Thursday, January 29, 2009

About an Old Man Freezing to Death, Neighbors, and Catholic Teachings

You've probably heard about it by now, but just in case you haven't: Marvin Schur, a 93-year-old WWII veteran, lived in Bay City, Michigan. He didn't pay his utility bill: for four months. So, Bay City Electric Light & Power had a technician put a sort of kill switch on Mr. Schur's power line.

A "limiter" seems like a pretty good way to remind people that there's a bill to pay. It "blows like a fuse if usage rises past a set level." (AP) More like a circuit breaker: all the homeowner has to do is go outside and re-set the "limiter." Provided that the people know it's there, and can get outside to reset it.

Bay City Electric's kill switch shut off Mr. Schur's power earlier this month. Then he froze to death. Inside. Alone.

Now, some people in Bay City and elsewhere are upset. I can see why.

An Outdoor Kill Switch, an Old Man, Michigan Winters, and Common Sense

Bay City Electric's apparently had a policy of notifying people when a "limiter" is installed. They put a note on their door.

Mr. Schur was 93. He "rarely, if ever, left the house in the cold." (AP)

Nobody from Bay City Electric actually talked to Mr. Schur, telling him what was done, and telling him how the device worked.

When the kill switch cut his power, Mr. Schur would, ideally, have called for help, put a sign in the window, or done something to alert his neighbors that there was a problem.

Looks like he quietly froze to death instead.

Marvin Schur had money clipped to a pile of bills in his house, and apparently was pretty well off. Maybe the details of paying the utility company, and getting help, slipped his mind. He was 93: and, although some people stay mentally alert at that age, some don't.

One bit of good news: Bay City Electric has decided to stop using kill switches.

Bay City, Michigan, in January

People living in Bay City, Michigan, should be used to cold winters. They're a few miles north of Saginaw, where, on average, the high is 24 °F and the low 11 °F in mid-January. That's not quite as cool as central Minnesota, where it's 21 °F and 1 °F.

Temperatures like that aren't a problem, if people are careful. If they're not, water in the house can freeze, pipes can burst, and - sometimes - people die.

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Marvin Schur's Neighbors

It was a touching tribute: 30 people showed up at Mr. Schur's funeral today. Some of them only knew him from what they'd heard or read in the news.

Nothing wrong with that: I see it as a show of respect.

Just the same, it would have been nice if one of his neighbors had noticed that something was wrong. Before he froze to death.

Mr. Schur seems to have had a "favorite armchair by the window." (AP) It's possible that someone could have noticed that he wasn't there, or that the windows had frosted over and that no exhaust was coming from his chimney. He had a gas furnace - but many of those things need electrical power to run.

But, nobody did. I'm not sure that I'd notice, if a house down the block went dark and cold.

Maybe I should start paying more attention to my neighbors.

The Catholic Church Even Has Rules About Being a Neighbor

If you think that the Roman Catholic Church as a rule for everything, I'd say you're probably right: at least, for the important stuff. The Church isn't helpful, if you need to know what fork to use, or even whether or not you should use forks.

On the other hand, the Church has quite a bit to say about being a neighbor. For example:

"The duty of making oneself a neighbor to others and actively serving them becomes even more urgent when it involves the disadvantaged, in whatever area this may be. 'As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' " (Catechism, 1932)


"When someone asks him, 'Which commandment in the Law is the greatest?' Jesus replies: 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.' The Decalogue must be interpreted in light of this twofold yet single commandment of love, the fullness of the Law...." (2055) (The "Which commandment in the law is the greatest" quote is from Matthew 22:36-40)

Since Jesus said that "love your neighbor as yourself" is the second of two great commandments, I'd say that he thinks loving our neighbors is important. It's pretty obvious. Some people go to what I'd call heroic lengths to love their neighbor: but I'm hoping that we don't all have to be like Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Doing good doesn't have to be a big deal. Something as simple as keeping an eye on that old guy down the street might be a way to love that neighbor. It might even save a life.
Neighbors are Persons
Sounds pretty obvious. Or, maybe not.

The way that terms like "the community," or "society," I think it's easy to start thinking about people as units in a collective: or even think more about 'the masses' than about the individual people. Maybe it's because of some of the ideas that were popular in some circles, back when I was growing up.

The Church apparently thinks it's important to remember that each person is valuable: not an interchangeable part in a socioeconomic mechanism.

"The fourth commandment illuminates other relationships in society. ... in every human person, a son or daughter of the One who wants to be called 'our Father.' In this way our relationships with our neighbors are recognized as personal in character. The neighbor is not a 'unit' in the human collective; he is 'someone' who by his known origins deserves particular attention and respect. (2212)

"Human communities are made up of persons. Governing them well is not limited to guaranteeing rights and fulfilling duties such as honoring contracts. Right relations between employers and employees, between those who govern and citizens, presuppose a natural good will in keeping with the dignity of human persons concerned for justice and fraternity." (2213)

That seems pretty straight-forward. We're supposed to remember that
  • People are individuals
  • Each of our neighbors is a person, who should be treated with good will and respect
I know: it's not always easy. Some neighbors are going to be annoying. Some are just plain unlikeable. Some won't talk to you. Others won't stop talking.

As a Catholic, I have to love these people. That doesn't mean I have to like them, but I do have to respect them, and remember that God loves them. It's not easy, but I've found that remembering to maintain that sort of deliberate love makes tolerating others easier.
Feelings and Attitude are Nice, but What About Doing Something?
The Catechism is pretty clear about this: It's not enough that we 'love our neighbor' on the inside. We're expected to do something about it.

"The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God...." (2447)

As I wrote yesterday, "Sometimes peoples' families can't take care of them. When that happens, neighbors and the rest of the community are supposed to step in and help." That was the way I boiled down a couple of points from the Catechism (2208, 2209).

That's the way it's supposed to work. What happened to Marvin Schur is what can happen when we don't remember to love our neighbor.

More-or-less related posts: Background:
Update (February 5, 2009)

"Bay City vet who froze left hospital a fortune"
Detroit Free Press (February 5, 2009)

"A 93-year-old Bay City man who was about $1,000 in arrears on his electric bill when he froze to death in his home has left a fortune estimated at $600,000 to a hospital.

"Marvin Schur, whose death shocked the nation last month, bequeathed all his money to Bay Regional Medical Center...."

Doing the right thing isn't always profitable in the short run, and killing an old man isn't always punished.

In this case, though, if Bay City Electric Light & Power had tried talking to Mr. Schur, odds are that they'd have their thousand bucks: and wouldn't have gotten a reputation for being an outfit that kills its customers - accidentally - if they don't fork over the dough.

There's something to be learned about charity, too:

" 'The irony of the whole thing is he was a medic in the Army saving lives,' [Schur's nephew William] Walworth told the Free Press in a phone interview from his Florida home. 'He led a nice life, except for his tragic ending. With his contribution to the hospital, he'll still be helping people save lives. He'll be doing it in death.' "

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.