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Monday, November 2, 2009

Voice, agency, and the benefit of the doubt


A funny thing happened to me on the way to completing my doctorate.

I got older.

Why is that funny? Because my doctoral research is on capacity building for elders. Hmmm. I’m literally living my way into my research topic! I’m still completing my dissertation research, and sometimes it feels as though I truly will be an elder by the time I finally type that last APA citation.

My research is taking place in two elder care agencies and focuses on how elders perceive they are being heard in the planning and implementation of their nursing care. In focus groups, I am listening to the synergy of elders reflecting upon the concepts of voice and agency. Simultaneously, caregivers (nurses and others) are working in teams to prepare short video journals on daily care interventions that they believe honors residents’ choices and elicits voice.

Voice and agency … the ability to speak your needs and to act on your choices. In professional life we tend to take this for granted. However, when we are ill, pressured by externals, or relying on another for physical care, voice and agency fade from our grasp and become very precious. Voice and agency are very much linked to our personal and social development; Maslow’s stage of self-actualization is difficult to envision without voice and agency.

On the other hand, the equivalent of the stage of self-actualization within spirituality is self-denial. How do we make sense of what would appear to be polar opposite directives? How do we synthesize human potential and spiritual growth? Drives of the body and mind versus desires of the spirit? How do we move toward becoming more ourselves, and yet aspire to selflessness?

Don’t we love those pie shaped wedges of percentages, ratios, containable fractions explaining body and spirit, allowing us to wrestle interminably with integration and strive for unembodied perfection. Meanwhile, living in sacrament, moment, by moment, means living deeply within the present moment of our humanness, meeting Christ in the eternal nature of the present. Work, play, family, worship all become sacramental acts. The 'pie' metaphor becomes a perfect circle.


For however much we want to split persons into components, the Genesis theme of relationship and beginnings imply that we are created units: soul. "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (nephesh, psuche)" (Gen. 2:7). What a lovely picture of transformed unity: God’s breath did not simply embody a clay shell, instead, the shell itself was transformed into living soul. This transformation is profoundly echoed in the Incarnation, when Christ was born, lived, and died as a human.

Living soul. As I listen to elders, I am catching glimpses of this synthesis of growth in persons who have lived authentically, faced struggles and given others the benefit of the doubt. Maslow’s description of self actualization includes an acceptance of one’s’ self, an interest in problem solving, and a stance of embracing truth and reality. Self denial was a part of their lives: they lived through two world wars, economic ups and downs, family tragedies and they raised families and forged a nation while they did this. Day by day, moment by moment. Authentically facing each season in its time, giving of themselves for children and for their communities: vegetables for the soup pot growing in the tiny patch of back yard; clothes stitched and patched hanging on the line; bills paid in hard-earned cash.

Gerard Manley Hopkins described self-denial in this way:
Turn then, my brethren, and give God glory. Thank and praise Him now for everything. When a man is in God's grace and free from mortal sin Then everything he does, so long as it has no sin in it, Gives glory to God. It is not only prayer that gives God glory, but work. Smiting an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, Driving horses, sweeping, scouring, Everything gives God some glory, If, being in His grace, you do it as your duty. To go to Communion worthily gives God great glory But to take food in thankfulness and temperance Gives Him glory too. To lift the hands in prayer gives God glory But a man with a dung fork in his hands, A woman with a slop pail Gives Him glory too. His is so great that all things give Him glory If you mean they should. So then, my brethren, live.

I am beginning to suspect that voice and agency have a great deal to do with our developmental growth; I am even more convinced, however, that listening is imperative to my growth! Perhaps that is the kernel here: that voice and agency allow elders the capacity to pass on this glimpse of life that is authentic, meat and potatoes, rather than the virtual, credit line life that is our generation’s reality. I am also learning that the skill of listening implies giving others the benefit of the doubt. It is only when I honor the other by recognizing Christ within them that I am prepared to truly listen.

So then, my brethren (and sister-en!), live. And give one another the sacred benefit of the doubt …

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