The end of modern medicine?

Let me first say that I am grateful for advances in medicine and science: without the kinds of procedures and drugs that have become available in the last hundred years, I would surely have lost my eldest child many years ago. She was born with a congenital heart defect (AV canal defect) and has been hospitalised for pneumonia three times, and that’s just scratching the surface.

Nevertheless, I have long been troubled by a certain sort of triumphalism in our attitude to medicine. I wonder whether we have not come to believe that health and life are a kind of entitlement that medicine delivers. Sometimes it seems that death itself might be conquerable, given the right technology. To age and to die, and to suffer along the way, seem somehow inimical to life as we have we have come to imagine it. But it just isn’t so: death is integral to our life as earthly creatures, just as birth is. Avoiding suffering when it can be avoided is understandable, and fighting with everything we’ve got against suffering that arises as a result of oppression and violence is our duty, not only as Christians, but as interdependent human creatures.

27GERM-1464299636802-master768Against this backdrop, I was fascinated to read an article in this morning’s New York Times about increasingly resistant bacteria. The ‘spectre’ of bacteria that would be resistant to every antibiotic in ‘the medicine cabinet’ looms large: the Department of Defense science blog covered it, and President Obama’s administration has begun planning the US response to such a threat. Although such an infection is currently extremely unlikely (but wash your hands well, anyway), it’s scary enough to attract attention at the highest levels of government. I couldn’t help but think, as I was perusing these documents, of a theme of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (the novel is well worth reading): ‘life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free…life finds a way’ (p. 159). Bacteria are like the dinosaurs on that island off the coast of Central America, adapting to the changing circumstances just like we are.

Of course, I expect that scientists will work very hard to keep pace with these tiny organisms that threaten us. But we shouldn’t try to stop them from reminding us of our mortality.

Advertisements

a natural death?

Pro-life, a label I wear with some hesitation sometimes, means treating human beings as sacred from conception to ‘natural death’. Conception is pretty straightforward. But ‘natural death’? What, in a world in which our lives can be prolonged by a host of machines, counts as ‘natural’ with regard to our death? This is not a post in which I am going to say what I know. I don’t know very much. Once again, I have been reading the account of someone who has been there: Dr Louis Profeta. He questions the methods and machines employed to keep someone alive merely to push death back a bit: ‘while we are developing more and more ways to extend life, we are also providing water and nutrients to a forest of unrealistic expectations that have real-time consequences for those whose frail bodies have been entrusted to us,’ he writes.

My hunch is that partly this phenomenon arises from the same set of circumstances that inspires and sustains the movement to fight death, to keep death as far away from ourselves as possible, for as long as possible. Death has become to us anything but natural. We have forgotten death’s intrinsic place in human life. It is the end, and absolutely belongs together with the beginning in our imaginations: life has both, and we should work to understand and embrace the end as much as we have considered how to identify and protect the beginning.

Human beings may have figured out ways to prevent life’s beginning (whether we use them or not). But we are not going to prevent its end. We may as well make friends with death, and so recognize it as a familiar face when it comes to claim us for its own–whether we think of it as the end or as a new beginning.

 

Dying right? another look

Several weeks ago, I reflected on a moving and thought-provoking account of a woman’s experience of her father’s suffering and death. End-of-life issues are difficult–I recently wondered aloud to a colleague about what we have lost in the advances that medicine has made against illness and tragedy. Death is pushed farther from us, out of our everyday experience, at least in the well-fed and comfortably housed regions of the developed world. Do we not begin to think of death as the opposite of life, rather than a part of life? My colleague, a sociologist who studies religion and death (among other things), nodded.

Having been thinking about death–not for any morbid reason, I think (though who really knows her own mind that well?)–I was drawn to another account of accompanying the dying. Sunita Puri writes engagingly about the challenges facing those patients who are dying at home, but without adequate care. Those who opt to die at home require a certain level of help, not only from family members, but from professionals who can provide the necessary medical care. Such support enables family members simply to journey with their dying loved one. What Dr Puri describes is a situation in which incredible strain is placed on family members (and in some cases, friends and neighbors).

In an earlier post, I recommended Arthur Brooks’ advice for living well in 2016: to think about our own ends. Perhaps for us all to live better, we ought also to think about others’ ends. Death comes to all of us eventually; I hope that we can learn to accompany each other as we meet it.

 

 

To begin 2016, think about the end

During the autumn, I wrote a series of short commentaries on the Nicene (Niceno-Constantinopolitan) Creed. The final installment is for this Sunday, and focuses on the very last line of the creed: death, resurrection and new life. As this week began (for me) with an op-ed article about death (see below) and has seen the deaths of two talented and justly celebrated men, some reflection on this part of the creed seemed quite timely.

The creed concludes by directing our attention to our own end: we ‘look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. Maybe by the time we get to the last line, our attention has moved on to the next part of the Mass, or even to what’s for Sunday lunch. Or maybe the repetition week by week has dulled our perception of its oddity. The resurrection of the dead? The life of the world to come? However often we say these things, and however much we might know about the Church’s teaching on resurrection and new life, the future remains ultimately mysterious: we believe, but we do not grasp these things.

Yet remembering our end is of critical importance: even the New York Times advises us to do so. In a recent article Arthur Brooks* advised readers to bear their death in mind in order to live a more fulfilling life. (This week our mortality has been brought into incredibly sharp focus, too, by the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman.) Rather than making us more gloomy, he says, remembering the transitory nature of our life heightens our capacity for humour and joy. Not only that: Brooks suggests that concentrating on the ‘scarcity of time’ can help us to choose our pastimes more consciously, focusing on those things that bring real satisfaction (and those listed include prayer and worship) over those that merely distract us.

The op-ed section isn’t the place I would usually turn for spiritual guidance. In this case, though, Brooks points to something we ought to know: that growth in our spiritual life requires a form of attention that directs us to our ultimate end. For his readers, death is the end. We look forward to something else: the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Contemplating this mystery forms a crucial part of the practice of Christian life, and bathes our ordinary experience in everlasting light.

 

dying right: a recommendation

It’s true, of course, that my being pro-life is part of the fabric of my Christian faith. At the same time, I tend not to wear the label ‘pro-life’ in a bright neon sign over my head. Not because I am ambivalent about abortion or the death penalty (that’s right: being pro-life means opposing the death penalty with equal vehemence), but because life and death issues are complicated, personal, and touch the deepest part of our soul.

Another reason I tend not to shout about pro-life issues is that the language in which such matters tend to be discussed centers on ‘rights’: right-to-life, right-to-die. As if such moments in our lives were actually about rights. As if life and death were somehow a matter of legislation. If only we could get the laws right, our coming into and going from this world would somehow pass smoothly. No. Of course not. Being born and dying are not like voting rights or equal pay. These latter issues should be the subject of vigorous advocacy–and that is part of being pro-life, too. The struggle for justice on behalf of the oppressed, advocacy on behalf of the weak and voiceless, and giving of our plenty to supply the needs of the poor are all pro-life activities. It’s about much, much more than conception and natural death.

As more states legalize assisted suicide, the conversations we have about death should become more serious and thoroughly honest. And we should talk with everyone, not only those with whom we agree. While I am against the legalization of assisted suicide, I do not oppose it automatically because it is not ‘pro-life.’ Actually, I share the concerns of those who support the bill with some hesitation, those who might well disagree deeply with some of the rest of my convictions regarding life and death and the One who holds both in omnipotent and gentle hands. Just this morning, I had the good fortune to come across a thoughtful and honest piece about death and how we approach it. Clare Bidwell Smith writes lucidly and compellingly about the end of life, not only as a professional but as a person who tended both her parents as they approached death.

‘Let us not leap to the last page without at least skimming the last chapter,’ she counsels. Skipping the ‘last chapter’ might save us a lot of suffering, certainly; but, as she points out, there is often important work to do in that chapter, work that earlier chapters leave out. Her account of the last weeks of her father’s life is both moving and enlightening–and should inform the decisions of any considering assisted suicide as a way out. Perhaps she won’t convince everyone to wait, but she might just show us all what we might be missing.

For Claire Tidwell Smith, and all who treat death with reverence, Deo gratias.