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.

 

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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.

 

 

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.

Notes for the 22nd of January

The 22nd of January (in the US) and that Sunday in October designated ‘pro-life’ (ditto) always get under my skin a bit. Why? My suspicion is that beneath my frustration and anger, there is a point about Christian faith and practice. Too often, Christianity is reduced to a program or an issue. The checklist of what to do and what to believe is a lot easier than the command of Jesus to be perfect, or the command to love God completely, and your neighbour as yourself. It is easier, that is, to slap a pro-life sticker on your bumper, participate in the relevant activities every January (and October), and think that you are pro-life.

But being for life, if it is to be a true expression of Catholic faith, must involve a whole lot more than that. It goes without saying that abortion is a tragedy in every case, and more often than not, an avoidable tragedy. Abortion is not, however, the sum of all evil. It is rather, a symptom of the corruption of our hearts–all of our hearts–and of a world in which scarcity and death threaten us. I wonder sometimes whether the energy expended to protect the unborn is really an effort to protect ourselves. Babies are loveable; it is not difficult to evoke sympathy for the children who are threatened by the practice of abortion. it is hard to imagine a person in our culture (or any culture, really) who wouldn’t mourn at the suffering of an infant, wouldn’t extend him- or herself on that child’s behalf. And so it should be.

I wonder, though, whether that isn’t like loving those who love you. The point there seems to be that loving those who love you is not terribly difficult. There is a reciprocity that makes the love you give less costly. What does it cost you to love those who love you? What does it cost you to be concerned for the unborn? Time, perhaps, and prayer–and that isn’t a bad thing. But if the heart of Christian love is forgiveness (see Matthew 18 and John 20: 22-23, e.g.), how can protesting abortion take center stage?

Abortion is an evil that happens in a world in which evil things happen all the time. Is it a worse evil than child abuse? than malnutrition? than the soul-destroying conditions in which thousands of children live? I’m not convinced it is. I think there is a peculiarly self-serving form of human sinfulness that operates when the choice to terminate a pregnancy is made for convenience, or because of disabling conditions. In such cases, I think the word ‘murder’ is not too strong, and I would rank those decisions at the top of the list of godless human judgments. (I say I think.)

What it boils down to, for me, is this: (1) I firmly believe abortion is wrong. (2) At the same time, I view the law legalising abortion in a similar light to the law permitting divorce; Jesus qualified that law as having been given because of our ‘hardness of heart’–though I appreciate the differences between the two. (3) I look around the world and see sin and need and lack of love everywhere. There are children who live in conditions of abject poverty and desperate need–of material goods and also of the love and affirmation they need to grow up healthy and strong. (4) I see plenty of grown-ups with the same sorts of needs. (5) I am concerned that focusing so narrowly on one evil–abortion–allows us to avoid evils more difficult to confront, and commands more difficult to obey. ‘Love your enemies…’; ‘forgive…seventy times seven’; ‘feed my sheep’; ‘make disciples…’; ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.’ Obeying these commands requires us to be pro-life until it hurts us, to extend ourselves for life, to confess our faith in the Giver of Life in all that we think, say, and do. We have to be conscious of the darkness and sin in our own hearts that prevents us from being the bearers of God’s light and life to others. We have to oppose practices that threaten, demean, or undermine life–like torture, slavery, the death penalty, the drug trade. We have to resist hatred, fear, indifference, unforgiveness and the temptation to leave undone the good we can do. We have to put on love and humility, letting our pride and self-sufficiency be crucified with Christ.

Being pro-life is being for Jesus–the Way, the Truth, and the Life–always and consistently. To follow Jesus, to be his disciples, and to be about the business of making disciples, that is what it means to be pro-life. Praying with others for the unborn is good; mourning the loss of those children who never will be because of abortion is good; protesting a practice that allows us to exercise heartless power over the most vulnerable is right and proper. But if we stop there, we cannot call ourselves pro-life. Unless we get up on the morning of January 23rd ready to reach out to the poor, the unwanted, the unloved, the seemingly unlovable and unforgivable, unless we take seriously the call to be witnesses and make disciples, we have missed the point. Jesus came that we might have life abundantly, and to follow him means bearing that life and giving it away every day of every year, in all that we say and do.

So I get angry when the topic of abortion is the litmus test for Christian faithfulness. Of course we ought to oppose abortion–but that isn’t the cutting edge of our faith. If we are growing into the likeness of Christ, we have to have bigger hearts and a broader vision. Jesus was not speaking about ‘the issues’; he was declaring ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’. Jesus came bearing love, and forgiveness, and grace, and life, and he was and is the light that shines in the darkness–and our hope is and will ever be that the darkness cannot overcome Him.