In our own hands

To offer consolation is an act of generosity.

Arthur Frank, The Renewal of Generosity

ANZAC Day: dodging the memorialisation of war by gardening, trying to distribute worm casts without ripping handfuls of living worms to bits. I’m feeling the dirt packed under my fingernails, and suddenly hearing Thom Gunn’s poem that skids to a stop on the matter of our cellular form: when we die and fall into the earth, we become dirt, and there is no intention in this, it just is.

This poem ends with the plants that consume and grow from what’s left of us. It reminds me of Sharon Olds’ meditation on the Challenger shuttle explosion (“What I want / to do is find each cell, / slip it out of the fishes’ mouths, / ash in the tree, / soot in your eyes’ ; see this post). These are the similar words I hear from Gunn’s poem while gardening with worms:

Cell after cell the plants convert / my special richness in the dirt: / all that they get, they get by chance / and multiply in ignorance

Thom Gunn, ‘The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of His Death

My hands
These are my hands

Seeing ahead to the material plainness of what comes after our own dying should change the way we live and work, not just for people of faith, but for all of us. We’re here for a short time, and our priorities should be our own. But it’s not a simple thing to untangle ourselves from the visions and imperatives imposed on us by institutions, families and culture, to create sufficient thinking space that we can understand what choices we can make, what agency we have, in the time we have left.

To develop our agency, our capacity for generous action, in institutional contexts that Arthur Frank describes as cultures of “menacing possibility”, we need to find and care for others who are thinking similarly.

In his book The Renewal of Generosity, Frank talks about the stories shared in healthcare as gifts that expand this space of possibility.

The resonance of stories is what they give beyond what they ostensibly tell. Stories of the generosity of ill people, doctors, and nurses can show what is possible for any of us at any time. That is their consolation.

He’s using the word consolation deliberately, in a passage of his thoughts on generosity. To Frank, the climate of demoralization in stressed organizations is one that invites us to find and care for one another through specific practices of generosity, hospitality and consolation. To console is to comfort, and in its origins there is a sense of withness. To this extent, it resembles empathy, but there’s a subtle difference in consolation. To console is to recognise otherness as the basis of suffering that is separate from our own, to care without the hubristic claim of empathy.

Stories shared do this precisely: they invite us to approach others with humility. They don’t demand reciprocity; to receive a story, it’s enough to listen. You don’t need to offer a story in return. Stories are occasions for hospitality: to receive what comes, to listen without judging, without necessarily joining in, but in the discipline of full attention. Stories don’t fool us into forgetting who we are: however moving they are, we never fully experience them as the person telling them. In accepting the gift of a story, we recognise and respect that the other person is who they are because of a singular and also politically shaped set of experiences that are not our own. Listening well teaches us that what we do share is a matter of process: the values of others are drawn from their living, just as our own are.

Two days ago I had the opportunity to think a bit about where stories sit amongst the principles of compassionate leadership, at a #compassionlab retreat organised in Victoria by Mary Freer. In 2016, Mary won a Westpac Fellowship to find out about how empathy and compassion are changing workplace cultures and organisations around the world, and now she’s back with ideas and energy to share. Mary is a visionary and gifted leader, passionate about our capacity for change, and highly persuasive: in her company, and the company of the friends she brings to training events, a good world not only seems possible, but likely.

On the way to the retreat, I spent quite a bit of time in the company of a young man driving a taxi. He told me his story, of coming to Australia from a rural Punjabi village, on the values that he lives by, and the values he admires in others. He told me about his family, the way older people are valued in his home community, his hopes for the future. He seemed to me to embody the “pragmatic optimist” that we learned about at #compassionlab—someone whose sense of hope for the future has a good grasp of resources, constraints and opportunities, who can take steps to act to bring about the future in intentional ways. Along the way he explained to me why temples offer free food, and about the cultural values behind feeding those who need feeding. He mapped out a cultural framework for continuous learning, and told me stories of other Sikhs who made him proud of who he wants to be in this world.

The gift he left with me, in his own words: that if there is to be a good world, a good future, it’s one we will make with our hands.

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Two years ago this weekend. Another year.

Over the past days, Sister Helen Prejean has been actively campaigning on Twitter to protest the rushed executions of men on death row in Arkansas. I came across Sister Prejean during the time that Myuran Sukumaran was still living, and I came home from the retreat watching  Australian death penalty activists sharing on Twitter the reminder that it’s two years ago since he was executed.

Sister Prejean’s tenacity is extraordinary. She is a skilful, articulate social media user, and she uses these channels unflinchingly to keep in public view the lives of those facing premeditated state killing, and the harm done to their families facing violent bereavement, often after years and years and years of delay. She uses faith and scripture, and generosity and hope, and every other thing available, to campaign until there isn’t a breath left. I don’t know how she holds herself up, but there she is, arguing exhaustedly and with conviction that the future can be remade at any moment, precisely because it’s in our hands.

I have a copy of a self-portrait by Myuran Sukumaran on my office noticeboard and I look at it every day. It reminds me to keep the future calmly in view, and in this way to try to meet it while still caring about something, believing that there is something to care about, whatever turns up.

And to meet it making something, growing something, with my own hands.

So much thanks to Mary Freer, Helen Prejean, and Jag, driving someone somewhere today, making a good world

As ever, thoughts with Mrs Sukumaran and the Sukumaran family.

Enhancing life

When a person dies, they leave behind, for those who knew them, an emptiness, a space: the space has contours and is different for each person mourned. This space with its contours is the person’s likeness and is what the artist searches for when making a living portrait. A likeness is something left behind invisibly.

John Berger,  ‘Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible’

It’s been hard to write, evidently. It’s March. This morning I was over on Plashing Vole’s blog reading this top quality piece about lefty academics (there’s no short version, just make a pot of tea and sit down, you’ll be glad) when I noticed from his sidebar of followed blogs that there hadn’t been so much as a chip wrapper blowing among these deckchairs the whole of this year.

Writing is slow, tricksy and always already falling behind. Why write, when you can shout? Why write, when the situation needs much more urgent action? Why write when the swamp of words is filling faster than we can bail it out? Placards, tweets, slogans: the US administration bellows #MAGA, and on Twitter—suddenly so America—the hashtags of the resistance come flying back. It’s like the worst Marco Polo ever.

And all of our efforts to grapple with what’s slithering about in this water with us have to be formed in actual words in our own mouths, in the languages we learned as children to talk about the world. Our mother tongues. Fake news, alternative facts: we’re trying to figure out what should be thinkable about any of this. Someone’s on television—surely we’d still call that “media”?— saying that the news is fake. Turn over the card. The statement on the other side is false. It’s like a drinking game. Something as intense, as intimate, as our own speaking is coopted to try to make sense of things that seem both obvious and entirely opaque, that reveal themselves only as we stare at them. What colour was that dress?

Words fail. Words fail. Words fail.

But the craft and practice of writing is more than an effort to try to get a hold of this, to nail it. It’s also a practice of grieving: the search for likeness, a feeling out and a pencilling in, it’s trying to represent and learn from the face of the thing that confronts you what it is that you have lost. Writing is the first attempt at getting it down on paper in a sketch, a snapshot, a sentence, because we’re all looking for someone who has died, some past self, who might not have existed, who might again.

And honestly there are days, even in this time, when it seems about right. But there are more days when your fingers are fused together and you bang at the keyboard with your fists and all you have is gestures and words that don’t sit right, that say nothing and convey nothing except how stupid this is making us all.

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Back in January, knotted up and bad tempered with the effort of abandoned writing, I went to the Campbelltown Arts Centre to see ‘Another Day in Paradise’, the first exhibition of Myuran Sukumaran’s paintings, curated by his friend and teacher Ben Quilty. These paintings are at some level so familiar; we all saw them carried out of Nusakambangan still wet, still bleeding paint, still living.

Now here they are in a gallery on a hot day, with maybe ten or twelve of us walking around quietly looking at them. He painted his predicament relentlessly: the bullet, the scaffold, the AK-47, the politicians, the fellow prisoners, the body, and above all the face. He painted himself looking at the near future in which his paintings would immediately outlive him, because of the implacability of the judicial decision that his living had no value except in being kept alive to be brutally killed as an example to others.

Think about what it takes to keep trying to refine a practice of painting, writing, speaking, under that kind of duress. What are we doing letting the world silence us?

And now here we are, his paintings have done exactly as he intended and survived, cared for by his family and all those who loved him. And look: this likeness is not a photograph, this is an actual brushstroke in a self-portrait made by a person living under extraordinary pressure when he made it, and now he isn’t, and yet here we still are, and the marks made by his hands are still with us, as with any artist who has died.

Time bends around the then-and-now of all this. There are other pieces of writing on this blog about Myuran Sukumaran written at the time, and I still remember how it felt to lie awake thinking that if was me, if it was any of my kids in that kind of trouble, I would want the whole of Australia to stay awake all the time until my child was rescued.

Having sat with the paintings for a while, I came around a corner into a dark room and there was a large video installation by artist Matt Sleeth of a close up of Myuran’s face, blinking, not looking away, and laid in front of it a single bird of paradise stem. I thought the flower was part of the exhibition, but the next day I saw this:

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There are always personal reasons why it gets a bit hard to write. Family life presses in. Stuff happens. Health happens.

But I think I’ve also been silent because this blog lost a reader. One of the people who really anchored me in the world, who knew me well, and knew where I came from, who taught me how to prune a rose, love a succulent, be an unsentimental gardener, try hard to respect botanical names, drink sherry in good glasses, and remain vigilant to questions of justice without ever wanting to be known for it, has gone. At her memorial, this was said of her:

She was deeply affected by the injustices she felt were being suffered by the Palestinian people, and was continually inspired by their unfailing resilience in the face of them; and she would take part in pilgrimages that were designed, not to visit holy places, but to cement friendships with Palestinian families. This went along with a deep concern for other major ethical issues in public life, as when she went to Scotland to join a protest against the nuclear submarine base at Faslane. Not that she could often be induced to talk about these things. Her naturally self-deprecating manner always meant that if one heard about them at all they would be recounted as negligible contributions to widely accepted causes. There wasn’t the smallest hint of pride or self-advertisement. But this modest self-deprecation concealed a character of startling determination.

This character of startling determination was my cousin, my friend, my fellow cancer patient and chemo expert, someone I confided in and listened to and looked up to and learned from. I was enormously proud to know her and be loved by her. We went through thick and thin together in the last few years, and when I said goodbye to her, I finally found the proper words to part from someone you know you won’t see again, which is the hardest thing migrants need to learn. (Really, my last words to my mum were awful and don’t bear thinking about. Long story.)

So after a rainy afternoon sitting in her home making plans for her to seek hospice care (“I just want to be with other people who are dying, and I need to be able to talk about this,” she said) we stepped into the driveway and had to figure out how to honour everything we’d been talking about and yet find a way to say goodbye.

“You are life enhancing,” she said. And I said back, “And you are life enhancing.” And that was it, we hugged, and I drove away.

I miss her every day, especially when gardening and fuming at the world. She was 89. She had an iPad. She followed Palestinian bloggers and read Alan Bennett. We were John Berger fans together. She read this blog.

With love to you, M. You are still enhancing this life. It’s time to get back to it.

Never let me go

In an interrogation, blows have only scant criminological significance. They are tacitly practiced and accepted, a normal measure employed against recalcitrant prisoners who are unwilling to confess.

Jean Amery, ‘Torture’

The perverse bureaucracy of a well-mannered killing is cranking up so fast in Indonesia. Plastic chairs, fresh paint, name tags to sort out family members from spiritual advisers, coffins. Again.

Executions are scheduled for tonight.

Fourteen people, their families and loved ones are slowly sinking into this pit. They can’t save themselves from what is coming.

The Guardian has published a page from the journal of Nigerian youth pastor Humphrey Jefferson “Jeff” Ejike Eleweke, and although I’m not a person of faith, I just keep thinking: don’t we all have a version of this prayer, that we’ll be cared for, and not let go?Screenshot 2016-07-28 21.05.17

The stories of the other prisoners are here, and one detail quickly becomes relentless: “also beaten and tortured in custody”, “detained in his home for three days by officers who beat him until he signed a confession… later had surgery for stomach and kidney damage allegedly caused by the assaults”, “coerced into making the false admission”, “genitals were repeatedly electrocuted to elicit a confession under duress”.

In At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities, Jean Amery describes the experience of being tortured as one of amazement, and the beginning of a permanent foreignness in the world. The tortured stay tortured, and can never return to a sense of safety, of being at home.

Amery’s torture “contained everything that we already ascertained earlier in regard to a beating by the police: the border violation of my self by the other, which can be neither neutralised by the expectation of help, not rectified through resistance.” And he is really candid about what happened next:

I talked. I accused myself of invented absurd political crimes, and even now I don’t know at all how they could have occurred to me, dangling bundle that I was.

This is why torture isn’t trusted to produce sound evidence. Its whole purpose is to destroy the coherent self, the self who can say anything true. The logic of torture is that a disciplined world must reject the humanist contract under which we take some responsibility for each other’s safety and care. Torture is implacable, and the destruction of the social is its mission. But the culture of torture then introduces its own destruction, because under torture, confession must become tactical, situational and entirely unreliable: “the nonsense I had foisted on them”, as Amery puts it.

Amery is really clear that secular torturing practice was not confined to the Nazis, even though he concluded that they had a special and pathological anticipation of the efficiencies they could create through the annihilation of hope. He doesn’t suggest either that we should see torture as an exceptional practice narrowly reserved for war or emergency. In fact, the bleakest conclusion from his essay is that torture is the tacitly admitted companion to incarceration in all circumstances.

Australian journalists Jewel Topsfield and Samantha Hawley are once more in amongst the families of the 14 victims in Cilacap, reporting with conviction and compassion in the worst circumstances. Julian McMahon, lawyer for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran and now President of Reprieve Australia, is arguing passionately for the principles of law and human rights that are harmed at every step of this process. The Chan and Sukumaran families are speaking up, appealing to the President with the particular authority he bestowed on them by executing their loved ones, to recognise execution as doing lifelong harm to others.

Earlier this year I was privileged to attend a family memorial for Myuran Sukumaran. Death penalty advocates—or even those who shrug and say that what’s happening in another country isn’t our business or is beyond our reach—should spend five minutes in the company of the families left behind. Because you really cannot argue either for the justice or the inevitability of state killing until you have faced what it does to others.

It’s not a national matter, it’s part of our world, and so it’s part of all of us. The principle of social hope which both torture and execution are designed to destroy is grounded in our capacity to value the lives of strangers, and not to let each other go.

For Julian McMahon

Update:

In bad weather, only four of the fourteen prisoners were executed, for unclear reasons. This group included Humphrey Jefferson Ejike Eleweke. He was 43, and had maintained his innocence for 13 years, finally refusing to sign the document for his own execution on the grounds that he had not committed a crime.

The prisoners still living include Pakistani national Zulfikar Ali who also maintains his innocence, with strong evidence that he is right, including a statement from the person who testified against him that the testimony was coerced. Zulfikar Ali is the severely beaten prisoner who was transferred from hospital in order to be executed. What will happen to him now?

“We don’t know what will happen next because I was not allowed to meet with my husband. I hope he will be fine because I took all his clothes including his oxygen tank.”

Australia’s Jewel Topsfield reported throughout the night, and from the press conference, after which she said this:

 

What you cannot accept

So, how can we productively guard space upon terrain where agency is constantly affronted?

Sean Michael Morris, ‘The Place of Education‘, Hybrid Pedagogy July 2016

I pray you find the courage to show mercy, as one day you will no longer have the power and will be looking back at your choices and your mistakes and the decisions you have taken.

Raji Sukumaran, letter to President Joko Widodo, July 2016

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Over the last two weeks we’ve turned like sunflowers, all around the world, to face the extraordinary spectacle of the US political convention. Our own hustled yet protracted Australian Federal election seems so trivial compared to this fiesta of disruption, and even more so in relation to the knock-down roller derby that followed #Brexit in the UK. We changed almost nothing, and found nothing much to celebrate. Where were our balloons, our celebrities, our tears of pride? We had policy announcements in place of speeches, and so largely missed out on the moral purpose of being a nation in the first place. Americans seem to be able to go on for months and months in a glassy state of political devoteeism; after complaining that eight weeks is too long, Australians vote like bored shareholders at an AGM.

It’s a passionless, bureaucratic bit of box-ticking; but it’s also how incremental change works, as pollsters and policymakers get a fresh sense of the national mood and shift their plans according to what they think will fly. Thanks to this sharp piece of writing by Bon Stewart on why Debord’s Society of the Spectacle has something to offer us, I’ve gained a better understanding of how this driest of political processes actually works. Bon introduced me to the principle of the Overton Window (also called the “window of discourse”), concisely explained by Adam Lee at Big Think:

This is an idea first conceived by the political scientist (who else) Joseph Overton, which holds that, for any political issue, there’s a range of socially acceptable positions that’s narrower than the range of possible positions. Positions within the Overton window are seen as mainstream and uncontroversial, while those outside it are viewed as shocking, upsetting, and dangerously radical. The key point is that, with social pressure, the Overton window can shift over time, and today’s radicals may be tomorrow’s moderates.

Lee is interested in how the Overton window moves, and his conclusion is that it’s moved by people standing outside of the mainstream that it represents. This locates the struggle over what’s thinkable within practices of radicalism, and Lee identifies this willingness to do the work of shifting the window with acts of political courage. At some level this isn’t problematic, but I’m interested in the implication that those on the inside, those whose views are the Overton window, are just milling about like sheep waiting for a dog.

It’s easy to fall for this when faced with so much vision of actual crowds with placards, weeping, believing. The American convention crowd itself becomes the spectacle of global political power. But if we think that the only people who can shift the boundaries of socially acceptable thought are the people outside this crowd, we’re missing something. Like any peloton, the political crowd is an unfolding compromise: of individuals in relation to others, of synchronised manoeuvring around momentarily shared goals, of slogans that are troubled and settled again by individual beliefs, histories and hopes. Crowds fall apart, detour and regroup suddenly, with changed priorities and new directions. It happens all the time.

This isn’t always the work of outside agitation. There isn’t always a dog, or even a dog whistle. What looks like consensus about what’s socially acceptable can be held in place only by the slimmest of civilities, the most puzzling of inertias, even a misunderstanding. And so change becomes possible because as individuals—as ordinary faces in mainstream crowds—we’re called by a detail that troubles us, and we figure out how to make a small move. We can’t rely on anyone else to move with us. And sometimes the candidate you back is in the crowd right next to you, figuring out how to stand for herself, where to draw a line.

Screenshot 2016-07-27 11.04.35

Both Sean Michael Morris and Bonnie Stewart are asking what it means to be educators in this world of flows. I was thinking about this when Mark Carrigan shared a beautiful photograph on Twitter. To put this message right here in this awkward place, someone clambered down this bank with a spray can, some anonymous fellow human for whom this message was urgent and with purpose. Mark photographed it and shared it. And I saw it, and here it is.

This is what it means to be part of a shared practice of learning together in this world. Individuals decide and act, in even tiny ways, and as we hear from each other, we adjust our sense of what’s to be done, what we can accept, and what we can’t.

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The Indonesian government have issued the 72 hour warning to governments of the next group of individuals to be executed for drug crimes. Included in this group are prisoners who confessed under torture (including one who has had to be transferred from hospital by ambulance in order to be executed), prisoners who have had no or poor legal support, and Merry Utami, a woman whose story suggests strongly that she is a victim of deceit and coercion. Read about them here and here and here and here. Screenshot 2016-07-27 18.32.04 (There’s no good standard in any of this, but among the worst is the situation of Humphrey Jefferson “Jeff” Ejike Eleweke, a Nigerian youth pastor whose story of being set up is meticulously and authoritatively detailed here. Please don’t let him go without knowing why this has happened to him.)

After the serious diplomatic consequences of the last executions, the Indonesian government seems to be hoping for a lack of international media attention to the ending of these lives. They are avoiding the diplomatically sensitive French and UK prisoners, not to mention Filipina Mary Jane Veloso who is, incredibly, still on death row despite the strongest possible evidence that she had no idea what was in the suitcase she was asked to carry. The prisoners are Nigerian, Chinese, Pakistani, South African and Indonesian, and today they are facing the immediate and brutal ending of their lives, with everything this involves in relation to the fundamental human right to die well, the hope we all hold for ourselves.

We would rescue them if they were drowning.

And knowledge of their transfer to Nusakambangan has refreshed the terrible injuries done to the families and loved ones of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan in April last year. This is why the courage and conviction of Raji Sukumaran in writing directly to the President to appeal for clemency for these prisoners is as compelling to me as anything any political leader has said this week, on pretty much any subject.

Please don’t let those families go through what we have gone through. As a father and now a grandfather you would understand how much love you have for them, no matter their mistakes. You want to protect them but you feel so helpless. I hope you understand the desperation, anxiety, hurt and the burden you will inflict on to the families of the people you send to their death. … Please do not kill these men and women. They are someone’s son, daughter, father, mother, sister, brother, friend.

This is what Raji Sukumaran cannot accept, and I’m with her.

for Maha

Faith

I think about the day a person dies, how the morning is just a morning, a meal is just a meal, a song is just a song. It’s not the last morning, or the last meal, or the last song. It’s all very ordinary, and then it’s all very over.

The space between life and death is a moment.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs, ‘Yahrzeit

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The internet is curled in on itself with grief, again. Someone loved and admired and puzzled over and copied and with a place in so many hearts through songs we sing in the car and lost times in our own lives, our own gone selves, that someone has gone and died. In a last blurry photograph of an out of the way moment, there he is right in the act of being ordinary, walking back to his car outside the pharmacy. What does he know? Does he know that it’s today?

The best piece I read was Tressie McMillan Cottom getting right to the core of why this death holds our attention, and how even someone beyond the circle of our own kin and people, can still rip into skin.

We took the road most traveled and there are no detours for the foreseeable future. That kind of genius died today and with it went my faith.

Celebrity death fills the space after loss with wild-eyed explanations and suggestions, as one thing gives way to another. The scene of death is explained again and again, events gather together and take on significance. The day that could have begun and ended like every other, ended differently.

And look, there they are, big pharma’s gleaming fishhooks. Percocet. Oxycodone.

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Stephanie Wittels Sachs writes about the anniversary of her brother’s death, and the Jewish tradition of lighting a Yahrzeit candle on the memorial day at the end of a year of mourning, that burns for 24 hours. Two months later, and it’s his birthday. In a beautiful essay on the struggle to sustain empathy among strangers online, she tells this story:

My brother’s 32nd birthday is today. It’s an especially emotional day for his family because he’s not alive for it. He died of a heroin overdose last February.

This year is even harder than the last. I started weeping at midnight and eventually cried myself to sleep. Today’s symptoms include explosions of sporadic sobbing and an insurmountable feeling of emptiness. My mom posted a gut-wrenching comment on my brother’s Facebook page about the unfairness of it all. Her baby should be here, not gone. “Where is the God that is making us all so sad?” she asked.

In response, someone — a stranger/(I assume) another human being — commented with one word: “Junkie.”

Hard as it is to imagine from here, her essay becomes a powerful defence of empathy as the recuperation of our capacity to care for strangers, even those we feel most secure in shaming.

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But. And.

In his writing on generosity, Arthur Frank calls on Levinas for the concept of alterity, as something fundamental to being human. We are not other because of location or opportunity or type, or because of any of the big markers of diversity (however important these are for other reasons) or any of the particular things we have gone on to do. Alterity—being other—is the condition of being a person in the first place.

For Frank, this is a useful way of approaching the symbolic violence of medical diagnosis and treatment, that tries to discipline alterity, to bundle it into thinkable categories. All the institutions we work in depend on this kind of classificatory busywork: tagging, sorting and ranking of humans like it’s a good thing that we can do this. We add a little science and call it analytics, but what we’re doing here is profoundly social and shot through with tiny fears: we’re trying to sort out the confronting alterity of the human crowd into patterns we can tolerate, so we know who to join up with, who to work on, who to exclude.

In Frank’s reading of Levinas, this poses an uncomfortable question about empathy. When we look at what someone else is going through and mistake our empathic reaction for their suffering, we blanket their experience with our own. Empathy places alterity under strain.

Empathy tends towards unification: either my projecting what would make me feel better onto you, or my fusing with your suffering. … Seeing the face requires alterity. I must recognise that there are aspects of your suffering that I can never imagine and I can never touch.

Restraint: it’s a tough standard for times of social grieving, when it feels as though we’re all keening and wailing through our common loss of faith. But maybe getting straight with this loss of faith might be a way that we can build something new together.

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It’s been a year. Many of us stayed awake all night, keeping candles in our windows and our thoughts, while the rusted machinery of state killing—that has no place at all in this world, none—cranked into action and flung itself on the bodies of people who were already as subjugated to the forces of the world opiate market as anyone else.

When Myuran Sukumaran died, Australia lost a courageous, graceful and visionary thinker, someone who was actively making a better world.

I can’t imagine his mother’s loss. It’s beyond anything I could claim to touch.

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All this was meant to be gone long ago,

votive lamps, lighting candles,

bowing towards some holy centre of the earth,

yet sometimes we have to

gather up the four corners of our lives,

like the corners of a tablecloth,

to shake out the crumbs;

sometimes we need light

for a journey,

sometimes we even need to bow.

Moya Cannon, ‘Midday at Stockholm Airport’

I’m not a person of faith in any religious sense, not at all, but reading this beautiful poem I wonder if maybe mortality itself can stand in for faith at times like this. It gives us a sense of scale, after all, and a reason to stay awake.

for Tressie

The heart of it

The heart, in contrast, is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones. The heart is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people. And in our tests, we found that people loved it.

Akarshan Kumar, on #TwitterHeart

Here’s the thing. There is no single Twitter experience, no coherent “you” that can be better enabled by corporate tinkering within its miniaturist frame, because Twitter is just people. Millions of us use it every day—although apparently not enough to satisfy Twitter itself, or Wall Street, because Facebook. And we each use Twitter for reasons that are peculiar to us, in ways that help us make sense of the world from where we are.

We use it to listen out for things, to propose ideas, to be amongst people, to drop in on conversations, to join a crowd, to run rings around a stupid thing, to pay respects, or just to hear from one person, to mark one single struggle to make it through a sleepless night. We use it at work. We use it with our families. We use it to network. We use it to cross boundaries and make boundaries, both. And among this vast crowd with more or less nothing in common we make the best that we can of the ways in which it doesn’t quite work. We patch and customise and turn a blind eye.

Sure, promoted commercial Tweets are exasperating and often untimely. Spam, bots, fake accounts—they’re all part of what makes Twitter lively to some and trivial to others. And then there’s the ugly side, the vile and stupid things that people feel free to say because distance protects them from rebuke, and because in some mouldy basement of human nature bullying continuously reappears, but as a game.

All of that.

So why the big deal about Twitter changing a star for a heart, turning ‘favourite’ to ‘like’? If we all used the same button before, you’d think that some claim to enhanced iconic universality would go down well with us. Isn’t that what makes us a global community, a worldwide human radio station?

But it turns out this isn’t the case. For me it’s because of the way Twitter explained it. In that moment, in that truly awful blogpost, we all just learned that Twitter comes from a very specific corporate cultural place, that’s both within the US and not. It’s a faith system, a set of beliefs that may well have something in common with other tech corporates, and it enables things to be said without any sense of irony or risk.

Show how you feel without missing a beat.

No, really, Twitter, this isn’t a simple thing. Jamming the whole world of human affect into a slogan doesn’t make it so.

And what the rest of us should hear is this: whenever someone tells you that their way of seeing things is universal, it’s not.

We’ve been down this path many times. Here’s Will Hays, chief strategist and political lobbyist for the American motion picture industry, advancing the case in 1945 that Hollywood should expect to enjoy unrestricted global market share:

for through the universal language of pictures men of every race, creed and nationality everywhere have shared innumerable common, vital experiences, with mutual emotional sympathies, and in a manner to develop mutual understanding

In 1945, this vision of everyone everywhere coming to a common understanding carried weight. But Hays had built his lobbying framework much earlier, and had spoken and written consistently on this question of the universality of Hollywood’s take on things, just as Twitter is doing today. Across all sorts of changing political circumstances, Hays smoothly reminded the industry and its critics that Hollywood was above politics, and above the economy, because of the universal language of pictures in which it spoke to the world—and with which it expanded its market share.

Sometimes you really do have to stand outside of a culture—a company culture, a national culture, a zeitgeist of any kind—to see the limits of its claims.

Is Twitter naive about its claim? Is it cunning? Probably a mix of both. But the upshot is that if you’re a Twitter user who used to click the favourite button to save something to read for later, or to nod sympathetically in the direction of human distress, you’re now reduced to a gesture that comes with much narrower emotional range.

Screenshot 2015-11-06 11.39.38

Looking at this, I’ve been thinking back to the way that Twitter has brought news to me over the past few years, that I’ve marked and kept, and I’ve been wondering which of these possible meanings I could appeal to, without missing a beat.

Twitter showed me, before I could look away, the horrifying death of Muath al-Kasasbeh. Which of these responses could I have given? Twitter brought me right into the last moments, the fierce anger, of Kajieme Powell, and the desperate search for answers in the loss of Sandra Bland. In the middle of the night, with many others in Australia, I lay awake watching Twitter until the final news came from Nusakambangan that the long campaign to try to achieve mercy for Myuran Sukumaran had ended. And as the whispers went around, what could have been said? High five? Adorbs?

The Twitter star icon, and the language of “favouriting” was just as much a simplification. But no one from Twitter had thought to tell me what I meant by using it and so I used it for my own devices.

Now I’m reminded sharply that I had this privilege at all because of a US tech company’s vision of the universal, that turns out to be one I truly don’t share.

More on this

Bonnie Stewart is quoted here at Hopes & Fears and for me nails why Twitter’s gesture is such an epic fail in relation to gendered interactions among strangers in a crowd.

Laura Gogia has a really thoughtful post about how we could come to terms with this.

Maha Bali has pulled together a conversation on different sides to this.

There’s a whole lot of reaction on #TwitterHeart on Twitter.

 

Words for the way we talk

1.

January 28th, 1986 the Challenger Space Shuttle finally took off after many delays and concerns about safety. The parents of female astronaut Christa McAuliffe were watching from the stands, news cameras trained on their upturned faces as the shuttle explodedScreen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.44.49 am

Etched forever” is a meticulously pieced together account of the reactions of all those who prepared for the launch and then witnessed the explosion, from the NASA ground support to the families to the President to all the bystanders. So many stories woven together by a technical malfunction with its own story, that had been assembling itself over time while all the human stories came together.

This is “For and Against Knowledge (for Christa McAuliffe)” by US poet Sharon Olds

“If you don’t have to ask it,
Fine, but I have to ask it.
If I were her mother or husband, I would
Have to go through the center of it.
What happened to her? As long as it was she,
what did she see? Strapped in,
tilted back, so her back was toward
the planet she was leaving, feeling the Gs
press her with their enormous palm, did she
weep with excitement in the roar, and in
the the curve of her tear did she see for an instant
the first blush of fire?? If she were my daughter,
I’d want to know how she died–was she
torn apart, was she burned–the way
I wonder about the first seconds
of our girl’s life, when she was a cell
a cell had just entered, she hung in me
a ball of bright liquid, without nerves,
without eyes or memory, it was
she, I loved her. So I want to slow it
down, and take each millisecond
up, take her, at each point,
in my mind’s arms–the first brilliant
shock hit, as if God touched
her brain with a thumb and it went out, like a mercy killing,
and then, when it was not she,
the the fire came–the way we burned my father
when he had left himself. Then the massive bloom un-
buckled and jumped, she was vaporized back
down to the level of the cell. And the spirit–
I have never understood the spirit,
all I know is the shape it takes,
this wavering flame of flesh. Those
who know about the spirit may tell you
where she is, and why. What I want
to do is find each cell,
slip it out of the fishes’ mouths,
ash in the tree, soot in your eyes
where she enters our lives, I want to play it
backwards, burning jigsaw puzzle
of flesh suck in its million stars
to meet, in the sky, boiling metal
fly back
together, and cool.
Pull that rocket
back down
surely to earth, open the hatch
and draw them out like fresh puppies,
sort them out, family by family, go
away, disperse, do not meet here.”

2.

Michel de Certeau concludes his chapter on the paradox of dying and writing like this:

To write, then, is to be forced to march through enemy territory, in the very area where loss prevails, beyond the protected domain that had been delimited by the act of localising death elsewhere. It is to produce sentences with the lexicon of the mortal, in proximity to and even within the space of death. … In this respect, the writer is also a dying man who is trying to speak. But in the death that his footsteps inscribe on a black (and not blank) page, he knows and he can express the desire that expects from the other the marvellous and ephemeral excess of surviving through an attention that it alters.”

That.

4.

This is from a three minute excerpt of a slightly longer documentary made with Myuran Sukumaran in conversation with educator Ivar Schou, in 2014

You think about all these tangents that your life could have gone on. And you think how could I have got there, how could I have got this, if I had done this differently, you know everybody does this when they’re sitting in their room with nothing to do for five years, you know you do a lot of thinking. … I accept what I did was wrong and I know that I should be punished for it but I do think the death penalty is excessive and I should be given a chance. I have demonstrated that I can do good and be good. I think I could do a lot of good in the outside if I ever did go free. It’s not like I’m just going to just go back after all this and just sit.”

4.

Every day this week fresh, wet artworks have been ferried from Nusakambangan in the hands of Myuran Sukumaran’s family, frienScreen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.42.48 amds and lawyers. Along with other prisoners on death row, he refused to sign the papers for his own execution. Instead, he painted this picture, inscribed “Satu hati satu rasa didalam cinta – (one heart, one feeling in love)”, and the other prisoners signed it, including Mary Jane Veloso, who wrote “keep smiling”.

When the family representatives brought to the island as part of official proceedings heard the volley of gunshots just after midnight, no one had told Mary Jane Veloso’s sisters that she had been removed from the list. In the Phillipines, the woman who took her to Malaysia, and organised for her to be given a suitcase, has been found.

Mary Jane Veloso is still living, and will be returned to her original prison.

There are still over 40 prisoners sentenced to death execution for drug-related offences in Indonesia, including Mary Jane Veloso.

5.

The Roy Morgan company has surveyed Australians every year since 2008 to discover which professions are held in the highest and lowest regard for ethics and honesty. We like nurses and, oddly, pharmacists. We really don’t like people who sell us things. University lecturers come in around the middle, with lawyers.

We hold journalists and television reporters low in our esteem; in 2014 they were ranked 18th out of 30, a consistent downward slide.

Australian journalists who worked this long, painful shift in Indonesia, living alongside the families of the prisoners in Cilacap’s hotel, deserve better. Their words have often been all we’ve had, and their exhaustion and trauma must be extraordinary.

And now, where do educators go with this? What do we do with what we learned about ourselves, our world, its rapidly changing media infrastructures and networks, and the thoughts of others around us? If our attention were to be truly altered, as de Certeau puts it, by all the words and paintings that this burning puzzle flung out—what would we see, what should we do?

Writing and dying

This weekend the situation in Indonesia has escalated. It shouldn’t have come to this, and yet here we are. Networks and timelines are filled with expressions of horror and sadness that the executions are going ahead. Families and loved ones are racing to get there in time; governments all over the world are appealing and protesting. The lawyers are giving last minute radio interviews, exhausted. A consignment of plastic chairs being ferried to the prison is photographed and worried over. Who are these chairs for?  

Those who are still cheering on the executions as Indonesia’s decisive move in the war on regional drug distribution have a real problem in Mary Jane Veloso. Mary Jane is a 30 year old single mother, and her sons are just 6 and 12. Her own account of the events that led to her arrest has been published unedited online. In 2010, she left her children at home with her parents in their village, and travelled to Malaysia because she was promised domestic work that would enable her to provide for her family. There, someone she trusted gave her an air ticket and a brand new suitcase for a week’s holiday in Indonesia before her work started.

“We were so poor,” Ms. Veloso’s older sister, Marites Laurente, recalled of their time growing up. “We were just picking up bottles and plastic in the road to sell to make money.”

The suitcase contained 2.6 kilograms of heroin concealed in the lining. At her trial she was assisted by a student translator who didn’t speak much EnScreen Shot 2015-04-26 at 2.57.22 pmglish, and she didn’t either. There is a last minute worldwide social media campaign underway to try to save her.* As the stories of the others scheduled to be killed on Tuesday with her make clear, drug transportation is a business that’s managed as much by improvisation as organisation. People end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, having a go at making something better.  Read this:

Jamiu Owolabi Abashin was living on the streets of Bangkok in 1998 when a fellow African living there took pity on him and brought him home. Shortly thereafter, according to Mr. Abashin, his new friend asked whether he wanted a quick-paying job, in which he would get $400 for bringing a package of clothing to the friend’s wife in Surabaya, Indonesia, where she sold used shirts and pants.

But what do these stories have to do with us as educators, if we’re not legal experts, or researchers in drug policy? What should be our investment in this, if we’re not family or friends? What if our attention is just a variant on the prurient fixation with moment-of-death videos that Jade Davis calls out in her excellent piece on the street killing of black men in the US? As she says, it’s increasingly effective in prosecution that bystanders had the courage and presence of mind to record what they could see, but this is also the decision that puts the very moment of dying on the nightly news and all over the web, where their mothers and children can’t possibly turn away in time.

I have no idea how long it took for the announcement that the police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott would be charged with murder to make it to social media. What I do know is that I learned about it on social media, which is when I also learned what Walter Scott looked like as his feet hit the ground those last few times. I know exactly what his last step looked like.

That was when I closed my browser and walked away, because I couldn’t take seeing the rest over and over again.

Some of the same dilemma plays out here. How much do we need to know about the way Indonesia manages the business of execution, given that our knowing it inevitably exposes their mothers and sisters and their children to these details? There’s no respite from it: we have eye witness accounts, and stories from those who have participated, and the newspaper articles have illustrations, and the stories have details, and if I was their mother you couldn’t burn that stuff fast enough for me.

French philosopher Michel de Certeau, who died of cancer in 1986, wrote about the problem we have with the management of imminent dying. It is because we can’t accept our own mortality, he writes, that we put the dying away, out of sight. Literally, we make the dying person into something ob-scene: off the scene, can’t be seen. Humane killing is carried out at midnight, with only the minimum number of legally required witnesses. (Who are those chairs for?)  What he calls “the immoral secret of death” is written back in, “in all the procedures that quarantine death or drive it beyond the limits of the city, outside of time, work, and language, in order to protect a place.”

But deCerteau’s point is more complicated than this. It’s not because we close the browser and walk away, but precisely because we hold in our minds the details of someone’s dying, whether that someone is ill or is waiting in a cell or is right in the moment of being shot in a park, that we’re keeping their death in a place that is separate from our own. “I am participating in the illusion that localises death elsewhere, in the hospital or in the last moments: … by identifying this image with the dying person, I make it the place where I am not. Through the representation I exorcise death, which is shut up next door, relegated to a moment that I assume is not mine.”

For deCerteau all this is confounded in the end by the practice of writing. Writing itself invites death right back into the room because we write in anticipation of being read, later. Writing only exists because of what has been written—the traces and after effects of the moment of writing itself, which is more or less nothing in the scheme of things. And it’s through writing that we resolve the trick of locating death elsewhere, by producing it right out of ourselves, out of the mental calculation and physical gesture of putting words together. Look, we say, as the sentences appear, here I am in the very moment of living my life, and that moment has always immediately passed. Here is my dying, and now it’s bound up with yours, because this is the condition that we share.

So if “death is the necessary condition of evolution”, as deCerteau points out, and “the law of the species is that individuals must lose their place”, then why care so much about those who are leaving us? Why are so many taking to the streets and calling radio shows and expressing their anticipatory grieving online as we wait through these terrible two days?

Firstly, it’s because dying is the most precious thing that we do, the most important and generative capacity that we share, and it’s the one thing that should restrain our chasing of productivity, status and stuff. We need to learn to live with it better, for sure, but we don’t do this by letting it become a bargaining chip in a political war on this or that. And secondly, dying entangles us intensely with the lives of others; we are all woven together and one life can’t be neatly picked out without severe, sometimes not-survivable, damage all around it. This violent and premedidated bereavement, including of children, can’t be made civilised, no matter how many forms are signed.

The stories from all those waiting to be executed on Tuesday tell us that this world isn’t a safe place for most of the people in it. The least we can ask is that the state recognises this simple thing: dying belongs to the individual, and is the most fundamental human capacity that the state is there to protect.

There is still time to speak

Please read this article and take a moment to sign this petition to appeal for clemency for Mary Jane Veloso. The Mercy Campaign petition for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran is here. What difference will it make? Maybe nothing in relation to the outcome, but maybe also something really critical for those who love them. It’s all we can do, and it’s not nothing.

Appreciation

This post owes a lot to others who have helped me think about an educator’s place in relation to death and dying, but especially to Paul Prinsloo, Bon Stewart, Melonie Fullick, Jesse Stommel, Jade Davis, Frances Bell, Anna Notaro, Audrey Watters, Rachel Duke and Tressie McMillan Cottom. And there is nothing adequate at all that can be said to those who love Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan and Mary Jane Veloso and the others on death row tonight, except that our heartsick thoughts are with you all.

Vigil

End of life illness stories come to this moment: the final period of waiting and staying awake. Sleeping mats on the floors of hospital rooms, dozing in chairs, holding hands, keeping shifts and vigils, hard choices, knowing what is to come. There’s an intense wish repeatedly expressed to get there in time: for the living to be present with the dying, to let them know that they are safe and cared for, and that those they love are safe and can go on from this point, to let them go well.

A vigil is a form of ethical attention. It’s an act of deliberation, a commitment to staying awake during the time that is normally kept for sleeping. It comes to us from words that invoke the simple fact of being alive and strong. We keep vigil because we are still here, and we have the capacity to give our time to waiting: attention as the rarest and purest form of human generosity, as Simone Weil put it.

So this week Australians and now many others around the world are keeping a vigil, in growing numbers, for two lives trapped in the gift of a system that seems to have innoculated itself against any possibility of saving them. It is almost beyond belief that political calculation could play so large a part, and yet there it is. We’re amazed, shocked, disbelieving and much more informed about the procedural technicalities of death by shooting than we were.  It’s like something happening in black and white, in slow motion. It doesn’t belong in this world.

Except that it’s here.

Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan have achieved so much where they are because the Indonesian prison system has some fundamental expectations of prisoner self-sufficiency, that place a different set of practical demands on prisoners and their families than we commonly see in Australia. What happened next is suddenly being recognised by advocates of restorative justice around the world as a unique configuration of structure, agency and institutional trustThe risks taken by the prison management itself in trusting them, and the way that they have each responded, resulted in a new system working in the best possible way for others. The prison governor testified on their behalf.

Australians have been taken by surprise by the fact that this restorative work has been going on for several years, and that our lazy stereotypes of “drug kingpin” and “godfather” are so completely out of date. This is not who they are. And from the level of support that they’re now getting, it’s very clear that significant money could be raised to extend their work, and perhaps even transfer some aspects from Indonesia to Australia.

So this is a very, very hard moment, and a very difficult decision to accept. Why shoot them now, after all this time? What possible future is there for rehabilitation as a vision for anyone once this thing is done?

Understandably, it’s easier to retreat into the mechanics of standard operating procedures than to admit a misgiving, to explore instead the complex potential of trust—in human capability, in rehabilitation, in imagination. In every leadership manual ever we’ve accepted the same limiting proposition: that strong leadership amounts to a willingness to act decisively and to push on regardless, braving unpopularity. There is nothing at all, it seems, on how strong leadership could go about reversing its own decisions, on the basis of fresh evidence.

A couple of days ago someone wrote privately to me that what’s happening is causing us all to “have a good hard look at our humanity”. I don’t think that’s overstating it, and I think this self-scrutiny is at the heart of our vigil. We’ve all seen the expressions on the faces of the men in orange jumpsuits waiting to be killed, but we’ve rarely had such intense exposure to what comes before that—the waiting, the bargaining, the families, the dread.

Governments who execute force us all to watch, but what we feel and think about it is up to us.

So while we’re waiting, we’re wondering: could we have done more, said something different, shown up sooner? It’s not just the people who gave casual answers to polls that were then used to claim something about Australian popular support for execution, or even the people who commissioned and published those polls in the first place—as if this really should be a crowdsourced verdict, like some kind of reality TV voting process.  It’s not the difficult possibility that Australians didn’t speak out sooner because they’re not white. It’s not even the relentless tallpoppyism that is still, incredibly, causing people to say that there’s nothing special about them and the attention is undeserved.

The vigil we’re keeping is the answer. The attention is deserved because they have as much right to have their human sovereignty over their own lives defended with great force, as any of us do. The attention is deserved as it was for Mike Brown, and Eric Garner, and Ms Dhu, and T J Hickey. Human sovereignty over life matters, and really has to be bigger than state sovereignty; this is why murder, like torture, can’t be part of the instrumentality of the state. Whatever it might achieve, whatever political strategy it might be part of, is very, very tiny on the scale of what will be sacrificed.

Today there are public vigils being held in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and other smaller places. More and more voices, including powerful ones, are speaking up. There is almost no hope left—but the most incredible stories of human survival are those where there was no hope at all, and those waiting did not give up.

The Mercy Campaign petition is still open. Please sign if you can.

And please watch this. Myuran Sukumaran in his own words, on living. Or this, on the projects they’ve developed within Kerobokan. At the very least, know what they have achieved.

Update

Last night I drove with my teenage daughter to the vigil held in the Sydney church where Myuran Sukumaran’s family and wider community are part of the congregation. We were welcomed with real warmth, and it was an honour to be there. Messages from Myuran and the Chan family were read aloud, and Myuran’s grandmother was an unflinching and unforgettable presence.

So all possible courage at this late hour to everyone involved. Updates to the Mercy Campaign petition are being sent to the Indonesian government regularly. And there will be another vigil on Friday evening. This is an extraordinary time in Australia.

On the long drive home, we were stopped by a cop. He asked where we’d been, and I told him. “They shouldn’t be executed,” he said. Just like that.

Update

This morning in darkness, the transfer of prisoners to the island where they will be executed has begun. Because the purpose of execution is to discipline others through horror without exposing the state to implications of cruelty, then execution by government is the worst kind of double standard: lockdown secrecy and extravagant display all at once. Let’s put this very plainly: there is no ethical or compassionate way to end a life without entirely defeating the purpose of execution. So there has to be very evident cruelty, and there has to be a thin veil of procedural correctness over it all.

“None of us have 300 years” (Audre Lorde). When we are all gone—all the politicians, the shooters, the judges, the witnesses who insulted and those who wept, the dealers and the users, and the president himself—this moment will be part of history, alongside all the men in orange jumpsuits waiting quietly for the speeches to end. Because in terms of the impact on others, there is absolutely no difference between legal and illegal execution, except candour.

Go well, Myuran Sukumaran.

The reality

Even though I know what the reality is, it gives me hope, it gives me a purpose, it gives me something to do. However little time I have.

— Myuran Sukumaran, Australian artist

Here’s a story that ought to be filling us all with hope: a big tale of resilience, creativity, cooperation and opportunity, driven by a remarkable and gifted Australian. Look at him here: he is young, and healthy, and doing so much good. He has time left. If I was his mother watching this, I’d be awash with pride at what he’s achieved.

But his reality is this: that right at this minute plans are being made for him to be taken to a field, tied to a post and shot. Let’s not mince words, this is what we mean by “death penalty” and “firing squad”, and anyone who is still championing this as a just outcome needs to look much more closely at the violence in the details. There is nothing at all separating this killing from that of Kenji Goto, and the only whisper of daylight between this and the shooting of Kajieme Powell is the premeditation, the forced contemplation of what’s to come. Nothing at all distinguishes what his mother will feel when his body is returned, from the grief of Junko Ishido.

None of us are going to live for ever, and this is why mortality really is inseparable from love. We all wonder how, when, in what condition we’ll end our turn; we wonder who will be with us, and how they will get up and carry on without us when we stop.  Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, an intensely personal discussion of what happens to individuals and their families at the end of life, suggests that this is why humans really cannot bear the idea of dying. So we go on suffering because we don’t know how to accept that what’s around the next bend—the next birthday, the next family wedding—isn’t going to be part of our life time. The weather will continue, the buildings will stay up and the clocks won’t stop; it’s just that we won’t be here to see it, and people we love will have to go on without us.

Gawande and many others are now arguing that it’s vital to good healthcare that we learn to make peace with human dying, and let that direct us towards living while we’re here in a way that reflects our values. This isn’t a simple thing: it takes time to untangle our own values and beliefs from those of our community and the cultures that shape us. It’s easy to get taken up with the things that seem to matter to others, the achievements that are celebrated, the stuff that is envied. But in the end we all have a fairly strong sense of what we each really care about—what we would go on doing if it was the last day of our lives.

UK palliative care specialist and cancer patient Kate Granger, for example, has taught me a great deal about what it means to value work, and to fight to continue working while thinking that this might be the last year for doing anything at all. Lisa Bonchek Adams advocates tirelessly for the right of patients with metastatic breast cancer to have their condition recognised as a disease stage that can be lived with, and in so doing she continues to love and care for her children, her family and friends. Both have made hard personal choices to continue in treatment, and to do this in public, because this is what enables them to go on living with purpose.

This is Gawande’s point: we each approach the question of what it would take to live the best possible day today on our own terms, whatever the constraints we’re facing. This isn’t just a question for people who are sick; the best possible day is a wish we can all offer each other, for the simple reason that we’re all mortal too. And this really should be the basis for how we treat each other, how we value each other’s time, and how we react to the knowledge that someone is facing their death. This isn’t just about ethics in institutional or constitutional decision-making, or state sovereignty: we stop in our tracks for death, and we try to bring every possible resource of care and hope to the end of someone’s life, because one day that’s exactly how it will be for each of us.

How people die and how we participate in their deaths is as much about us as about them. Our own humanity is at stake.

— Eric Manheimer, MD, Twelve Patients

And so I can’t make peace with this dying at all. I wander round the house thinking about him, and I know that thousands of us are doing exactly the same, right at this moment. Those close to him have said goodbye and look exhausted with grief. I can’t imagine their pain.

Execution strips all possibility of dignity or care from the event of dying, which is why it’s used wherever the aim is to brutalise and terrify. The aim isn’t simply to end life, but to cause its end to be a spectacle, and to force the whole world to contemplate the violence and abjection of life being ended in this way. Kenji Goto’s mother, pleading for his release, said that she would sacrifice her life for his, and we all knew that this was an unbearable cruelty that she should be made to suffer the knowledge of his death, and her exclusion from it. Nothing is different here.

Myuran Sukumaran is an Australian artist. With persistence and vision he has created a studio and an educational enterprise filled with generosity, and inspired an incredible campaign to try to keep him alive. And at this last minute, he’s still there painting, caring for his family, thinking it all through, making a portrait of himself and the island of Nusakambangan, where prisoners are taken to be shot.

He is one of us, and he is still alive. Don’t disturb him. Let him paint.


While there is still even a fraction of time to register your concern, please consider following the Mercy Campaign and signing their petition for clemency. They are highly organised and refusing to give up hope. Also, Australia’s parliamentarians are united on this, which is all the hen’s teeth you need.