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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Impulse to Care for the Most Vulnerable

There are certain experiences that pull me backwards into history, making me think about how much I have in common with past generations:  really focusing on the constellations always makes me think of the ancients who named those clusters of stars; crossing the Rockies in an airplane always makes me think of the pioneers who took months to cross them by foot; staring down into the Grand Canyon always makes me think of the generations of people who did the same.

The NYT published an article this past December that has been haunting me since I first read it, with the same sort of thoughts:  Ancient Bones that Tell a Story of Compassion, by James Gorman.  It focuses on archaeologists who are studying prehistoric skeletons showing evidence of significant illness and disability, and drawing conclusions about the kind of care their communities must have provided to allow them to survive.  Some examples from the article:

  • a "young man who lived 4,000 years ago in what is now northern Vietnam . . . laid to rest curled in the fetal position. . . . His fused vertebrae, weak bones and other evidence suggested that he lies in death as he did in life, bent and crippled by disease.  They gathered that he became paralyzed from the waist down before adolescence, the result of a congenital disease known as Klippel-Feil syndrome. He had little, if any, use of his arms and could not have fed himself or kept himself clean. But he lived another 10 years or so.  They concluded that the people around him who had no metal and lived by fishing, hunting and raising barely domesticated pigs, took the time and care to tend to his every need."
  • a "Neanderthal, Shanidar 1, from a site in Iraq, dating to 45,000 years ago, who died around age 50 with one arm amputated, loss of vision in one eye and other injuries. Another is Windover boy from about 7,500 years ago, found in Florida, who had a severe congenital spinal malformation known as spina bifida, and lived to around age 15. D. N. Dickel and G. H. Doran, from Florida State University wrote the original paper on the case in 1989, and they concluded that contrary to popular stereotypes of prehistoric people, 'under some conditions life 7,500 years ago included an ability and willingness to help and sustain the chronically ill and handicapped.' "

And this somewhat macabre, but I think somehow very touching bit of speculation:

  • "A skeleton of a young woman about 18 years old from a site on the Arabian Peninsula more than 4,000 years old indicated that the woman had a neuromuscular disease, perhaps polio.  “Her condition likely made it difficult for her to walk,” Dr. Martin wrote in an e-mail. “She had exceedingly thin arm and leg bones with very little buildup of normal muscle attachments.” She probably received round-the-clock care, Dr. Martin concluded.  But one problem that she had was apparently not a result of the disease. The teeth that she had were full of cavities, and she was “missing teeth from abscesses and periodontal disease.”  Those who cared for the young woman may have been too kind, Dr. Martin said. Her people grew dates, and, “Perhaps to make her happy, they fed her a lot of sticky, gummy dates, which eventually just rotted her teeth out, unusual for someone so young.”

This weekend in New York City I'm going to be exploring this universal human impulse to care for the disabled, and how it persists despite the anthropological premises of modernity that seem to be conspiring to quench it, at the "New York Encounter" sponsored by the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation and the Crossroads Cultural Center. (I'll be exploring some of the ideas developed in this recent article, Hauerwas and Disability Law:  Exposing the Cracks in the Foundations of Disability Law, and how they illustrate the application of the notion of elementary experience developed by Fr. Luigi Guisiani, the founder of the CL movement.) Here's the program for the entire three-day cultural festival, with the theme "Experiencing Freedom" -- including talks, music, theater, exhibits on G.K. Chesterton and Freedom and the Cristeros:  The Martyrs of Mexico.  It's all free and in the heart of Manhattan. 

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Schiltz, Elizabeth | Permalink

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