Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Something has to be done!

Funeral outburst
I led this funeral yesterday. It was very stressful. It was for the 19 year old girl, a mother of a 3 year old, who overdosed on alcohol and morphine based painkillers. She spent the night with her boyfriend and they were drinking whiskey and she had pinched some painkiller pills from her dad's bathroom cabinet. She died over night, so yesterday I found myself standing in front of more than 300 people leading her funeral. Many of the people were young people. 

I was disappointed because the dad had said he wanted to speak on behalf of the family, but on the day he had changed his mind. I had prepared a short history of her life with some stories that depicted her personality, but I was leaving her dad to do the main job, as he said he would. I had offered to read family contributions and a couple were given to me before the service. I wished he had at least written one. I was introduced to an ex-teacher of the young woman, who wanted to speak. He spoke well, but was very emotional.  During the service I was handed about three sheets of paper from people with poems or messages on them, one I could not read the writing and I struggled to get through it! There were some of her friends who spoke. During the service too the family asked if another young man could speak, so for much of the ceremony I felt like I was winging it and a bit out of control.  It was the nature of this family and I half expected it might happen that way. I listened to the teenager friends speak proclaiming undying love and how they were there for each other in life, etc, crying their way through their presentations. I read the messages handed to me as best I could, but I began to feel uneasy. 
Now I could be wrong in my estimation, but it seemed to me that many of them were part of a partying/experimental/risky living, superficial culture that had ultimately killed this girl! It was in my notes to give some brief advice to bring some meaning to this event, but because of the way the service had gone the nature of my comments ended up being very blunt and to the point. By that time I was feeling a bit raw! The death seemed pointless and needless and was the result of a stupid decision and mind set, yet they were talking as if she was Mother Teresa herself! 
I left my notes and ad-libbed and the words I used went something like this; "I am an old man and because of the things I have been involved in and am still doing, I have encountered a lot of sadness in my life. This death has had its impact on me. It seems meaningless and needless. ... But we can give it meaning if in memory of (the person) we committed ourselves to two truths. First, you, each one of you is unique and precious, love yourselves! Look after your self. For God's sake look after yourself! (said fairly forcefully) Secondly the person next to you, here and wherever you are is a unique and important person. Love them. Look after them! Look out for them. For God's sake look after your mates! Lets in memory of xxxxx, commit to look after ourselves and look after our mates! Love yourself and love your neighbour are the guts of life!" 
I was angry that this young woman, who obviously had spirit, skills and a "presence" about her, had been killed by dubious values and practices which are part of our youth culture. In my time I have seen too many lives stuffed up by such an atmosphere or way of thinking.
The golden rule - why not teach it?
New Zealand is a very secular country. There is now almost an aversion to religion in Government departments (except Maori spirituality) and in the education system. The separation of Church and state is a basic principle and a way of life here. But I think with the lessening of the impact of Christendom (and I do not think that is all bad) we live in times when as a society we have no anchor, no clear base for morality. Greed, selfishness or just self survival takes over and truth, honesty, compassion tend to go out the window. I was talking to a man at the brewery where I am a chaplain and he was telling me about one of his kid's twenty first birthday party. He told about the consumption of booze that went on. Then he said, "It is different than in our day. We used to drink, and drink heavily, but we always looked after our mates. I discovered on the night of the twenty first, the kids today don't! If someone is comatose, they just leave them behind! We never did that even when we were pissed!" It rang bells because I have heard emergency workers saying similar things. Politicians lie and do not seem to be embarrassed about it. People take things (stealing) if they can get away with it, then boast about it! In our market place people cheat and lie blatantly. I had a man ring asking if I could help with a survey. I put him off because I was busy, but he insisted that he ring after work. He did so, the first few questions were survey type questions, then he began trying to sell me insurance. I told him, "You lied! This is no survey. It is false pretenses." He began to tell me again about this insurance deal, but I just said "No - you lied - goodbye!" It was blatant lies with no sense of guilt or remorse! We have lost our moral compass. But.... do not teach religion! Do not get to deep values! That is in personal opinion territory and dangerous, offensive even! Such depth is seen as offensive in our secular society. You work that out by yourself somehow!  
But... I got to thinking, the Golden Rule... "Do unto others as you would have them do to you." or variations of the same theme is a basic principle in 26 of the major religions and is expressed in the secular moral philosophy of many writers. It is such a basic principle accepted by such a wide range of thinkers, that surely in our education systems it should not be offensive to teach and explore that! Surely we can instill such an acceptable principle in our young people's minds and get them exploring its implications. It is not converting them to any particular religion, but just exploring a principle which has evolved in a variety of civilisations. The Charter for Compassion is a grand statement along this line which deserves attention, but even just the golden rule itself explored more often could become an anchor for our morality. Just thinking... as you do when you are confronted with the senseless death of a young person!

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