, allowing and empowering healthcare staff to be able to meet the suffering of someone beyond themselves, ‘may have a corollary effect on self-kindness, job-satisfaction and a positive self- attitude’. It’s a win-win if we work together. Strange how my mum knew that.
Darley, John M, Batson, C. Daniel. 1973. “From Jerusalem to Jericho: A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27 (1): 100–108. https://faculty.washington.edu/jdb/345/345 Articles/Darley & Batson (1973).pdf.
Sinclair, Shane, Jane Kondejewski, Shelley Raffin-Bouchal, Kathryn M. King-Shier, and Pavneet Singh. 2017. “Can Self-Compassion Promote Healthcare Provider Well-Being and Compassionate Care to Others? Results of a Systematic Review.” Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, April. doi:10.1111/aphw.12086.
Image: C Curve sculpture by Anish Kapoor that turns a familiar and comfortable view upside down. Photographed at Cleveland Museum of Art.
Euthanasia is now a hot political topic in New Zealand as David Seymour's voluntary euthanasia bill has been drawn from the ballot forcing politicians to confront this important issue in an election year.
I support euthanasia and have done for many years. For me it is the mark of a compassionate society to hear the suffering of humans and to help alleviate that suffering even if our own sensibilities are offended.
A small skull sits on my desk to help me remember that death is my beginning and my end and a tease along the way. Flicking me provocative glances early on then keeping her distance until now I see she’s trying to be best friends, intent on a partnership because she is my destiny.
When life no longer holds any meaning for me I want the choice to self terminate and I want that choice to be respected as the choice of a thinking human being who has worked hard to figure out how to live with meaning. I do not want to be patronised by people with power of any kind; including medical professionals telling me I am depressed or unable to make my own decisions.
When the time comes it will be important for me to ritualise the end of my life with family and friends. To tell stories, to give thanks for my life, to drink a glass or two of beautiful bubbly, to read some of my words again, the ordering of which has given me such joy, to bless the people I love and be blessed by them, and in a dignified way, acknowledge that it is done.
When I have been expected all my adult life to take responsibility for myself, it seems like the ultimate betrayal of a society, a glaring lack of compassion to have this final task of the greatest meaning taken from me.
But this desire is a bridge too far for some. The worry seems to revolve around the question of what will become of us if we embrace the ability of our community to self terminate? Will we end up as monsters, devouring our own kind, adrift in the universe without moral code or compass, lacking even shreds of compassion for others and ourselves?
Colin Jamieson, a Methodist minister said, ‘Euthanasia is about how and why we die; what processes should be prohibited or modified, but mainly it’s about the value of compassion and the motives of the participants.’
Nevertheless, major, existential community fears need to be listened to, sat with and explored. In particular, we need to address the overwhelming fear that we are not enough to competently, wisely and compassionately manage the creative life force that energises us for a time before it slowly starts to wane.
Once many might have appealed to an omnipotent, external God or a sacred text for guidance, but more often now the realisation is that we have to take responsibility for life and develop the faith in ourselves that we can do this with compassion, love, justice and mercy.
But can we listen to one another, respect autonomy and individual choices whilst living in the tension of a wider community? Are we up for it and what if we get it wrong? What will guide us?
Read the full text of this article taken from a presentation given to the Voluntary Euthanasia Society in Wellington, New Zealand. Download the text here.
Pregnant, yet deep within I knew I couldn’t give this baby life. The decision was made to abort and back then, over 30 years ago, I was unaware of how this experience would influence my spiritual development.
Now in my 60’s I can see how it contributed to the meaning and purpose of my life, an experience that helped me develop compassion for myself and others, and offer a timid act of resistance to the relentless patriarchy of my religious tradition.
Circumstances meant I flew to Sydney for the abortion. Should have been straightforward but mistakes were made and my life was in jeopardy because of an unidentified bleed. A Kiwi nurse held my hand as I was packed full of dressings and hooked up to a continuous blood supply. The next day she went with me to theatre where the internal damage was found and repaired, just in time. How much her connectedness with me mattered.
I remember the way she looked deep into my soul during those days of despair. It was as though God took on female form with compassion, acceptance and love writ large on a nurse's face and in her ritual, nurturing actions. All done within sight and sound of the patient who told her visitors in self-righteous tones, loud enough for me to hear, about ‘the abortion over there gone wrong’.
Soon I was back home in a New Zealand church attending a baby’s funeral. I cried incessantly, deep wracking sobs. Couldn’t stop and didn’t want to even though I was piggy backing on someone else’s grief and funeral rites. Where was the rite for the remains of the child I had aborted and for the sustenance of my soul? Who decided what was sacramental, or not?
20 years on whilst training to be an Anglican priest, I found myself reliving significant life experiences, including the abortion, and beginning to write Godde instead of God. It was code for the feminine aspect of God, the tiniest act of resistance to the avalanche of male dominated thought about what we might mean by God. Thank Godde for feminist theologians who fuelled my growing discontent.
My life experience as a woman, a priest and now working to integrate spiritual care in a district health board shows me that the stories we live by matter. Furthermore, the stories of that which we hold as sacred, the inspiration to live within the existential nothingness of the void, are mighty stories that carry unspoken layers about who we are and what we might become. They work best within rituals that ground us in the uncertainty of life and offer inspiration, especially in dark times. Imagine what it might be like if there were more Godde stories to help us do this.
I suspect a form of religious fundamentalism drives abortion protesters and stops New Zealand politicians from addressing our outdated abortion laws. Unfortunately, as Marist priest and social anthropologist Dr Gerald Arbuckle says in his book Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad, fundamentalism is an emotional reaction to the disorienting experience of change and fundamentalists are not open to rational discussion. This skews conversation.
Conversations about how we understand life, its beginnings, endings and the messy bits in between are an evolving journey for all communities. Our abortions matter in these conversations because they are so foundational in the mighty stories of our lives. They are excruciating moments that deserve the grounding of creative and compassionate rituals, not the destructive gauntlet of fundamentalist protest.
Fortunately for our children there is a slowly building movement around Godde stories. Check out The Girl God to be mightily inspired and see the growing range of books. The image for this story is the cover of the first Girl God book by Trista Hendren
Stop! Just stop! The voice in my head was shouting whilst I walked silently towards the speeding traffic with my hand up. There was no fear, only adrenaline. Thankfully they did stop.
Two minutes before I'd been driving home along State Highway 2, happily reviewing my glorious weekend in Napier, when a grey ball of fluff rolled out from under the car in front. Hit and run of a kitten. Does hit and run matter if the victim's not human? It certainly mattered to the kitten.
I pulled over and as I got out of my car, another motor monster headed straight for her and wham. Her tiny body rolled. Surely she's dead I thought. Please, let her be dead. Nothing can survive this. But no, a small head lifted, which was when my Cat Woman craziness got into full throttle.
Ray, a good country bloke stopped his truck. Together, we somehow got her off the road without being run over ourselves. And here was this remarkable little miracle cat that was so alive and staring at me with big, trusting eyes. She nestled in. I swear I can't tell the difference between the pleading of this animal and the pleading of a human in pain. Can you?
Within 30 minutes Miss Miracle was being checked over by Mary at the Waipukurau vet clinic, snuggled in a soft blanket, room service on hand and pain relief on board. We don't know yet if she has internal injuries that may claim her life or if there is a family out looking for her right now. But for now she's safe.
Miss Miracle, a sentient being in trouble, demanded compassionate action of me today and fortunately I was able to act. It was irrelevant that she is a cat and not a human, but I realised in those moments facing oncoming traffic that not everyone thinks like that.
Exploring spirituality one word at a time.