Friday, 19 October 2007

When did privacy become a crime?

Some years ago, I remember enjoying two books by author Marie Killiliea, both of which centred on her family and their efforts to find proper treatment for their daughter, Karen, who has cerebral palsy. The books were written with great flair and wit. The first book, Karen, focussed mainly on Karen herself. In the second, With Love from Karen, much of the emphasis is on the Killilea's (apparently) adopted, older daughter, Gloria. Gloria was a convert to Catholicism, very staunch in beliefs, and much of the action refers to how Gloria and her husband waited seven years for an annulment of his first marriage in order to marry.

The books are far from ponderous, dull, or depressing! Both are filled with accounts of varied activities amongst all family members, and contain an ample dose of humour. Of course, there are themes which undoubtedly cause the books to have a bit of a slant. My impression is that Karen had a dual purpose - to emphasise the potential of people who are disabled, and to show Karen herself as the perfect Catholic who never complains, always sees God's hand in her suffering, and the like. With Love from Karen is great fun in many aspects, but here Gloria is the major saint - through Karen's influence in part. The latter book is a 'happily ever after' story, where the couple who remained faithful to Church teachings are settled in a charming red farmhouse with their two beautiful new daughters.

When I stumbled upon a Yahoo discussion group about the Killileas (which I do not recommend - one must spend hours sifting through tens of thousands of messages to find the 1% that have any relation to the topic), I was surprised and saddened to read that, not long after Marie's second book became a bestseller, there was an electrical fire in Gloria's house, which caused the death of her two eldest daughters and a niece. I also learnt that, though the Killileas had been public figures for some time, with Marie's being highly involved in organisations related to cerebral palsy (and the lot of them avidly involved with exhibiting their show dogs), in recent years they have carefully guarded their privacy. (Marie and her husband, Jimmy, are long dead, and Gloria and Russ have died as well. The family members who are still living are not public in the least.)

This seems perfectly understandable to me, as I get out Ockham's razor. In Marie's second book, she mentions receiving massive amounts of correspondence, daily, from readers. I'm sure that, with readers having no way to know of the fire, Marie must have received many letters enquiring about what the (dead) girls were doing now. In later printings of Marie's books, the latest being, I believe, in the early 1980s, though she includes a preface with information about cerebral palsy work and a brief reference to both Karen and the show dogs, there is no update whatever about the family. Perhaps the pain would have been too intense to be displayed, though the fire happened long before then. As well, considering that part of the charm of the later book was in seeing the faithful couple in a near-storybook life, presumably blessed for their fidelity to the Church, for readers to know what utter tragedy awaited Gloria and Russ not long afterward (the picture book house burnt to the ground, the two blonde angels in the grave) well might spoil the effect of the writing.

On another note, the more because I myself am a private person, I would imagine it is extremely difficult for anyone to be featured in a book. I'm sure that Marie's books were highly valuable and instrumental in educating the public about cerebral palsy, and indeed they are quite delightful by any standard. Yet I would shudder to imagine, at any time but perhaps all the more in childhood and adolescence, having details of my life available for the mass market.

It must have been all the more difficult for Marie's children because all books where authors write of their families seem to be half fact, half fiction. I'm not suggesting that the authors are writing what is not true, but such works must be highly selective. (Who would find the bare facts of any family's existence to be entertaining, let alone inspiring?) I am sure it was trying at times, because, unlike some authors who are, for example, merely looking to write humorous stories of family life (and being featured in those must be quite hard enough!), Marie was also carefully emphasising her kids as the amazing daughter who overcame disabilities (Karen ends with Karen's confident assertion that "I can do anything!"), and the perfect Catholic family.

There is no slur in these reflections of mine. I am only imagining how hard it must have been to live one's life in a fish bowl, and also to have to remain true to themes, as it were. Had I grown up in such a situation, I'd probably be digging holes and crawling in beside the hedgehogs. Marie mentions that, when she appeared at autograph sessions, television interviews, etc., she never brought Karen - too easy to become prideful. Yet I am wondering if another element existed. Perhaps Karen was more noticeably disabled than the books show, for example. Since some other characters in the books (already adult when Karen was a child) are totally extraordinary (for example, a young woman with cerebral palsy whose achievements as a lawyer, though she could not even write and her speech was slurred, would match those of any famous figure in law), even if Karen were highly functioning she would have to be a superwoman to fully back up the image that disabled people can 'do anything.'

Which brings me to the matter which is title of this post. I was appalled to see that those contributing in the discussion group, once they learnt of the Killileas desire for privacy, assumed sinister elements. For example, since the Killileas were devout Catholics, and numbered many priests amongst their friends, various contributors assumed (for no discernible reason except that the media paints the clergy black these days) that their children must have been sexually abused!

Don't many of us prefer to not have our lives broadcast from the housetops? I know, in my own life, that though there are no details that would interest tabloids, much is either painful, or of a nature where I would prefer to forget, or, let us say, an untrue family myth which I don't want shared with friends because they well might believe it rather than the truth. I learnt, painfully, that, though most people in such situations not only have done nothing immoral but are exemplary, the moment anyone hears that anyone was dismissed from a religious Order, the immediate question is "With how they need people today, what could she have done?"

Just to use my own situation as an example, when I was forced out of convent life, I was in emotional pain so intense that I was utterly shattered. It was all the worse because it could not be shared - everyone I knew was glad I was 'out,' and quick to 'diagnose' my continued devotion to consecrated life as 'clinging to the convent,' or 'mourning the convent,' or, supposedly, some delusion where I was assumed to still think I was a member of the congregation. No one was supportive - in fact, they wanted to help me 'snap out of it,' and I often was assured, for example, that I still could catch a husband if I were slender. This, and other elements of my own life, I did not discuss - because others' reactions only intensified the pain.

Never having been a mother, I cannot imagine the agony it must have been for Gloria to watch her children die in a fire, or how painful it must have been for Marie to receive enquiries about children who had perished. Why would it be surprising that they did not care to be high profile?

There is too much stress on child abuse, particularly sexual, today. I noticed, in the forum I mentioned and elsewhere, that it is immediately assumed that anyone who values privacy is a victim of molestation. Yet it is ironic that those who share every detail of their lives for all and sundry normally have a degree of self absorption which could try the patience of Job.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

For the scientific among you - just this once :)

One of the areas which I've been pursuing, now that I've plunged into the deep waters of the philosophy of religion, has been arguments for an intelligent designer of the universe. (Yes, I knew about William Paley long ago... it always seemed sloppy to me that he didn't refute David Hume's much older writings, but be that as it may.) Now, I certainly believe in a Creator, but my concept of a 'designer,' for reasons that must be obvious, always leant towards the artistic. After all, I can design clothing, Internet sites (well, back in the days when they were beautiful), calligraphic manuscripts.

Unlike my co-contributors, I have no aptitude whatever for higher mathematics or science. My total grasp of the latter is that I so love dinosaurs that I'll endure being in the company of children (quite a penance, that) in order to view their skeletons, and that I am sent into one of my minor ecstasies when I see representations of the DNA molecule. I therefore was pleasantly surprised today, when I read an essay, in the Peterson anthology to which I've provided a link above, entitled The Anthropic Teleological Argument, by L. Stafford Betty and Bruce Cordell. It presented a strong and fascinating argument, on grounds of both physics and mathematical probability, for an intelligent Designer of the universe. This theory seems to far outweigh the possibility of, for example, the Big Bang's having been totally random.

Those of you who enjoy religious philosophy, and also can wade through the intricacies of quantum theory and the like would undoubtedly enjoy the article immensely, the more because it contained quotations from many contemporary scientific studies. Even I followed most of it - though, where physics is concerned, I doubt my brain capacity exceeds the size of a proton. Yet I had to share a marvellous quotation from the end of the essay, which I found nearly courageous for scientists to make. :)

The authors conceded that, in itself, the teleological argument shows a good case for an intelligent designer, rather than the random, but that it obviously would not show us precisely what characteristics God would have. (They then went on to explain generation of amino acids... but I 'came back' with the next paragraphs.) They did not see that there wasn't a hint of a Creator being far more than a 'supermind.'

I don't think this passage is long enough to violate copyright, so I present it for your reflection. They first commented on how the significantly greater cannot evolve from the significantly less. :

"Would it not be a violation of this law if so much moral goodness as appears in this world were to exceed the goodness of the supermind? ... We occasionally meet Mahatmas, more frequently little old ladies who unfailingly greet us with cheerful smiles in spite of severe arthritis. Not only is there much nobility and goodness in our own species; there is also a reverence for truth and a love of beauty. Beauty, truth, and goodness - those three fundamental values of the Greeks. Do large numbers of human beings significantly surpass the supermind in these 'constraints of the spirit'? This would have to be so if the supermind were merely a mind... It would have succeeded in creating a good of which it knows nothing...

If such a law (significantly greater not evolving from less - EGM) holds, then it would follow that the supermind must be superior to us, not only with respect to intelligence... but in every other important way as well. That mind must be characterised by knowledge, power, beauty, goodness, and love to a degree not known to us mortals. If so, it must be in some sense 'personal,'... for such traits as goodness and love would seem to ahere only in that which is at least analogous to persons. Whether or not the supermind has these perfections to an infinite degree... cannot be predicted by our argument. Nonetheless, it is clear that we are not far away from a God whom we can at least admire. And if admiration should grow to love - a not unnatural progression - then the God of the great theistic religions is not far away. Religion and science will have joined hands."


Wednesday, 17 October 2007

The more bizarre in the miracle department

(The link in the title is to a previous post about devotion to Saint Gerard, whose feast day was on the 16th of October.)

Frequently, I am 'torn in two directions' in my religious faith. My faithful readers will recall that I currently am studying the philosophy of religion in depth. Two of the areas which this involves are related to miracles and to prayers of petition. Neither, even if they were taken to be valid (which I certainly believe), could be presented as proofs for divine creativity in this world - I rather like John Hick's apt comment that, were God to make his presence clearly, much less majestically, clear, our response could be that of those in awe or fear of power, rather than one of trust and love.

Saint Gerard, who was a favourite saint of my mother's, was one of those saints who it would be wonderful to honour, but generally a poor idea to imitate. He was a very simple man, excessive in penance and devotion, one to take things far too literally. Unlike most post-Reformation saints, he was known for miracles of all sorts, some quite strange, during his lifetime. As a child, he had the Child Jesus (in the form of a statue which periodically came to life in Gerard's presence) for a playmate. Said Child also provided Gerard with loaves of bread. In later years, Gerard was known to fly through the air, appear and rescue a ship in danger, use his old friend the Child Jesus statue to retrieve a lost key from a well, and so forth.

This is unrelated, but permit me a loose association. David Hume, who was Gerard's contemporary (not that they'd ever have met or known of each other...), raised questions which did need to be asked about miracles. Hume also was a total snob and fashionable atheist / sceptic. I would be the first to have reservations about reports of miracles. I firmly believe that, when what is not miraculous is reported as such, or when (as stories of Gerard would appear to those unfamiliar with the overall picture of the man) odd happenings seem holy in direct proportion to their element of the bizarre, the well intentioned can find that they detract from, rather than enhance, understanding of a God who is not only creator but active in his creation for always. Yet I think Hume was very wrong on two of his snobbish ideas. First, he assumed that believers who report miracles generally know them not to be true, but will not compromise lest they spoil the 'good cause' in which reports of miracles are supposed to encourage faith. Second, he believed that tales of miracles were common to uneducated, lower class people who were very open to 'wonder' but not likely to consider the unreality.

I'm wondering how many lower class people Hume actually knew. (I'm lower class but educated - those of us who are highly educated in any area other than sciences are sadly addicted to 'wonder' in many cases.) I could understand how, for example, an intelligent, prominent writer such as Arthur Conan Doyle (and this in a period of bereavement) could be ready to accept the photographs of the Cottingley faeries as genuine. (Granted - my medieval background gives me an image of faeries as rather less benevolent and sweet than the Victorian standard, but I'll blush and admit that I'd read a report of faeries sightings with great interest.) Were I to replace the 'subject' with, let us say, my father and his brothers and friends, I know it would be more likely that they'd consider such photographs to be, at best, nice liners for the cat box. I could far more easily see some great 1st century intellectual, filled with philosophy, literature, Plato's ideas of the soul, whatever, believing a man rose from the dead than imagine such a far fetched idea being congenial to Mediterranean peasants such as the apostles.

Returning to Gerardo and other souls disposed to the oddly miraculous: For all my romantic side, I am very wary of miracles, much as I believe they are possible. Yet there is an element in 'miracle stories' which those too ready to scoff often forget. First off, miracles (including those of Jesus) normally involve expressions of faith, personal conversion, and reconciliation to a community. Second, far more miracles have to do with one's already having been disposed to prayer, trust, and awareness of divine providence than with demonstrations of power to prove anything!

I would not care to have experienced having a statue come to life as a playmate, or flying sans aircraft, or commanding a demon to lead my horse when I was lost. Fortunately, I am caught in the banality of orthopraxy, largely saying Offices, rather than in manifestations which (given my own temperament, dispositions, and the like) would have landed me in a bed in Bedlam. Yet I am not ready to rule out that such things, possibly, could happen in cases where one's dedication and faith were such that one was open to, indeed expected, divine providence.

Hume assumes defiance of the laws of nature in reports of miracles. Far more often, at least in common parlance, 'miracles' do not involve the sun and moon standing still in the sky, or anyone's amputated leg growing back, but in a sense of providence. I'm too intellectual, and never had such tender and trusting faith. I'd fear seeing God's work in my life as providential, because I'm too aware of the wickedness in this world, and what horrid suffering is part and parcel of a majority of lives on the planet. Yet I sometimes wonder if prayers of petition (whether they led to the result for which one prayed, or changed one's life and attitudes, whatever) might be far more effective only if one already had embraced a life of metanoia, prayer, conversion already.

Cautious though I am about reports of miracles, the fact remains that my own faith is basically constructed on reports of 1st century peasants who saw a man who had risen from the dead.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

What would you do before the end of the world?

The link in the title to this entry is from a recent survey: "An asteroid is on a collision course with the earth and you have one hour left to live. What would you do in your last 60 minutes?"

Vaguely, this reminded me of a survey I saw, perhaps twenty years ago. That one asked people, if absolutely nothing were an object (money, talent, whatever), what would you be doing that you cannot do now?

This, I shall caution you, will not be one of my more insightful posts. I happened to read the news story I linked this morning - and it got me to thinking. I'd prefer to expand it a bit. Were it only one hour till the world was destroyed, I imagine that there would be such total panic that the earth would be pandemonium, and I would be in shock, as would everyone else. But what if I knew the earth would be totally gone in one week?

I'd love to say that I would spend it all in prayer, but, though my life centres on prayer, such a response would be a lie, and I do not lack candour even if I lack holiness. The fact is that I would try to enjoy that last week, more or less partying with dearly loved friends. Frankly, it would be a relief to know that my death would come from the world's being obliterated. I shiver, often, fearing that my last days will be like those of my parents - suffering, lengthy hospitalisations and the like. I'd rest more easily knowing that none of that would be ahead (I'm neither a hypochondriac nor any form of health freak - in fact, I miss the fun one might have had before the health obsession became popular, but one does fear a lingering death at my age, perhaps the more if one's parents had these.) It would be a relief, as well, to know that the world would be gone - that I would not need to fear living after, let us say, devastation from nuclear war.

Unlike many people, death is not at all my biggest fear. At best, death would mean closer intimacy with God. If my religious beliefs are incorrect, my existence (and all the suffering of this world) would merely be ended. (Of course, I hope to heaven there is no reincarnation.)

So, what would I want to do that last week? The answer is "enjoy myself." No need to fear for tomorrow! I'd want to spend it with the friends I love best - eat and drink whatever I wish, listen to music, laugh, reminisce, smoke three packs a day, watch a sunset with no fear of tomorrow... or, better, watch a sunrise because I'd be enjoying myself all night.

I'm not referring to doing anything wicked. But what freedom, with no tomorrow to fear, I would experience! Struggles with money, and with battling a lifelong weight problem, have made me miss a great deal of enjoyment in this life. Even in youth, I missed many social events because I always had to be on diets - and one had to eat just this at just this time... How wonderful it would be to have prime rib, chocolate cheesecake and the like, with no fear of gaining weight or of wasting money. I can promise I would not spend one minute in a gym. And I would have a Starbucks cappuccino twice a day, not needing to fear that spending extra money would mean I could not pay my electric bill next month.

I would not need to pray any more than usual. I don't think that God needs to be placated, and I believe in cosmic redemption, so I wouldn't be begging him for my fate and that of others.

Of course, I'd have to find a friend with some deep pockets, to have those wonderful meals before we go. :)