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.
Against 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.
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.
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.