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Respect for personal decisions pummeled

Published April 16, 2007


It's amazing how many people there are during life's rougher times who are willing to tell you exactly what you should be thinking, feeling and doing.

Recent criticism of John and Elizabeth Edwards and the manner in which they have chosen to deal with the return of her cancer brings immediately to mind an incident in which words were coming out of my mouth and I couldn't believe I was saying them.

Walking across a parking lot at a music festival with the sun just dipping toward the horizon, the notes of a mandolin wafting through the air and smoke from a dozen or so campfires drifting by, I saw an acquaintance whose wife had just died under unusually difficult circumstances.

Offering condolences was such a routine act (folks my age find the need to do it much more frequently) that I somehow put my brain on hold and, before I could stop myself, said, "I lost a spouse myself; I know how you feel."

And then I stopped myself and apologized, saying, "I do not know how you feel. I know how I felt, and I'm sure there are some similarities, but nobody on earth knows how you feel right now except you."

He graciously accepted my apology.

I had promised myself one day in 1997, while standing inside Gulf View Square mall in Port Richey, that I would never again tell people that I knew exactly how they felt about anything. A well-meaning woman had just told me that she knew how I felt when my wife died because her dog had died earlier that week.

When a friend lost a child a few months later, I told him that the best advice I could offer was: "A lot of people are going to say some extremely stupid things to you in the next few days. Try to understand and respond to what they mean and not what they are saying."

We all handle death, life-threatening illnesses and other major life changes differently. We process those circumstances based on who we are, our relationship with the person who died or is ill or is going to die, plus a thousand little factors that go into making individuals and the relationships between them unique.

And, within certain very broad boundaries, how people handle those situations is a matter of their individual choices, and, as long as no third parties are being harmed in the process, it is strictly their own business.

When the Edwardses announced their intention to continue his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, there was a flurry of opinion about whether that was the right thing to do, about whether they were taking advantage of public sympathy for her illness to boost the campaign and about what they should be doing.

Radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh (host means a disc jockey who doesn't play music) went so far as to say, "Most people, when told a family member has been diagnosed with the kind of cancer Elizabeth Edwards has, they turn to God. The Edwardses turned to the campaign. Their religion is politics and the quest for the White House."

People such as Limbaugh and conservative columnist Ann Coulter - who, a few days earlier, had implied that Edwards was gay by using a pejorative term for homosexuals during a public speech - are darlings of the cult of punditry that gives extraordinary credit to speech carefully calculated to create outrage and generate larger readership and audiences.

(To be fair, the cult has its liberal wing also, because if you're after media dollars, you need to draw every last ratings point and dollar out of an increasingly more gullible public. And, yes, I know, there are those who, at least in years gone by, would have placed me among them.)

There is a line, though, and drawing public conclusions about the admittedly public results of incredibly private decisions lies much farther across that line than I or anyone with a shred of compassion or decency should be willing to go.

Maybe John and Elizabeth Edwards, at least in part, see the campaign as a bully pulpit to raise public awareness of breast cancer. Maybe they choose to bury themselves in what had already become their chosen line of work.

Maybe, as it is with many of us when confronted with our own mortality, they just don't know what to do. It would be nice to see some of those folks who are so all-fired sure of their intimate knowledge of what they - and for many, the Creator - think about how the rest of us should act would get into the game instead of taking pot shots from the sidelines.

But then, that's just what I think, and I, at least, have a realistically humble opinion of the value of my thoughts.

[Last modified April 16, 2007, 06:32:45]

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