Speaking Valves and Speaking Up for the Vulnerable

Speaking Valves and Speaking Up for the Vulnerable July 19, 2021

Human Voice Spectrogram, 6 August 2007, Dvortygirl, Mysid; Creative Commons

I just know Christopher would love to hang out and talk about life with the nurse tending to him the other night. I said as much to Christopher and the nurse. Both men have diverse and intriguing perspectives arising from a deep well of personhood. They could talk for hours. Hopefully, some day that will be reality for my son who suffered a traumatic brain injury in January.

Christopher is making more noises these days and speech therapy will soon insert a speech valve into his throat to encourage the use of his vocal chords for speech. Last night, he could only listen as I spoke with the nurse who was addressing my son’s various needs.

Like Christopher, his nurse brings a unique perspective to bear on situations. We have talked several times the past few months. He always has a refreshing outlook on life and his patients. Perhaps it has something to do with his cultural heritage as a Ugandan, or his familial upbringing, or both. I told the nurse he is having a great impact on Christopher as a caregiver. He always engages my son with such skill, warmth, tenderness, and respect. He impacts my son by affirming his dignity.

I was pleasantly surprised when the nurse said in response that Christopher is having a great impact on him, too.  How so?” I asked with keen curiosity. The nurse responded, “Vulnerability.” He also said he can discern what Christopher must be like from observing our family’s interaction. As to vulnerability, the nurse said that each of us could be in Christopher’s situation. We are all vulnerable to tragedy. We agreed on that point.

We also agreed that everyone is deserving of respect. Everyone has value and dignity, no matter their level of vocalization and state of consciousness. This nurse carries his patients in a dignified and respectful manner. It was evident in how he immediately said Christopher impacts him, too. He sees our humanity as inseparably one, which was also evident in how he said he knows what Christopher must be like through how his family interacts and engages him. It showed also in how he spoke up for Christopher: he called out for respiratory therapy to come quickly and address an issue with my son’s breathing tube.

The nurse’s communal understanding of human identity is a real lifesaver in an individualistic and consumeristic society where those individuals who make the most and consume the most win. He actually said that competition is fine to a degree, but not when it becomes all-consuming. Then it becomes toxic, whereby we can no longer breathe.

For the nurse, one does not find oneself in conquering or negating the other. Nor does one lose oneself in the other, or in community. Rather, one finds oneself in the social web of relationships. No wonder the nurse carries himself with quiet and humble self-assurance, which also involves assuring others of the importance of their well-being.

The African philosophical concept of “Ubuntu” came to mind and we discussed it. One article describes Ubuntu in this manner:

The main modern proponent of ubuntu philosophy is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, he describes a person with ubuntu as “open and available to others, affirming of others … has a proper self-assurance.” The ubuntu this person possesses comes from being part of a greater whole.

Onyebuchi Eze describes Ubuntu in these terms:

the understanding of a person as located in a community where being a person is to be in a dialogical relationship in this community. A person’s humanity is dependent on the appreciation, preservation and affirmation of other person’s humanity. To be a person is to recognize therefore that my subjectivity is in part constituted by other persons with whom I share the social world.

Still another source describes Ubuntu this way: “I am because we are.” We are inclined to respect people more when we see them and ourselves as one and as mutually constituted in relationship. That’s what we discussed and experienced last night at Christopher’s bedside.

We repositioned our conversation to discuss the ethical and social import of dignity and vulnerability as we repositioned Christopher to guard against the risk of bed sores. I shared how just that afternoon I had been reflecting on dignity—what is its source? Three options came to mind: Does dignity come from some transcendent ground like God, who is faithful in affirming us, not fickle? Is dignity derived from a capacity, such as reason or speech, which we can lose? Is dignity nothing but a ephemeral projection we attribute to those we find valuable or desirable for however long? The nurse did not indicate what he thought about the possibility of a divine source. But he certainly took issue with the second and third options.

The nurse was adept at multi-tasking. He was able to provide optimal care for Christopher while dialoguing with me. The nurse didn’t miss a beat in assessing Christopher’s various needs, or in extending the conversation. So, he turned to consideration of society’s fixation on capacities and capitalism, where the only things that have value are what produce benefit for the market. He then added that such outlooks appear to work just fine until we find ourselves in vulnerable circumstances, like Christopher. When that happens, we don’t want to be treated based on what we produce for capital, or our market value, but based on being human. The long and the short of it is that since we are all vulnerable, we should treat every vulnerable person with respect. Whether that could fly as a categorical imperative for humanity in our capitalistic and utilitarian society, Immanuel Kant, Michael Sandel and Peter Singer were all somehow in our room, along with Desmond Tutu.

I left Christopher’s room last night a richer person—richer for the conversation with my son and his nurse. I was also comforted in knowing that no matter how helpful the speech valve proves to be (and I pray it proves exceptionally helpful!), Christopher’s nurse will speak well of my son and speak up for him. May we speak up in support of those who are most vulnerable.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author and Editor of numerous works, including Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church and Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse. You can read more about the author here.

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