Jared Witt | June 18, 2020
Ever play the road trip game “Would You Rather”?
Would you rather have to shout every word you read out loud or sing everything you say?
Would you rather have skin that changes color based on your emotions or tattoos appear all over your body depicting what you did yesterday?
Would you rather be a reverse centaur (lower half of a human, upper half of a horse) or a reverse mermaid/merman?
Or how about this one:
Would you rather find out you only have five weeks to live but you’ll be conscious for them or five years to live but barely conscious and unable to even remember your own name?
Or this one:
Would you rather find out you only have five weeks to live, but you can spend them doing as you please or five years hooked up to an endless series of uncomfortable and noisy machines?
For those last two, I’m guessing that most of you chose the five weeks hands down. Not even close. The reason you went with the five weeks scenario isn’t complicated. To live for five years, mentally absorbing none of it, challenges the very definition of life itself, as does five years with the unpleasantness of an uncomfortable machine and no freedom of movement.
And I’m sure you caught that, unlike the other three questions, those two were neither absurd nor even unlikely. In fact, the statistics indicate that most of us will face that “would you rather” at some point in our lives. And most of us will end up with the five years scenario, the one we didn’t choose.
That to which we wouldn’t subject ourselves, we consign our parents and grandparents all the time. Oddly, we make the reverse decision for our pets. For them, we recognize that there is more to life than mere vital signs. But not for Grandma.
Are there situations in which the unpleasantness of chemotherapy or ventilation could save you and lead to another pleasant phase of life? Yes, of course. Nobody in the 21st century needs that explained to them. But when that favorable outcome is likely and when it’s not is something that medical professionals can predict with remarkable accuracy. Yet nearly everyone, with astoundingly few exceptions, opts to put Grandma on ventilation indefinitely.
I'll opt for directness rather than delicacy here: the reason why we prolong the torture of our grandparents and not our dogs is because our theology sucks. When you deal with end of life scenarios, you’re inevitably dealing with a person’s definition of the sacred and the holy. We can put Rover to sleep peacefully, whereas Grandma needs to stick around for as long as medicinally possible, because her life is considered sacred in a different way or at a different level than Rover’s.
Without debating that particular point—and the issue here also has nothing to do with whether dogs go to heaven, or whether people go to heaven…or what heaven is, for that matter—the problem is not that we have a habit of ascribing sacredness to life. That might actually be the best thing that we humans do. The problem is with our particular conception of what makes a life a life. What is it that makes the living alive and what makes their livingness sacred, exactly? If the answer is purely mechanical, then it gets pretty hard to distinguish Grandma from a well maintained Toyota.
Jesus, on the other hand, has some theological and spiritual metrics for determining how alive one is, and none of them have to do with longevity or vital signs. In fact, biblically, it’s often in pain or even on the brink of death when people are considered the most alive, when their pain is self-sacrificial or revelatory in some way. We call them martyrs.
For Jesus, it’s impossible to talk about life without speaking in terms of relationship, purpose, joy, and spiritual consciousness. When people are exiled from relationships, whether by no fault of their own or because their efforts are directed toward things rather than people, Jesus speaks of them as though they are dead already. He says that the man who builds bigger barns to further the longevity of his life but who doesn’t do any real living in the meantime is described as a "fool." Zaccheus' discovery of joy, when he resolves to give away half of everything he owns and return everything he has defrauded is described as "salvation," not just in some afterlife but in the moment. And spiritual consciousness, which manifests in gratitude toward Abba God and generosity toward the neighbor is really a summation of all of it. It’s better to pluck out your physical eyes and have your spiritual eyes opened than to be physically seeing but spiritually blind. Not to mention, Jesus himself goes voluntarily to his own execution, because there is more for his lifeblood to do than just keep circulating.
Look, this is a difficult topic. And I’m guilty of going against my more developed insights when it’s my own loved one in the bed. Even when we do want to ask a different kind of question regarding what’s best for our loved ones, the cultural and familial pressure to abide by the norm is profound. Also, sometimes we know the lessons from these stories, but we don’t apply them when the stakes are high. That’s another reason why we let Rover off the hook. We feel the stakes are lower, and it frees up our compassion and our common sense. It’s one thing to talk about the “moral” of a story we learned in Sunday School. It’s another thing to talk about Grandma.
But there is so much cultural weight pushing in the direction of stop-at-nothing longevity, that I feel it’s the job of spiritual thinkers to throw some weight in the other direction.
For a medical practitioner’s perspective on this topic, I highly recommend Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.
Cheers and Peace,
A blog that is too churchy for your drinking buddies and too drinky for your churching buddies.