Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

Human Illness and the Experience of Vulnerability: A Summary and Reflection upon the Opening Keynote by His Grace Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

Human Illness and the Experience of Vulnerability: A Summary and Reflection upon the Opening Keynote by His Grace Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Article excerpt


Writing this article has been the most challenging yet exciting task that I have ever undertaken. It is exciting because of the stature of the keynote speaker. It is also challenging because, as one of the news correspondents who covered the conference stated, "Archbishop Tutus talk, titled: Human Illness and the Experience of Vulnerability, inevitably becomes a fruit salad of sermon, philosophy, health advice, storytelling and comedy." Although he kept his audience captivated throughout, the Archbishop crisscrossed between themes and meanings, a very interesting presentation but at the same time very hard to capture precisely.

Throughout his career as a cleric in the Anglican Church, Archbishop Tutu, a Nobel Prize laureate and political legend, has had great concern for the plight of the poor. His views were formed as a child growing up in a country governed by the evils and discrimination found in apartheid, the system of government in which people are segregated along color lines. During his early youth, he developed a health condition that deepened his desire to reach out to the sick in society, especially to those individuals made more vulnerable by their socio-economic circumstances. These two influences, apartheid and illness, had a major impact on him as a child, and ultimately as a man who we all know has had a significant impact on how the world views human dignity; the politically disenfranchised, the poor and the sick.

Desmond Tutu began his speech by underscoring the complexity of the human body:

   The human body is an amazing organism that shows God's creation at
   its best. It boggles the mind just to imagine how it functions. We
   must be thankful that God has blessed some of us here with the
   ability to understand a good deal of the human body's most arcane
   workings to be able to help heal some of its malfunctioning organs.

The Archbishop then turned to medicine, which he defined as the discipline devoted to healing human beings through experiences that were acquired over a long period of time, spanning different phases of history. He dearly emphasized that medicine is a combination of science, practice, and art.

He then went on to discuss a different yet related subject; the vulnerability of humankind. He observed that, "the human animal is, by its nature, incomplete and not self-sustaining. We are contingent beings who rely upon the rest of creation and on diverse relationships in order for us to exist and live. We are at best, interdependent and at most, completely dependent." In other words, we as human beings are open to the forces of nature and the presence of others. Though at times we mistakenly act or believe otherwise, we ultimately cannot control our universe. Part of the experience of human incompletion and the human experience of lack of control is the reality of vulnerability.

The Archbishop's keynote continued along this same path regarding the essential vulnerability of the human person. Although we marvel at the awesome power of modern medical science, such as the power to conquer the ravages of disease, prolong a threatened life through the replacement of essential organs and relieve and dignify the pains and discomforts of terminal illness and old age, the danger is that we become blinded to the essential frailty of the human condition. We are perpetually exposed to a wide variety of never-ending factors with which we must cope.

One of the constant dangerous experiences humans confront is illness. Today, we are acutely aware of the overwhelming presence of illness in human life. HIV/AIDS, pandemic influenza, the increase of cancers: these are but three major illnesses that have shaken human society's false assumptions that we control our universe or that we are invulnerable. Human illness is a subtle reminder that we are not immortal. Our finitude is something that shapes not only the days of our lives, but the images we have of ourselves as individual and distinct persons. …

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