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Thursday, August 23, 2012

What Good Are Sick People? Why Not Just Get Rid of Them? A Scientist's Answer

Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo pushes a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs
in the 1947 film noir, "Kiss of Death" 

What good are sick people? Why not just get rid of them? Remember ancient Sparta, where babies were inspected after birth and exposed to death if they were defective? Remember the Nazis. The first and last group the Nazis mass murdered was not Jews, or Communists, or homosexuals, or trade unionists. The first and last group of people the Nazis mass murdered was the physically handicapped.

Okay, so you're not a Nazi. But sick people give you the creeps. So you just avoid them.

After all, health and happiness are desired, not illness and suffering. Why not just avoid sick and sad people?

Xavier Le Pichon, a scientist, offers an intriguing answer. Based on his science, Le Pichon concludes that both individual human beings and human societies actually require contact with the sick and the suffering in order to be healthy and whole.

Plate tectonics. Xavier Le Pichon worked out this theory, and applies it to his argument  that illness and suffering are necessary to individuals and to communities. 
Xavier Le Pichon (born 1937) has an amazing resume. He has lived enough for several lifetimes.

He survived internment in a World War II Japanese concentration camp. He was imprisoned as a small child, and lived under death threats.

He got a PhD in physics. At age 29, he contributed to a revolution in his own field. When he started out, geophysicists believed that the earth was fixed. The continents were always where they are located now. Le Pichon developed a comprehensive model of plate tectonics. This showed that the earth is in motion, and the continents move.

At the top of his game, at age 36, having revolutionized his own scientific field, and having been honored for that, Le Pichon realized that there was something missing from his life. He dropped everything. He decided to quit science. He left his positions and his honors.

He went to Calcutta, to work with Mother Teresa. One day he tried to feed one small boy who was starving to death in front of his eyes. In that small boy, Le Pichon saw Jesus. The experience was so profound for Le Pichon he decided never "to turn away my eyes from somebody who is suffering."


Xavier Le Pichon insists that contact with sick people and suffering people are necessary for the health and wholeness of each individual human, and for the health and wholeness of human society. He harnesses his work on plate tectonics to make this argument.

Le Pichon, a geophysicist, studies the earth. He says that where the earth is softer and more pliable, changes occur without trauma. Where the earth is perfect and rigid, changes occur with violence and destruction.

He says that this model applies to human individuals, and to human societies. Perfect people and perfect societies become rigid. To change, they must break.

People and societies that have incorporated human frailty into their worldview and their functioning grow smoothly. They don't need to break to grow.

Le Pichon, a devout Catholic, incorporates his understanding of Jesus into his worldview and his functioning. When he fed that starving child in Calcutta, he saw Jesus.

But, Le Pichon says, human societies have long had the compassionate model as one of their options. He cites discoveries in the Shanidar Cave in Iraq. This cave contained remains of Neanderthals. These remains were tens of thousands of years old. Among the remains was a man who had several physical handicaps. Shanidar 1, or Nandy, was an old man (by Neanderthal standards) who was severely deformed. He had many injuries that had healed over time. Nandy, researchers argue, showed that this ancient proto-human community made sacrifices in its own lifestyle in order to allow this old man who continue to live among them.

Le Pichon argues that the compassion this community showed to Nandy wasn't just good for Nandy, it was good for the community.

"When in a family or community you really are taking care with love of somebody who is sick or in the last stage of his life. Suddenly, we take turns around this person, and you create an extremely specific kind of man community…They have reorganized themselves around the small ones, the babies, because otherwise there is no life possible…But also the people who are in great difficulty because of suffering, because of sickness, because of handicap, because life is coming to the end. And that's really very new and special. You know, it becomes a society which we call human."

Some choose to wall themselves off from the sick and the suffering. Le Pichon argues that these people miss out on the essence of human experience and spiritual life.

"I've known some people that I've considered very generous, very open, and so on, and I've seen them progressively close themselves, begin to shut the doors, begin to be afraid of being invaded by this problem from the outside. And it's as if their heart, you know, were shriveling.

With others, you have the impression that they are always more and more open. I met Mother Teresa and of course Jean Vanier, Father Thomas Philippe, and so on, who are people who have this extraordinary capacity to enter into a relationship with people always open and in a relationship in which they immediately join the part which is most hidden and hurt in them. They have this capacity to enter into this new life, and it seems to deepen and deepen with time. It's as if you had two different ways.

You have this kind of big awakenings when the big catastrophe happens, either a collective one like a war or major accident, but it can be also a tragedy inside the family, not just outside. And they may react in a way that you cannot predict. Sometimes it's very bad. Sometimes it opens them up. So it's something difficult but my experience is that once you enter into this way of, I would call it companionship, you know, walking with the suffering person that has come into your life and that you have not rejected, then your heart progressively gets educated by them. You know, they teach you a new way of being.

We have to be educated by the other. Our heart cannot be educated by itself. I mean, my heart cannot be educated by myself.

It can only come out of a relationship with others. And if we accept to be educated by the others, to let the other explain to us what happens to them, how they feel, which is completely different from what we feel, and to let yourself immerse into their world so that they can get into our world, then you begin to share something which is very deep.

"You can change the world, but it's up to you. God is a mystery, but it can be discovered only through the weak, the fragile, the part of us and around us. And then we discover that this has a power of transformation of the world. Not through very strong armies or rockets or whatever that is."

Le Pichon also draws on his own memory of suffering:

"I remember when I was in the concentration camp. I was eight at the time. And life was hard. All the babies were dying of hunger and we were together. We were the center of life. We were continuously present with our parents, uncles, and so on, and that is not a bad memory for me."


Quotes from Xavier Le Pichon come from this transcript.

Xavier Le Pichon's essay "Ecce Homo" is here.

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