Thursday, 15 November 2012

Rare generosity

Our week began with two contrasting but hugely moving events. The first was the funeral of a fifteen-year old girl with life-limiting disabilities (which I've already written about here "Thank you, Beth"). To one way of looking, this girl had no quality of life herself and impoverished her family's lifestyle. However I would disagree - and if the family were to be believed so would they, vehemently and utterly. Their testimony was simply how much good their daughter had brought into their lives. Not that they minimised the difficulties and heartache, but one simply has to know them to recognise how much love and joy (of a depth and quality few of us ever experience) she brought to them and to others - of whom I was fortunate enough to be one.

I first met her and her parents three summers ago when we were at a churches' convention and they were across the gangway from us. The attentiveness of her parents to her life-sustaining needs was constant and unconditional. It was clearly their way of life - and it lasted up to and beyond her premature death. Her send-off was no ordinary funeral. It plumbed the depths of grief and soared on heights of hope, all enveloped with extraordinary love. I have absolutely no doubt that if you asked the family whether they'd rather not have had the past fifteen years they would be astonished at the very question.

Then on Tuesday we visited an old friend who'd lived in the next village to us and in whose farmhouse I always received a warm welcome. She is now in a care home for dementia sufferers. We think she recognised us, but it wasn't easy to be certain. What was clear is that she was the same person we always knew, with the same sweet and cheerful nature, the same lady who used to sing a capella after communion in the small country church where she worshipped month by month. We were particularly glad to have spent an hour with her in that eccentric lounge, with disorientated women and men, with all their fluctuating emotions. It's hard to pin down why it wasn't depressing, but it wasn't. I dare say it might feel that way after a while. In fact it was rather the reverse. I think an important factor was the care of the staff. They were an international group, from at least three continents I'd guess. But they were all patient and quiet. It was impressive. We commented to one of them as we were leaving how patient they seemed and she said, "You have to be to work here."

I'm glad neither our young friend nor our old friend was thrown on the scrap-heap, but both have been valued and cared for, whatever the cost. Their lives were and are infinitely precious, as are all lives, however "useless". May we never set foot on the road which denies that value.

Simone Weil
I was listening to Melvyn Bragg's admirable programme In Our Time this morning and learned about the remarkable Simone Weil, about whom I was woefully ignorant. Born in France, she died in England in 1943 aged 34, and is buried in Ashford. Her understanding of pain was unusually vivid. One thing she said has really struck me, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” That, it seems to me, is what both my friends received. One could use other cognate words, such as attentiveness and attending to, or being totally aware of, or focusing on. It's the sort of care that gives itself to the other at the expense of the self - that is "the rarest and purest form of generosity". And I'm grateful to have seen it in the unpromising milieu of a dementia care home and particularly in one family's devotion to their helpless dependent child. I have had a privileged couple of days.


  1. The Simone Weil programme was good. Thank you for the recommendation.