Shiny New Humans: A Story & Theology of Personhood

old man window

The walls to the lunchroom were tattered and torn.  It gave the feel of a war zone; it was.  Just not the kind most people imagine.

Floor tiles along the corridor were chipped and worn.  The smell of paint filled the air, as if chemical warfare was present and I would stumble into a trench at any moment.  The lights above us gave off the dull buzz of a light trying to pierce more than its fair share of fog.  Dull plastic covers acting as a shield for the fluorescent sun lined the hall above our heads.

The corridor was empty, but lined along its pathway were holes blown into the walls.  Some people would call these rooms; they resembled caves.

Doors open; you’re invited.  Curtains pulled; please rescind this open invitation.

Lies posted on the back of the taverns: “get well soon” and “thinking of you” and “we miss you.”

Lies. There is only one way to leave this place. 

The lie of optimism extended to someone to pacify our guilt as the cave we have built for them will hide their faces from the light of our day.  Visitors are rare; people don’t like visiting the front lines where death and our life finally stare at one another through the barbed wire of uncertainty.

The sign said “excuse our construction.”  I couldn’t help but wonder if any real construction was present in this facility.  The walls could be repaired, the caves could be covered but those living here found themselves at the end of the earth’s garbage heap, discarded to the demilitarized zone of a world only populated by its prisoners and occasioned by those we pay to clean up the bodies.

I came to a break in the path; it led to the place that is somewhere, but when you arrive you have really arrived nowhere. 

I stared out at the lunch room, loud murmurings and crooked faces decorating the landscape.  A sea of white hair, wrinkled garments and arthritic hands betrayed my senses; I sensed more than I wished.  Disheveled masses of flesh… persons, at least I think they were persons, were being attended to in the wasteland of rectangular boundaries.  There was snow outside, 3 inches on the hand rails of the sidewalks; it was colder inside.

I’ve never been frostbitten until I saw the eyes of these no longer shiny new humans.

Someone was humming; She couldn’t hold her fork as it’s blunt clanking against her bowl rang across the room over, and over, and over, again.  Another was wearing a bib that stretched to his waist as he coughed up the food he was attempting to eat.  Saturated in spit, the fellow of no more than 40 smiled, coughed, gagged.  He was wearing a Stetson but this was no commercial.

Another lady, sitting in her chair with supports to keep her upright, could not perform the simple task of drinking her milk.  She was attended to by a few of our mercenaries who took turns.  The milk would hit her lips, run across the side of her face and then down her chin.  She would utter unintelligible profanities, perhaps cursing her plight, cursing that her mind and her body were no longer harmonious; cursing that she could no better drink milk than she could make her mouth utter what her mind contained.

Then I saw him.  The patriarch of the family.

We tapped his shoulder.  He was turned around by a hired hand.  He stared up at us, piercing us with his crystal blue eyes.  I thought I saw his childhood when his eyes met mine.  I saw life.  Recognition.  It’s that kind of look that says “I know you” but “I have no idea why you are so familiar.”  It is fidelity and betrayal in one glance.

Then there was that grip.  No one has a grip like him.  We stooped low to hug and embrace him, shaking his hand with my right hand and pulling him as close as possible with my left.  He knew the motions.

But his hands could still grip like a man 30 years younger.  He had the kind of hands that swallows yours when you shook it, the kind of grip that lets you know this man is more than the shell of his body.  I looked at his hands as he shook mine, his fingers still firm and resolved, and his veins still protruding with intense rage.  I’d seen these hands my entire life, felt them as a kid who wrestled against them and admired them as they incarnated the mountains they once occupied.

Muscle memory.

His body lay trapped in his godforsaken chair, his legs symbolic stubs of atrophy that have finally immobilized him.  From this chair to his bed and from his bed to this chair: his daily journey.

We sat down next to him, pulling chairs up alongside the table where we would share a meal.

Is eating at the same table the same thing as sharing?  We shared space cause words were not present.

We were brought coffee, I got the “good stuff” as apparently everyone else got the “bad stuff,” you know, coffee without the stimulant that makes it worth drinking.  Grandpa had hot chocolate.  Of course he did.  He’s always had a sweet tooth.  He drank two cups.  We helped him stir his cocoa and watched as he balanced the petite white mug from the table to his lips, his hands shaking the entire time.

The image of his once powerful hands now unable to balance an elevated crevice encapsulated with glass.  A feather had never been so heavy.

He didn’t waste time.  He drank his cocoa quickly and then they brought “food.”  They even brought me some.  I ate it out of courtesy and thankfulness.  Grandpa’s food was mush.  He has no teeth now so all his food must be puréed.  He began eating; we watched. 

He fell asleep.

He woke up. 

We tried speaking with him.  He couldn’t speak more than a few words, single sentences, the utterances of a man suffering from the PTSD of losing your wife, losing your home, losing your bearings and, finally, losing your shininess.

One of us left the lunch table to use the restroom.  Grandpa had been asleep a few minutes.  The bowl of portage that was some form of pureed beef stew, now found itself as a thumb rest for his massive hand.  Here lays a human, one that was once so strong and now whose hands had forgotten their place.  He woke up, I held his hand in mind, wiped it clean.  The man who would once refuse the help of anyone, especially when it comes to personal space, now has no choice.  His hand was held there, lofted above the table, as now the one that had served so many people must now suffer the service of others.

When he awoke one of us had returned.  He was startled.

We hadn’t been there.

He stared blankly surprised by our presence.  It was Groundhog Day only it happened in a matter of minutes.  I asked him if he had received any calls from family members.  I named them.  His reply, “They might have.  I don’t know.”

It was not a confident declaration.  It was the timid, exhausted, voice of a man that had resigned himself to his station, trapped in a body that can no longer do what his mind desired and a mind that no longer remembered the desires of its heart.

Then I felt a presence behind me.  A woman in a wheelchair bumped me.  I turned and looked, she is missing her leg from the kneecap down on her right leg.  She says “I’m just playing.  I’m not doing anything wrong.”  She continued…making her way around me and she said again, “I’m just playing.”

She knew where she was.  She was lost.

I stared at her and as our eyes met I wondered what she saw when she saw me.  I saw her.  I saw them.  I told her “it was fine”…but she was promptly exiled away from me and told to “wait” until lunch was over before going to her cave.  She couldn’t find her way alone.  She wouldn’t know how…she could no longer follow the path of her shinyness.

We tarried a little while longer.  We watched him finish his food.  We watched as those around him struggled to eat, struggled to talk, struggled to exist.  What would take many of us a matter of minutes had stretched into an entire hour of eating.  The finished menu you ask?  2 glasses of cocoa, a muffin that crumbled into a thousand pieces when you peeled it off the paper, and 1 bowl of pureed beef stew.

An hour later it was over.

We said goodbye.  We bent down as when we arrived.  We hugged him.  He kissed our cheeks as he has for years.  It was still grandpa…yet there is something also pulling him away that we can’t stop.  Here is the body of my grandpa…his body is here, it is still him, but inside he is fighting the war no one else can see…it’s a war we know is happening because now he’s at the place where we put all the humans that no longer shine.

Theology of person

As I recount this narrative, the sounds, sights and smells of visiting my grandfather in his extended care facility on New Year’s Day, a care that is necessary due to medical complications and logistical circumstances that are too much to overcome, it occurred to me that such places are where we put the humans we no longer want.  As a society, these places are not even human recycling centers; they are just drop offs.

There is nothing flashy in this insight.

But it struck me anew because at one time all of the people by whom we were surrounded were once shiny new humans.  As I sat and observed these folks that could no longer “function” in society, the people that required care due to some medical condition beyond their control, it struck me that these same lives that are now in the process of being forgotten were at one time the occasion of smiles, swooning admiration and the pride of their parents.  At one time, these people who now defecate on themselves can hardly stay awake during a meal, whose minds are being riddled with dementia and whose limbs are no more of a hindrance than a help…these people were once celebrated.  They were new at one time.  They were shiny and lustrous.

They were shiny new humans.

That’s hard to imagine isn’t it?

It’s hard to imagine that the lives of those that might now trouble a weak stomach by their very appearance, at one time, were the apple of someone’s eye.  At one time they were held up in a church, dedicated, or baptized.  At one time, their mother held them to her breast and kissed their heads; they were the prize after 9 months of laborious carrying and birthing.   At one time they ran on playgrounds, made their parents proud in a spelling bee.  At one time they sat on their fathers lap, heard bed time stories and were nestled in the sheets of a home filled with the warmth and love of parents.  At one time, they were new and shiny.

At one time, they were human; they were desirable.

They are no longer so.

In places like this they reside, proverbial warzones, with all the usual characters waiting to take their lives and harden the siege upon their bodies.

When there is no one left to call our name, our name is lost in its unspokenness.  Or is it?

A simple visit to an extended care facility can become the catalyst for some profound anthropological questions.

What makes us human?  When we have removed the person from the community of which they are apart, either the community that is public, private or ecclesial, from where does their humanity come?  Are we known as human because of some biological trait or does our humanity come from having our name known and spoken?  Is this final act of separation, one that may or may not be justifiable, our attempt to dehumanize these masses of flesh so that eventually, stripped of all personhood, we can rid ourselves of their uselessness?

If our humanity is such only because of others, what becomes of those who have lost all the others?  The question gets even thicker, and more dialectical, in its irony as we consider what it is that constitutes the human being.

Unlike Kant would suggest, our worlds are not given to us via experience alone.  It is our lone ability to apperceive that gives us our personhood and makes us an agent.  It is indeed our apperception that fits into transcendental (above the person) categories through which we can arrange and make sense of the world, but that world is never absent the one that taught us to speak and welcomed us into it.

We are all members of an originary community.

There is no premature material that we arrange to gain our individuality.  Individuality, in the strict Kantian sense of perception that sifts and arranges data, is impossible because such arrangement is the result of our public consciousness via experience with others in the world they gave to us.  As theologian Robert Jenson notes, “The world that I receive and unify in my experience is always already the world interpreted in the discourse of a community, first the community of the trinity, then the human communities I thereupon inhabit.”

Sorry I just showed my theological hand…yet I think a Lacanian hand regarding language is also not too far afield for any agnostic readers.

From a theological perspective the community via which “raw” data is assimilated is a given to us, but only a given via a grace that is God’s triune community in the history of the world, thus making ourselves part of the divine community.  Our first, and foremost, marker as a person is not, therefore, our biology; it is our relationality.  First, as conversation partners with the divine history and secondarily with one another as creatures of grace within that history.

It’s a history we did not choose nor assimilate as individuals, but was given to us.  It’s a history in which our humanity is located as such.

The very people that gave us the world and taught us to speak by holding us in their hands are now being displaced from the world through the very ones that were once recipients of a world they did not create but were given through them.

In a very strict sense, then, the humanity of God is a prerequisite for the humanity of these persons who are now ostracized in the ghettos of the medical community.  As their humanity is found in God, there humanity is also restored and maintained via the life, death and resurrection of the God that became human and restored the dark places where the world attempts to place the dead.  Their humanity is found in this Passion because this Passion is what calls us by name as we stand outside the tomb feeling its emptiness.

While our identity is very much linked to the humans through which we relate, and our negation of life is very much attempted by the world when we reach a certain age wherein we are thanked for our words but dismissed for our bother, our identity is never totally dependent on what us humans cease to pronounce.

To a degree, a proper sense of theological anthropology is predicated on the other, but in another profound way our identity is never lost simply because we are tossed to the margins of the world and put in places wherein our human needs can no longer be a bother for other humans.  This is because our identity is never presumed because we are named by another creature, but because we are named by the one that makes creatures a community!  My identification, the identification of my grandfather, the man that could not eat without coughing up his food or the lady that could not stop her mouth from uttering profanities even while milk seeped over her chin…all of our identities are first found in the human community that is unified in the story of God in Christ, and this story presents us with our identity even when the names and faces of some of God’s human creatures are forgotten.

It is not the case that our identity is primarily spiritual and therefore personnel; it is the case that the identity of our community of humans in the story of God’s relationality with the world (via others) is what first and foremost grants us an identity that can never be taken away even as parts of humanity (who largely have forgotten the triune God) cease to utter our names.

The masses of flesh and bone, of unintelligible words and grotesquely fashioned faces, of people who spit on the floor and others who find their hands covered in beef stew puree…these are all persons whose names are forever spoken in God even as Christ will one day resurrect this miserable life.

Because we are named in God, and God is present in the resurrected presence of Christ via the power of the Holy Spirit, our names are never unspoken and our personhood is found in God and his human community wherever it is incarnated; this universal story that continues to call out our names.  And it is this story that we never leave, even as those around us choose to slowly write us out of the story we gave to them.

So when people forget to call him dad, or grandpa, and his peers have long forgotten French…there is always Christ who calls him son, a son amongst sons and daughters.

In God, our names and identities find rest.

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