Gordon Self

June 25, 2012

As an amateur stargazer, I love training my telescope on Saturn. Viewing the rings around this beautiful gas giant never fails to awe me. Recently, I was with friends and their daughter to do a little stargazing in Saint John, N.B., overlooking the Bay of Fundy.

The daughter received a telescope for Christmas but had not used it yet. We checked the star charts and then about an hour after sunset on a dark moonless night, easily found Saturn in the southern sky (look for Saturn later in June in the southwest sky in the constellation Virgo, near the star Spica).

I was as thrilled as they were, vicariously enjoying their own first time discovery. With the aid of a telescope and a little guidance, what appears as only a light in the sky reveals much more to engage the imagination.

Longer exposures with more powerful telescopes reveal far more awe-inspiring images. Beginning in the fall of 2003, astronomers turned the Hubble telescope to a small region of space in the constellation Fornax, collating images over a four-month period.

Known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF), the telescope focused on an area in the sky no bigger than a speck of sand held out at arm's length. Yet, in this tiny corner of the universe resides approximately 10,000 galaxies, each galaxy containing billions of stars.


Light from the most distant galaxies began their journey over 13 billion years ago. What appears as a mere swatch of blackness, science reveals as vestiges of the earliest moments of the universe.

Such pastimes have been formative of my work in ethics, at least in the sense of developing the capacity to question, to ponder and to see beyond what first appears to the naked eye. Appreciating the secrets of the night-time sky requires our eyes time to adjust to the darkness.

In like fashion, the practice of ethics requires some capacity to penetrate a muddle of obscure details to focus on the issue at hand. Sometimes the darkness we have to peer through is the shadow of our own biases and assumptions.

Too often we see only the swatch and do not observe the real ring of truth. But more than just zooming in on the salient issue, what is truly important is to focus on the person in our care with whom a decision is being made or contemplated.

We see only the "ethics case" or fixate on a set of philosophical or theological principles, but lose sight of the person.

For example, many of us have opinions about what makes for a good driver. We expect drivers are competent, knowledgeable about the rules of the road and have good judgment and reflexes.

As we age, some of the fine motor skills that allow us to react quickly to the constant bombardment of stimuli while driving will diminish. Some elderly drivers will come to the realization that it is time to give up the privilege of driving for the safety of themselves and the public.

Others may not so graciously and voluntarily come to the same conclusion, denying that their ability to shoulder check or to brake quickly compromises their ability to drive.

While there may be an ethical justification to revoke driver's licences or legislate mandatory road testing after a certain age, this does not mean it will be an easy conversation, especially if it is your parent or spouse being confronted. The issue looks differently from the perspective of the elderly person who will forfeit some level of independence.

But do we see even beyond the loss of independence to glean other impacts in their lives? Like astronomy, sometimes we need a longer exposure to appreciate the significance of such decisions.


What appears as a relatively pinpoint decision in time may reveal a lifetime of memory to grieve – owning your first car, times spent with family on long road trips, packing up the car for an exciting new job. If we are too hasty we might pass over the impact of this loss.

Reassuring the person that they will now save a lot of money by taking cabs completely misses the point.

Ethics has its own way of evoking humility and awe. As much as we can contemplate the heavens above, each human being is no less a mystery created in the image and likeness of God, deserving of our loving gaze and deep respect.

(Gordon Self is vice president, mission, ethics and spirituality for Covenant Health and can be reached at