The Human Being as revealed more fully in Disability and In Extremis. Lynn Underwood. European Research Network meeting: The human person in the 21st Century. Thessaloniki, Greece, April 22-25, 2007.
Interaction with people with severe disabilities and chronic disease, people at end of life, and people in other dire circumstances can inform our understanding of the human person. This can happen through personal and professional interactions and in the context of scientific research. Direct experience of dire circumstances in our own lives can also contribute to insight. When combined with theological, philosophical and artistic explorations these interactions and experiences can lead to further reflection on the core, or “heart,” of the human being, revealing the nature of the human being more fully. This exploration could also provide us with some questions to pursue in greater depth using the tools of the sciences and the humanities.
Various illusions and assumptions do not hold up as people are exposed to situations such as disability, extreme suffering or experiences at end of life. These include assumptions concerning self-sufficiency, functionalism, the place of suffering, the ability to control and mortality. People with disabilities have learned that receiving help does not diminish who they are and that it can actually enhance the human person. Likewise, the disabled person is at a disadvantage in the world constrained by functional evaluations. This realization can expose the fundamental value of a human being as not necessarily identical with their functional status or their physical selves. Suffering can encourage people to draw on the religious sphere, and open sufferers and others to the reality of the spiritual and its intrinsic importance in life. In the process of suffering one can see more clearly that there is more to a full life than superficial happiness and the pursuit of that happiness. When disabled, suffering serious chronic disease or in other dire circumstances, it becomes obvious that we are not in control and we are forced to see that sense of control is a delusion. The realization that death is inevitable affects how someone views life itself, and the fundamental nature of the human person. Being faced with these situations in extremis can more fully reveal the full nature of the human person.