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Posts Tagged ‘personhood’

It’s an old trick, and a common childhood game – to cut out an adult head from a magazine photograph and paste it onto the body of a baby. Evian use it on their latest bus-stop advertising campaign.

The first visual message, very boring, is that if you drink a litre of Evian water you will be as stunningly beautiful and alarmingly thin as this model. The second message, slightly tongue-in-cheek, together with the Live Young caption in the corner and the baby’s body T-shirt, is that you will retain the youthfulness, innocence, playfulness and perfect skin that you had when you were a little baby.

The subliminal pro-life message, paid for by Evian, is philosophical: whatever you think about the ‘personhood’ of a baby, this baby is you; you are the same human being; it’s one continuous life; looking backwards – once you were a baby and now you have become an adult; looking forwards – this is the baby who will become (if it survives) an adult.

When I look at a photo of myself at 15 years old, or 5 years, or 5 months, or when I look at an ultrasound scan image of myself at 36 weeks, or 24, or 12 – I say ‘this is me’. It’s a hugely different me, but it’s still me. I ‘identify’ (at a personal level) with this image, with this human being, because there is an ‘identity’ (at a biological and philosophical level) between me today and me back then; just as I identify with the me who existed 2 minutes ago. Identity doesn’t undermine difference – of course there are differences. It just allows you to affirm, at a deeper level, a continuity of existence, and gives you a sound reason for saying ‘that’s me’ or ‘we are the same person’.

The poster reminds you of the continuity between the adult ‘you’ and the infant ‘you’. It doesn’t take much to then make the link between the infant ‘you’ and the ‘you’ in the womb. And that reminds you of the importance of remembering that the human being in the womb is another ‘you’ and not just an ‘it’.

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For anyone interested in questions about marriage and the family, Maryvale Institute in Birmingham is taking new students for the MA course which beings again this January. [This is last year’s poster.]

To save time I’m just copying this helpful summary from the Witness to Love website from earlier this year:

A new course has just begun at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, an international Catholic distance-learning College. It is an MA programme in Marriage and Family based on the teaching and vision of John Paul II (especially his Theology of the Body) drawn up in close collaboration with the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome. The new MA programme runs via distance learning on somewhat similar lines to Open University courses and promises to be a really exciting and innovative way to bring the wisdom and beauty of John Paul II’s teaching to others.

The Maryvale Institute was also the home of Blessed John Newman in 1846 after his conversion when he lived there with a small community. Maryvale is also a former seminary (1794-1838) and orphanage (1851-1980) run by the Sisters of Mercy. It houses the historic and beautiful Chapel of the Sacred Heart from its seminary period and has also today houses a convent for Bridgettine sisters since 1999.
The new MA pathway “seeks to develop an ‘adequate anthropology’ through the study of God’s plan for marriage and family” (see pathway No. 6 here). It is therefore interdisciplinary and could be of interest to students from a wide variety of backgrounds such as teachers, priests, youth workers, those involved in marriage care, medicine or family law.

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One of the many topics explored at the Theology of the Body conference over the weekend was shame. Not the moral shame we feel when we’ve done something wrong and wish we could undo or hide it; but another kind of ‘anthropological’ shame we feel as an instinctive response to those who treat us as if we were just objects.

Christ raising Adam and Eve

John Crosby explained how in Pope John Paul’s anthropology, we long to be recognised as persons, with an innate dignity and an inner life of our own. This is one part of his ‘personalilst’ philosophy. If someone simply looks at us (we might say stares at us), they don’t get beyond the surface sheen of our body – so we become objectified or ‘instrumentalised’ (as the jargon goes), turned into ‘instruments’ for the use of another – even if they mean no harm – and denied our own personhood and subjectivity.

This happens all the time, and usually it doesn’t matter too much. It does no harm that we are only able to glance at the hundreds of people in the high street, and that we can’t engage with them enough to appreciate their inner beauty. But if someone quite consciously stares at another, looks at them without seeing them as a person, it becomes an intrusion; and this is even more the case if they are being turned through this look into a purely sexual object.

Shame is our natural defence against this intrusion. This is quite distinct from the shame that comes if we are guilty of doing something wrong and desperate to hide our wrongdoing. The ‘good shame’ takes place almost at an existential level, rather than a moral one. It involves an inner withdrawal. To stop myself being turned into an object, I hide myself – physically, emotionally, psychologically and even spiritually. I don’t want to allow the ‘shameless’ look of the other to trap me and reduce me to the sheer materiality of my bodily existence. The shame I experience is much more than a feeling – it is a strategic response, a form of legitimate self-protection.

The goal, ultimately, is to recover that original innocence of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve could stand without shame before each other in their nakedness – truly ‘seeing’ each other in all their personal depths, delighting in their humanity. I don’t mean this literally – there are other important reasons why we are not naturists. But the idea of standing before each other without shame, and of allowing others to come before us without the need to feel this anthropological shame, is part of our redemption and a return to innocence.

There are simpler words to express all this: the need for respect, acceptance, reverence, humility, gentleness, openness, sincerity, etc. Pope John Paul just wants to get behind the language to see why it really matters at the level of his personalist philosophy.

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I was really disturbed by some of the reactions to the recent report into the 2009 Air France crash, which suggested that it would be far better for someone if they had no warning at all about their impending death.

You probably remember hearing about the tragedy: all 228 people aboard were killed when an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic in June 2009. A preliminary report has been written two years after on the basis of information from the aircraft’s black boxes, which were only recovered last month. There is no clear conclusion about what caused the crash – it was partly to do with faulty instrumental readings. The fall took three and a half minutes.

This is the bit that disturbed me, as reported by Elaine Ganley and Jill Lawless:

Some families of victims who said they were given information in a meeting with the agency said it was possible their loved ones went to their deaths unaware of what was happening because there was apparently no contact between the cockpit and cabin crew in the 3 1 / minutes.

“It seems they did not feel more movements and turbulence than you generally feel in storms,” said Jean-Baptiste Audousset, president of a victims’ solidarity association. “So, we think that until impact they did not realize the situation, which for the family is what they want to hear — they did not suffer.”

It’s true that they may not have had to live through the horror of knowing they were falling to their deaths; and I do understand how a relative can find some consolation in knowing this. But surely there are other considerations involved here as well? It must be frightening to know that you are about to die, and I have sat with many people as they face this knowledge and try to come to terms with it – but would you really prefer not to know?

I’m not just writing as a Christian believer now. Yes, as a person of faith, I would rather have a few minutes to pray, to thank God for my life, to say sorry for anything I have done wrong, to offer my life to the Lord, and generally to prepare for my death. But even if I had no faith in God or in a life after death, my impending death would still be a hugely significant horizon, and those last few minutes of life would surely take on an unimaginable significance. I wouldn’t wish for myself that I were left in ignorance. I’d want to know, in order to try to make sense of it, or simply to make the most of it, or at least not to waste it. And I wouldn’t wish for my loved ones to be denied the possibility of knowing that their end was near.

I’m not romanticising death. I’m certainly not pretending that the fear isn’t very real, especially if the knowledge comes quickly and unexpectedly. I’d just rather know. Fear, sometimes, is what helps us to appreciate the significance of some great truth that lies before us; and there aren’t many truths as significant as death.

A film that played with these themes very creatively was Last Night from 1998 (not the new film with Keira Knightley).

Everyone knows that the world is going to end this evening at midnight, and we see how various characters in Toronto react. Their decisions about how to spend the last few hours of their life generally reflect the concerns and priorities of the life they have already lived, the life they have made. Their fundamental intentions are clarified and crystalised in these last moments.

On the other hand, knowing that time is so short, it gives them a chance to make something different of their life. Not so much a moral conversion (although that is also possible), but a reorientation, a new level of authenticity, a sort of redemption – even if the choices some of them made were thoroughly depressing. It’s well worth seeing.

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If you are looking for online resources in bioethics, here are a couple of useful sites (following on from my recent post about the distortion of language in bioethical reporting).

Dolly the Cloned Sheep

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a bioethics page with links to various articles and downloadable pamphlets. The topics include: stem cell research, cloning, genetic enhancement, IVF, eugenics, human dignity, reproductive technology, etc.

The Anscombe Bioethics Centre is the main Christian bioethics institute in Britain. The resources are here (articles, publications, newsletters, etc); and there is a big list of articles and links here at their old Linacre Centre site (I’m not sure if all these articles have been moved over yet).

I also happened to come across this very informative blog last week called Mary Meets Dolly, “A Catholic’s Guide to Genetics, Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology”. The author, Rebecca Taylor, has her own page of links (I can’t recommend them all as I haven’t looked at them all yet…). And this is from her ‘About’ page:

My name is Rebecca Taylor.  I am a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and more importantly, a practicing Catholic. I have been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years. I have been interviewed on EWTN radio on topics from stem cell research and cloning to voting pro-life.

All of this began several years ago when I was discussing stem cells and cloning with an older gentleman at a family party.  He was very knowledgeable about biotechnology, but was surprised about many little-known and quite misleading facts.  He asked where I had gathered those facts, and I told him I was reading every pertinent scientific reference I could get my hands on. He looked me in the eye and said, “Young lady, it is not good enough to read, you must do something!”  I found out later he was a former U.S. congressman from California.

Indeed, I began to notice a general lack of understanding about contemporary issues in genetics, genetic engineering, and reproductive technology, issues that have shaped, and will continue to shape, the future of humanity, for good or ill.  I work with professionals whose business is medical genetics, and even they are confused about the pragmatics, not to mention the ethics, surrounding cloning, stem cells, and recent advances in genetic engineering.  If professionals could be confused, I feared that the average Catholic would feel lost amidst the scientific jargon and, unfortunately, the hype.

I decided to start marymeetsdolly.com to try and provide Catholics with solid, pertinent resources and clear, plain commentary so they could be more conversant with the issues proffered by the newest of the “brave new world” movements.

With this website, I hope to take what I have learned (through months of studying the technologies and ethical stances involved) and explain the advances and the issues in terms the person-on-the-street can understand.  With the help of my father, a theologian, I hope to juxtapose and illuminate today’s genetic research and engineering with the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life.

At this site, Catholics can find information to better understand stem cell research, therapeutic and reproductive cloning, genetic testing, and much more.  The Topics section has articles covering various technologies; what is moral, what is immoral.  It also has articles on pertinent topics by other authors.  The Books section has a reading list for those who want to do their own research.  The Links page has a list of websites through which one can keep up to date in this rapidly changing field.  The Glossary page lists important terms and their definitions.  The Church Teaching page has official Catholic Church teaching on reproductive issues and the sanctity of human life.  The Blog has my daily thoughts on new developments and a chance for you to respond.  And my favorite, the Quotes section, has all the verbal gems I have found that say it all.  

On the question of language, see her post about whether our understanding of when human life begins is a matter of belief or of knowledge.

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I’ve just seen the Facebook film, The Social Network. It works. It shouldn’t, because we all know the story: guy invents Facebook, transforms human self-understanding, and makes a few billion in the process. But it does. Partly because the lesser known sub-plot is turned into the main narrative arc: did he steal the idea and dump on his friends? And partly because the heart of the story, the genesis of Facebook, is such a significant moment for our culture (and perhaps for human history), that it would mesmerise a cinema audience no matter how badly filmed.

It’s Stanley Kubrick trying to film the emergence of human consciousness at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s more a screenplay than a film. I had to concentrate so hard on the dialogue and the ideas that I hardly took in the visuals. This is classic Aaron Sorkin, whose West Wing scripts have more words per minute and ideas per episode than anything else on TV in recent years.

I’m also a fan of Ben Mezrich, who wrote the novel on which the screenplay is based. I read his Bringing Down the House a few years ago, a great holiday read about how a team of MIT geeks took their card-counting skills to Vegas and beat the casinos. And it’s true.

Anyway. Go and see the film. It’s a great story and a great cast, directed with unobtrusive style by David Fincher. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that it captures one of those rare historical moments, that we have actually lived through, when our understanding of what it is to be human shifts quite significantly.

It’s too easy to talk about geography (“First we lived on farms, then we lived in cities; now we live on the internet”). We could have ‘lived on the internet’, even with the interactivity of Web 2.0, without it changing our understanding of ourselves. The same people, but with more information and quicker methods of exchanging it. Facebook has turned us inside out. We used to learn and think and search in order to be more authentically or more happily ourselves. We learnt in order to live. Now we create semi-virtual selves which can exist in a semi-virtual world where others are learning and thinking and searching. We live in order to connect.

But even this doesn’t capture it properly, because people have been connecting for millennia, and at least since EM Forster’s Howards End. With Facebook we don’t just want to connect, we want to actually become that connectivity. We want to become the sum total of those friends, messages, events, applications, requests, reminders, notifications and feeds. Personhood has changed.

Two thousand years ago, through the incarnation, the Word became flesh. In our time, through the internet, the flesh became Facebook.

Time to switch off the computer.

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I’m just back from a week of silent retreat. (No, I wasn’t blogging while I was away! The last two posts were on the timer: written before I went and then scheduled to post automatically, just in case any readers were going to get withdrawal symptoms.)

I’m not going to debrief about my spiritual life online, but I can share just one experience that forms part of the ritual of going on retreat each year that gave me pause for thought: emptying the pockets. I arrived in my room at the retreat house, put the suitcase on the bed, and without much reflection started to empty my trouser pockets onto the shelf in the wardrobe, knowing I wouldn’t be needing all this stuff for the next week.

And what was this ‘stuff’? Car keys, house keys, room keys, cupboard keys; mobile phone; wallet (cash, credit card, debit card, driving licence, celebret, Marks and Spencer vouchers, Oyster card); electronic organiser (diary, contacts, to do list, memos – yes, I am dinosaur enough to still have a Palm PDA; much better designed software, by the way, than an iPhone); loose change.

All of this, I realised perhaps for the first time, I have on me all the time, in three trouser pockets – ‘on my person’ as the phrase goes. All of this, normally, I’m afraid to leave the house without it. It’s part of who I am, and it’s hugely symbolic: I ‘am’ the possibility of connecting, communicating, calling, remembering, driving, travelling, entering, opening, unlocking, spending, borrowing, organising, meeting, doing. And all of this, for just a few days, I could put in a cupboard. It was so strange and liberating to go for a walk each morning without it all; not just into the garden, but out into the surrounding streets and the ‘real world’.

my pocket watch rules by chrisdlugosz.

Of course my pockets weren’t actually empty! I kept on me my room key and a watch. In other words, I was happy to let go of all the stuff for a week, but I wasn’t prepared to renounce it completely and take the risk of it being stolen. I’ll put it down, but I won’t give it up. And above all else, the watch: I didn’t want to lose track of time and miss my lunch…

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It’s Ash Wednesday – another excuse, if any were needed, to post about human origins. After all the festivities of Shrove Tuesday / Mardi Gras, we approach the priest on this first day of Lent to have our foreheads marked with ashes. The traditional words spoken at this point are: ‘Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ (The priest standing next to me this morning as we distributed the ashes, a former Carthusian monk of a venerable age, used the Latin phrase that was still lodged in his memory: ‘Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris’.)

I was connecting this with last week’s philosophical anthropology lecture about human origins. Much is still unclear, scientifically, but one of the fascinating discoveries is that human beings who are anatomically modern emerged in pre-history many thousands of years before there is any evidence of characteristically modern human behaviour.

So you can find homo sapiens skeletons from about 200,000 years ago, and in terms of their anatomy there is hardly any difference between ‘them’ and ‘us’. If a crowd of such homo sapiens came towards you on a summer’s afternoon you’d say, ‘Look, there are some human beings’.

Dame de Brassempouy: le visage haut de 3,6 centimètres (reproduction)  by fredpanassac.

The "Dame de Brassempouy", perhaps the first representation of the human face, from about 25,000 years ago

But the evidence for modern human behaviours comes much later, sometime between about 100,000 and 50,000 years ago (we are not sure exactly). Only in this period do we begin to see the cognitive leap that gives us our name (homo sapiens, wise-rational man), so that by the time of our Cro-Magnon ancestors in the upper paleolithic period (about 40,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago) there is an astounding proliferation of new behaviours. The pattern of intermittent innovation is gone, replaced by revolutionary advances: sophisticated hunting and fishing tools; elaborate architectural designs constructed with mammoth bones; kilns that could bake clay statuettes to 800 degrees Farenheit; decorated bone tools; elaborate burial sites filled with grave goods; the well-known cave art from central France; and – my favourite – a multi-holed bone flute from some 30,000 years ago.

The question is: What happened? And why is there this lag between the emergence of anatomically modern humans and what we think of as modern intelligence and creativity? There are three possibilities: (1) The intelligence was there in potential, but some other factor needed to develop in order for it to be released; (2) the intelligence was working away, gradually, as human culture developed and human wisdom accumulated, and the revolutionary consequences of this would only become apparent, with their archaeological evidence, over a hundred thousand years later; or (3) something else happened to allow the emergence of creatures we would recognise, behaviourally as well as anatomically, as full-blown homo sapiens – people we could call our brothers and sisters.

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We have just begun the second semester at the seminary, and I started teaching a new course entitled ‘philosophical anthropology’. It’s about the nature of the human person – not from the perspective of faith (that comes later), but just from the perspective of philosophy, reason, science, experience, etc.

I start with Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2):

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god – the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!

But then I go on to explain how difficult it is today to justify this classical view that the human being has these unique qualities. The thrust of so much science and philosophy is to prove that there is simply a sliding scale of natural skills, and that the differences between human beings and other animals are differences of degree and not of kind.

Dolphins in the Red Sea by Tom Weilenmann.

As an example of this type of thinking I brought out an article by Jonathan Leake and Georgia Warren from the Sunday Times from a couple of weeks ago, giving evidence of human-like traits in the animal kingdom. Here are some quotes:

In the past few years researchers have been finding similar examples of sentience and self-awareness across the animal kingdom in species ranging from elephants and dolphins to crows and parrots. Even sheep, cows and pigs appear to be far more self-aware and to lead more emotionally charged lives than we have previously understood.

It means that humans, used to regarding ourselves as unique in our ability to think and feel, are not so special. Increasingly scientists believe we are merely at the top of a spectrum of intelligence across the animal kingdom, rather than standing apart from it. We may be better at thinking and more able to articulate our feelings — but animals can do all the same things…

Last year that was topped by Alex Kacelnik, a professor of behavioural ecology at Oxford, who discovered that crows are capable of using multiple tools in complex sequences, the first time such behaviour had been observed in non-humans. In an experiment seven crows successfully reeled in a piece of food placed out of reach using three different lengths of stick.

Crucially, they were able to complete the task without any special training, suggesting the birds were capable of a level of abstract reasoning and creativity normally associated only with humans.

Last week it emerged that researchers from Padua University in Italy had found that birds were able to read numbers from left to right, as humans do, and count to four even when the line of numbers was moved from vertical to horizontal. They also showed that birds performed better in tests after a good night’s sleep.

All this is powerful evidence against the idea that people are unique and, some argue, also undermines the idea that humans should have “dominion” over animals, as the Bible puts it.

This has traditionally been the justification for the exploitation and abuse of animals in many different ways, the most emotive of which is animal experimentation, particularly involving primates…

Such ideas suggest that the cognitive abilities of animals and humans lie on a spectrum. The skills of humans may be at the top end but they are no different in kind from those of many animal species.

Thomas White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, believes that some animals are bright enough to merit human rights. He suggests that hunting dolphins or capturing them for aquariums is “roughly the same thing whites were doing to blacks 200 years ago in the slave trade”.

This is the question of whether there are non-human persons. 

So I have the next eleven weeks to explain how much of this is true, but that there are still some unique qualities about human reason, freedom and moral conscience that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

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So what if everyone, everywhere, knows everything about you? What’s the big deal? You’re still you – only now you’re you for everyone else too…

Richard Woods writes about privacy in the digital age. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive of Facebook, has declared (in effect) that privacy is dead: “People have gotten really comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.” He described such lack of privacy as a “social norm”. This comes at the same time as Google is trying to defend its reputation for guarding people’s privacy by pulling away from the tentacles of Chinese hackers.

Yes, it’s an age thing, but there are interviews in the article with people in their teens and 20s who are still wary about what they put online and keen to preserve the distinction between what is private and what is public.

Defining minimum privacy by HORIZON.

I learnt about two new concepts here. ‘Blippy’ is a website that allows everyone to know when, where and how you have spent every penny in your pocket.

Let’s pick a person pretty much at random: Dan Braden of Austin, Texas. I do not know Braden at all, but I can tell you that in the past few days he has spent $373.46 on Louis Vuitton goods, $162.47 at a local grocery store, $20 at a fitness centre and $3.23 on iTunes. He is also a regular at Starbucks, went to a Maudie’s Tex-Mex restaurant last week and spent $717.10 on new tyres.

Is someone spying on Braden or hacking into his bank account? Nope. Instead, he has signed up to Blippy, a new website that puts online every purchase users make with a designated credit card. He is happy to publicise where he goes and what he buys. No privacy worries for him.

If the truth about who you are as a person is revealed above all by what you search for and what you buy (and I think there is much truth in this), then Blippy must be the way forward for those who want to reveal all.

The second concept I came across was that of the ‘spider programme’:

Even if you do try to restrict your profile, the data that remains public can still give away a lot about you. Facebook, for example, has no privacy restrictions on your name, photograph, list of friends and certain other material.

By analysing such data, “spider” programs can draw up social graphs that reveal your sexuality, political beliefs and other characteristics. According to Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge, it can be done even if you list as few as eight friends.

So even if you don’t put all your digital pieces together into a tidy personal profile — it’s consoling/terrifying (take your pick) to know that someone else is kindly doing it for you.

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A simple story quoted in a book I’m reading: Fr Victor Galeone was working as a priest in Baltimore, and this is how he described one pastoral encounter in his journal:

Yesterday, after an emergency call at the nursing home, I was about to exit when I noticed a man in the hallway. He was sitting next to a woman in a wheelchair, tenderly holding her hands. Not a word was spoken. He just sat there, looking intently into her eyes. I walked over and engaged him in conversation:

“Your wife, I take it?”

“That’s right, of forty-seven years.”

“Do you visit her often?”

“Every single day. Haven’t missed a day in four years, except for that blizzard last year.”

“She’s not saying anything.”

“That’s right. Hasn’t been able to for the last eighteen months – ever since her stroke. She has Alzheimer’s too.”

“Alzheimer’s! Does she know who you are?”

“Not really. But that doesn’t matter. I now who she is.”

[From Stephen Rossetti’s Born of the Eucharist: A Spirituality for Priests pp. 101-102]

It made me think about all the different relationships we have where the knowledge is not always equal – and how that doesn’t always matter. Sometimes we know someone better than they know us; sometimes someone knows us better than we know them; sometimes someone knows us better than we know ourselves.

Husbands and wives talk about how there are hidden depths (or shallows!) to their spouse that they realise will always remain a mystery. Parents know things about their children that the children won’t discover for years. A child, even a baby at the breast, knows something about his or her parents – as parents – that no-one else will ever know. In friendship, the relationship often shuffles along, a moment of discovery on one side, and then on the other, building into something that is definitely mutual, but not necessarily equal or stabilised.

2008-06-07 Bus 50 (Open-Top Bus, Swanage to Bournemouth) 09 Swanage, Elderly Couple on Hill Overlooking the Beach by that_james.

And in this beautiful example of an elderly couple, one lost in dementia, the “being-known” becomes more than the knowing itself; the lost memory of once-having-loved is absorbed into an ever present reality of being-loved. This can be true of those at the end of life, of the unborn, of the estranged, and of all those who cannot or will not let the love they receive from others grow into a personal response.

Love – and indeed being human, being a person – is not just about your capacity to love or think or act, it is also about the fact that you are loved, by someone, somewhere. And even where that someone seems almost completely absent, it is the fact that you could be loved – that you are loveable. Our dignity is not conferred by others; but we need others to make explicit what is too often hidden and unacknowledged.

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