Speaking Truth to Power

From Hewitt:

Bishop Thomas Tobin opens a can of whoop-ass on Congressman Patrick Kennedy, on his “I’m pro-choice and a good Catholic, too” shtick:

“The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” Well, in fact, Congressman, in a way it does. …

There \'s lots of canonical and theological verbiage there, Congressman, but what it means is that if you don \'t accept the teachings of the Church your communion with the Church is flawed, or in your own words, makes you “less of a Catholic.”

But let \'s get down to a more practical question; let \'s approach it this way: What does it mean, really, to be a Catholic? After all, being a Catholic has to mean something, right?

Well, in simple terms … being a Catholic means that you \'re part of a faith community that possesses a clearly defined authority and doctrine, obligations and expectations. It means that you believe and accept the teachings of the Church, especially on essential matters of faith and morals; that you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish; that you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly; that you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially.

Congressman, I \'m not sure whether or not you fulfill the basic requirements of being a Catholic, so let me ask: Do you accept the teachings of the Church on essential matters of faith and morals, including our stance on abortion? Do you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish? Do you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly? Do you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially?

In your letter you say that you “embrace your faith.” Terrific. But if you don \'t fulfill the basic requirements of membership, what is it exactly that makes you a Catholic? Your baptism as an infant? Your family ties? Your cultural heritage?

Bravo. Look, if you’re pro-choice, fine. But spare us the hypocrisy of claiming to be a “faithful Catholic” and pro-abortion at the same time. That dog won’t hunt, and it’s long past time our vaunted political leadership got called on it.

Cult of Death or Heart of Man

Today is the fifth anniversary of the massacre at Beslan. The following post was written shortly thereafter. Michelle Malkin also has a remembrance of this horror.

 
David Brooks, in his NY Times Op-Ed piece, Cult of Death, says the following about the Muslim terrorists and the Beslan school massacre:

We should be used to this pathological mass movement by now. We should be able to talk about such things. Yet when you look at the Western reaction to the Beslan massacres, you see people quick to divert their attention away from the core horror of this act, as if to say: We don’t want to stare into this abyss. We don’t want to acknowledge those parts of human nature that were on display in Beslan. Something here, if thought about too deeply, undermines the categories we use to live our lives, undermines our faith in the essential goodness of human beings.

It should come as no surprise to me – yet it still does – that people have any confidence remaining in idea of the “essential goodness of human beings.” Yet this is perhaps one of the most durable myths of our modern secular age. It underlies both public policy and private perception, and forms the basis of many failed government and social programs. If you have the stomach for it and the honesty to look objectively, even a brief glance at human history both ancient and modern reveals vastly more evidence of the depravity of man than his essential goodness. Consider briefly the following examples: the Inquisition, slavery, Ghengis Kahn, the Holocaust, the Bataan Death March, the Cambodian killing fields, Rwanda, Idi Amin, Columbine, Saddam’s rape rooms and shredders, suicide bombers on school buses and in pizza parlors, the rape of Nanking, the gulags, and Wounded Knee. And these are only the large historical events, easy to bring to mind. Left unmentioned but vastly outnumbering these are the countless murders, rapes, child molesters, serial killings, drug dealing, and any number of other smaller – but still profoundly evil – events which now barely if ever make the news.

I am not a misanthrope, and am fully aware of the potential for man to achieve great goodness and nobility. From the selfless volunteer at an inner city school to Mother Theresa, countless examples of such goodness and nobility exist, often hidden and far less noticed than deeds of evil. The issue is about the natural inclination, the deep inner nature of man – is it toward good, or rather toward evil? Your answer to this question profoundly affects your worldview.

By taking the position that man is essentially good, you are left with the problem of understanding inexplicable evil, such as torturing school children and shooting them in the back as they flee, as occurred at Beslan. In evil of lesser scope, psychology and social theory are often recruited for this task: the child molester or rapist was abused as a child; inner city crime is a result of racism; the root of terrorism is poverty, injustice, and the oppression of the Palestinians by the Jews. Even there the answers fall short. But could any such combination of social liabilities give rise to such extreme evil, as seen at Beslan or Auschwitz – particularly in beings whose natural bent is toward goodness?

The Judeo-Christian viewpoint on man’s essential nature is that man is fallen: created by a good God to be by nature good, but given free will either to submit to the good or to choose evil. Having rejected the good for personal autonomy independent of God, the natural gravity of the soul is away from God, not toward Him. In God is an unspeakable and unimaginable goodness; in His rejection is the potential for equally unimaginable evil. The Judeo-Christian solution is redemption, not psychology; inner transformation, not social programs.

To resist evil, you must know the face of evil, and recognize the face of good. The secularist denies the existence of God (or counts Him or it irrelevant), and therefore all goodness must have its source within man. The religious liberal believes God is good, but impotent, and therefore man is responsible to do the heavy lifting of all good works. The traditional Christian or Jew understands that man, created by God with enormous potential for good, but corrupted by failure to submit to God and therefore by nature far more prone to evil than good.

Religious affiliation is an unreliable indicator of good or evil behavior. The combination of evil motives with the compulsion of legalistic religion is a potent and dangerous mix, where men pursue their evil goals under the lash of and laboring for an angry god of their own making.

Man’s tendency to evil can be restrained, either by force of law, by force of arms, or ideally by inner transformation, repentance and submission to the power of humility and service. Wishful thinking and false assumptions about the goodness of man will prove woefully inadequate for the encroaching and fearsome evil of our current century.

On ‘Death Panels’, Compassion & Choice

I must confess to having had some misgivings about the uproar over Section 1233 of the proposed health care reform bill HR 3200. This section pertains to government payment for counseling on end-of-life options under Obamacare. From Sarah Palin’s ‘death panels” to an endless host of hyperbolic rhetoric about how this counseling is “mandatory” (it’s not) and will inevitably lead to euthanasia, I have felt that much of the discourse is over the top and poorly supported by the text of the bill, and may well prove counterproductive in the long run.

This is not to say that there is no reason for concern: the enormous financial strains which the proposed legislation will place on the health care system, combined with a government panel to decide the “appropriateness” of medical care, certainly introduces significant moral hazards in creating pressures to restrict expensive care at the end of life. Given the growing legality of physician assisted suicide (PAS) — first legalized in Oregon and most recently in Washington, with many other states considering it legislatively or by fiat from judges — it is likely that PAS will become one of the options which must be discussed as part of such end of life counseling, and that there will be pressure to use such “cost-effective” options. Oregon is now offering coverage for PAS while denying expensive palliative chemotherapy. It is not hard to imagine such a trend developing at the federal level as well.

But despite my reservations about the current political firestorm on this issue, there may well be more cause for concern than I have previously believed: via the invaluable Second Hand Smoke, Wesley Smith picks up an interesting trail: the organization Compassion and Choices was deeply involved in helping to craft this section of HR 3200.

So who exactly are these folks? Does the name “Hemlock Society” ring a bell, per chance?

The Hemlock Society was founded by Derek Humphry in 1980, a rabid proponent of assisted suicide and euthanasia, as he himself makes clear:

Born in 1980 in my garage in Santa Monica, California, Hemlock went on to be the largest and oldest right-to-die organization in America fighting for voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide to be made legal for terminally and hopelessly ill adults.

But the name ultimately proved a little too close to the truth for comfort, and so eventually needed to be changed to something more anodyne: “We [also] need access to the halls of government in the states and in Washington DC – access that the name ‘Hemlock’ is currently denying us. The name Hemlock … is also baggage, baggage that we can no longer afford to have weighing us down or interfering with our being able to partner with such important and powerful organizations as AARP.” And so Hemlock joined other pro-death organizations in 2003 to become reincarnated as “Compassion and Choices.”

And now, clearly, they have the congressional access they sought. Ahh, the power of euphemism — what would a death cultist do without the words “choice” and “compassion”?

Compassion and Choices has become the shepherd and sole spokesmen of Oregon’s assisted suicide law — and were intimately involved in writing the Oregon legislation. They have been involved in over 75% of PAS cases in Oregon, and tightly control the media disclosures surrounding these suicides:

The group promoting assisted suicide, so-called “Compassion and Choices (C&C)”, are like the fox in the proverbial chicken coop; in this case the fox is reporting its version to the farmer regarding what is happening in the coop. Members of C&C authored and proclaim they are the stewards of Oregon’s assisted suicide law. They call it “their law”. They have arranged and participated in 3/4ths of Oregon’s assisted suicide cases. Their medical director reported she’d participated in more than 100 doctor-assisted suicides as of March 2005. A physician board-member reported in 2006 that he’d been involved with over forty such patients. Their executive director reported in September 2007 that he has attended more than 36 assisted suicide deaths. He has been involved in preparing the lethal solution. Yet, he is not a doctor.

Furthermore, there is no outside audit of PAS cases in Oregon; Neither Oregon’s Department of Health Services nor independent outside auditors may review them — and complications of the procedure are reported only by the prescribing physician, an obvious conflict of interest.

They have been involved in like manner in the PAS cases in Washington as well.

Hyperbole aside, there is plenty of reason for concern when government gets in the business of managing end of life decision making; assisted suicide will be a very tempting option when government desperately tries to reign in runaway costs for care of the elderly and dying.

And you can be sure if they implement these controls that groups like Compassion & Care will have a seat at the table.

The Children Whom Reason Scorns

Several weeks ago, Washington State logged a solitary but grim statistic: the first assisted suicide under a new law enacted by initiative last November. It seems fitting, therefore, to re-post the following essay, written some five years ago, occasioned by the decision in the Netherlands to legalize euthanasia for children. It is, I fear, a harbinger of things to come, far closer to home.

 
You Also Bear the BurdenIn the years following the Great War, a sense of doom and panic settled over Germany. Long concerned about a declining birth rate, the country faced the loss of 2 million of its fine young men in the war, the crushing burden of an economy devastated by war and the Great Depression, further compounded by the economic body blow of reparations and the loss of the German colonies imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Many worried that the Nordic race itself was threatened with extinction.

The burgeoning new sciences of psychology, genetics, and medicine provided a glimmer of hope in this darkness. An intense fascination developed with strengthening and improving the nation through Volksgesundheit–public health. Many physicians and scientists promoted “racial hygiene” – better known today as eugenics. The Germans were hardly alone in this interest – 26 states in the U.S. had forced sterilization laws for criminals and the mentally ill during this period; Ohio debated legalized euthanasia in the 20’s; and even Oliver Wendall Holmes, in Buck v. Bell, famously upheld forced sterilization with the quote: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough!” But Germany’s dire circumstances and its robust scientific and university resources proved a most fertile ground for this philosophy.

These novel ideas percolated rapidly through the social and educational systems steeped in Hegelian deterministic philosophy and social Darwinism. Long lines formed to view exhibits on heredity and genetics, and scientific research, conferences, and publication on topics of race and eugenics were legion. The emphasis was often on the great burden which the chronically ill and mentally and physically deformed placed on a struggling society striving to achieve its historical destiny. In a high school biology textbook – pictured above – a muscular German youth bears two such societal misfits on a barbell, with the exhortation, “You Are Sharing the Load!–a hereditarily-ill person costs 50,000 Reichsmarks by the time they reach 60.” Math textbooks tested students on how many new housing units could be built with the money saved by elimination of long-term care needs. Parents often chose euthanasia for their disabled offspring, rather than face the societal scorn and ostracization of raising a mentally or physically impaired child. This widespread public endorsement and pseudo-scientific support for eugenics set the stage for its wholesale adoption — with horrific consequences — when the Nazi party took power.
Continue reading “The Children Whom Reason Scorns”

Ten Arguments for Sanity

I have recently had the opportunity to revisit an excellent series of articles at Touchstone’s blog, written several years ago by Tony Esolen, arguing for the sanity of preserving traditional heterosexual marriage, and the dangers of normalizing pseudogamous alternatives, of which gay marriage is just one of many on the horizon. It is a well-reasoned, well-researched series which will take you some time to get through, but is well worth it if this is an important issue to you. The comments are nearly as insightful and thoughtful as the articles, and contain some back and forth arguments which are pleasantly civil for this contentious issue.

Well worth your time:

Ten Arguments for Sanity

Argument 1-2
Argument 3-4
Argument 5-6
Argument 7-8
Argument 9-10

The Epiphany of Evil

Roger L. Simon recently had an epiphany. While reporting from the Durban II conference, he encountered the face of evil: President Ahmadinejad of Iran. He describes this encounter thus:

I heard screaming sirens followed by shrieking motor cycles when Ahmadinejad himself entered … and marched straight across the lobby in what seemed at the time like a goose step a few feet away from me, staring directly at me while waving and smiling in my direction.

I did not wave or smile back.

I couldn \'t. Indeed, I was frozen. I felt suddenly breathless and nauseated, as if I had been kicked brutally in the stomach. I was also dizzy. I wanted to throw up. But no one had touched me and I hadn \'t eaten anything for hours.

It was then, I think, that I found, or noticed, or understood, religion personally for a moment.

Here \'s what I mean.

For most of my life I had rationalized the existence of bad people – or, more specifically, placed them in therapeutic categories. They were aberrant personalities, psychologically disturbed. It wasn \'t that I thought better economic conditions or psychoanalysis or medication or whatever could fix everyone. I was long over that. Some people… serial killers, etc…. had to be locked away forever. They would never get better. But they were simply insane. That \'s what they were.

Still… I had seen whacked murderers like Charles Manson, late OJ Simpson, up close and this wasn \'t the same. This was more than the mental illness model. Far more. For one thing, I had never before had this intense physical sensation when confronted with another human being. Nor had I wanted to vomit. Not for Manson. Not for anyone. This was different.

It was almost unreal, like being in a movie, in a certain way. I know comparisons to Hitler are invidious, in fact usually absurd, but I was feeling the way I imagined I would have felt opposite Hitler.

I was in the presence of pure Evil.

In the seemingly seamless garment which is secular rationalism, there is no place for evil. Oh, to be sure, the word is flung about like sweat from a boxer’s well-placed uppercut — slathered and spit upon all who deviate from progressive secular orthodoxy. But true evil — that inexplicable behavior which chills the soul and touches that primal inner fear — finds no satisfactory solution in our modern world. The salve of psychology is oft applied — the perpetrators are invariably “loners”, “abused”, “neglected”, “rejected”, “oppressed”, or “victimized” — but the hatred which spawns such unspeakable actions cannot be so easily trivialized or dismissed. It rises up like a hideous ogre, demanding acknowledgment and rebuke — and yet we, in response, simply slap our banal therapeutic band-aids on while frantically averting our eyes to the never-ending distractions which numb the inner terror and allow us to move on, undisturbed, our materialistic narrative intact, unperturbed, and unchallenged.

But evil cannot be so easily confined to the therapist’s couch. Our shallow rationalism shoves evil into the overstuffed closet of the therapeutic, where irrationality, mental illness, and all forms of perplexing puzzles are placed, quickly bolting the door before it can escape. Yet evil is in its own way coldly rational, progressive, efficient: the years of planning behind a Columbine; the detailed protocols and meticulous records of Nazi medical experiments; the systematic efficiency of the Holocaust; the careful coordination of a Beslan. All these display, neither mental instability nor unhinged psychosis, but rather highly rational, intelligent, goal-directed purpose. If anything, evil is often more creative, more ingenious, more well-organized and executed than the pursuit of good. In the hard calculus of rational materialism, there is unspoken contempt for the foolishness of caring for the weak, protecting the vulnerable, elevating the dignity of the imperfect, nurturing the neglected.

When we envision evil, we evoke the ghastly: the school massacre, the genocide, the imprisonment and torture of political prisoners, the rape and abuse of children. But though we long to sequester our discomfort in the realm of the rare and horrible, evil will not be thus constrained. It is alive and well in the corporate boardroom, in the street gang, on the drug dealer’s corner, in the steamy affair which destroys a family. It reaches into every corner of our lives — though we struggle to deny and rationalize the monster as it draws nigh to our souls. Indeed, it dwells quite close to home, in the dark rooms of the mind, the dank cellars of the soul, in whispered desires and demons in the depths of the spirit. The newspaper headlines are but harbingers of the heart; what horrifies without dwells within, though hidden deep beneath denial and jaded self-justification. We are what we fear — and we tremble to acknowledge it.

Yet evil, for all its pervasiveness, does not stand alone as a distinct entity. Like one hand clapping, it is meaningless except in the context of a moral framework, a system of absolutes against which it is measured and found wanting. There can be no “evil” where there is no “good.” Yet our secular age ridicules such a position, rejecting the universal for the relative — we determine our own standards of good and evil, in harmony with our individual and cultural narrative, where the notion of truth is nothing more than an instrument of and a means to power. And thus we have no reference by which to comprehend and measure the phenomenon of evil. We know it when we see it — at least in its more egregious and hideous forms — yet have an inadequate and conflicted worldview with which to grasp it. Our evolutionary mindset should provide some cold comfort, as the prime directive of survival of the fittest predicts the destruction of the weak and the triumph of the strong — yet in our heart of hearts we know this to be foolish, and frightening, and fraught with incongruity — for we know we too are among the weak. The resulting cognitive dissonance leads to a pitiful and wholly inadequate response to the horrors which confront us almost daily. When a Columbine occurs, we immediately call in the counselors — when we should be crying out for the priests.

Our materialism and technology, and the secular relativism they have spawned, have given rise to the delusion that we may control the metaphysical just as we control the physical, through science and technology. Hence we each determine our own morality, deciding for ourselves what is right and wrong — a calculus which always favors ourselves over others. Yet in a reality based on transcendent absolutes, the consequences of their violation — evil — are just as inviolable as the laws of physics. We hope to bend the metaphysical to our wants and desires — and the results are entirely predictable. When evil results, we resort to the only tools in our arsenal: education, knowledge, psychology, sociology. Their inevitable failure at resolving the catastrophe only deepens the dilemma. Our cultural witch doctors dance and cant, shaking their shaman wands in fevered frenzy, hoping to drive off the demons with the magical sayings and sacred books of science and sociology. Yet the evil persists, empowered and enlarged by our enfeebled response.

C.S. Lewis, writing in The Abolition of Man, finds in our materialistic scientific mindset much of the magic of old:

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious…

Evil is indeed real, and growing, and we are poorly equipped to grasp or grapple with it. It is a greedy demon whose goal is destruction and whose power is immense. We would be wise to seek the proper antidote lest its poison destroy us all. Our rare glimpses into the heart of darkness, as Roger L. Simon experienced, are a wake-up call we ignore at our peril.

Truth & Consequences


In the trial of Jesus, ancient texts have recorded this exchange:

Pilate replied, “You are a king then?” “You say that I am a king, and you are right,” Jesus said. “I was born for that purpose. And I came to bring truth to the world. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”
 
“What is truth?” Pilate asked.

Some questions are truly timeless.

We live in an age where the notion of truth, of absolutes which transcend the individual and society, is increasingly under assault. Ours is an age of radical individualism, wherein man alone becomes the sole arbiter of what is right or wrong, where moral relativism reigns, where postmodernism trades absolute truth for “narratives”, which vary from individual to individual, culture to culture, and age to age.

It is no small irony that ours is an age of science and technology — disciplines which depend by their very nature on the absolute, unchanging, and permanent laws of nature. Yet this same age rejects or disdains the concept of absolutes and transcendent truth. No one questions the speed of light, or the Pythagorean theorem, or the laws of gravity, or the quirky and counter-intuitive physics of subatomic particles. The postmodernist whose narrative does not accept the law of gravity will still need a sidewalk cleanup crew when he flings himself from a tall building, believing he can fly.

The difference, of course, is that the absolutes of physics and science apply to the physical world, quantifiable and tangible in greater or lesser measure, while the absolutes of ethics, morality, and religion touch on the metaphysical, the invisible, the theological. The materialist rejects such notions outright, as superstition, “values” (i.e., individual beliefs or preferences based on nothing more than feelings or bias), as mindless evolutionary survival skills, or the dying remnants of an age of ignorance. Absolutes are rejected because of the presuppositions of constricted materialism, the arrogance and conceits of intellectualism, the notion that if it cannot be weighed or measured it does not exist. But the deeper and more fundamental reason for the rejection of transcendent absolutes is simply this: such absolutes make moral claims upon us.

In truth, man cannot exist without transcendent absolutes, even though he denies their existence. Our language and thought are steeped in such concepts, in notions of good and evil, love and hate, free will and coercion, purpose and intentionality. We cannot think, or communicate, or be in any way relational without using the intangible, the metaphysical, the conventions, the traditions. We are by our very nature creatures who compare: we judge, and accept or reject; we prefer or disapprove; we love or hate, criticize or applaud. All such choices involve the will as a free agent — and free will is meaningless if it is not used in the context of an ethereal yet unchanging standard against which a choice is measured. We say a rose smells beautiful and a rotten egg rotten, because we judge those smells against an invisible standard which determines one to be pleasant and the other offensive. We cannot measure the love of a child, or or weigh the sorrow of a death, or calculate the anger at an injustice or the beauty of a Bach concerto; yet such reactions, and the standards by which we recognize and judge such intangibles, are every bit as real as the photons and protons, the law of gravity or the principles of physics. Even the most hardened Darwinist, atheistic to the core, by necessity must speak the language of purpose and transcendence and choice, as Mother Nature “selects”, and “chooses”, and “intends”, and “prefers” this genetic trait or that survival skill. We are incapable of describing even the purported randomness, mindlessness, and purposelessness of evolutionary biology without concepts and language of intentionality, preference, good and evil.

No, the rejection of absolutes is the rejection of their claim upon our wills. To reject that absolute truth exists, to deny that standards and principles stand apart from mere constructs of human imagination, is to affirm the absolute that we are absolutely autonomous, answerable to nothing and no one, masters and gods accountable only to ourselves. To deny absolutes is to deny free will — and to deny the consequences of choices which violate the very principles we dismiss as foolish, ignorant, prejudiced, and superstitious. To deny dogma is to be dogmatic; to reject absolutes absolutely is to affirm absolutes, even if unknowingly. Transcendent absolutes define our very humanity; dogs do not have dogmas, nor are cats categorical.

G.K. Chesterton, prescient and insightful as ever in his vision of the foolishness of man in his intellectual hubris, said:

Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense . . . becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding to no form of creed and contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

Ideas have consequences, philosophies have predicates, and the rejection of absolutes absolutely dehumanizes us, for we devolve from a species of high principles and moral light to denizens of a depravity far lower than the animals. For animals have rational restraints on behavior, brutish though it may be, while there is no end to evil for the human mind unleashed from absolutes.

Speaking of the fall of Carthage, with its materialism, wealth, and power, steeped in a religion whose worship sacrificed infants in the fires of Moloch, Chesterton says thus:

This sort of commercial mind has its own cosmic vision, and it is the vision of Carthage. It has in it the brutal blunder that was the ruin of Carthage. The Punic power fell, because there is in this materialism a mad indifference to real thought. By disbelieving in the soul, it comes to disbelieving in the mind … Carthage fell because she was faithful to her own philosophy and had followed out to its logical conclusion her own vision of the universe. Moloch had eaten her own children.

The rejection of absolutes, with the resulting moral relativism and narcissistic nihilism, is no mere intellectual folly nor faddish foolishness. It is instead a corrosive toxin, appealing in its seeming rationality and reasonableness, but pervasive and deadly for both person and polity.

If the Truth will set you free — and it most surely will — its rejection will surely enslave you.

A Life Not Long

Last week, President Obama removed virtually all restrictions on fetal stem cell research, claiming a triumph of science over “ideology.” The hope, of course, is that science may find new ways to prolong and improve our lives, now that the shackles of moral restraint, humility, and ethics have been removed. It seemed fitting, therefore, to repost this older essay, pondering whether the “victories” which science now has in store for us will be indeed Pyrrhic.

 
sunset

A link from Glenn Reynolds hooked into something I’ve been ruminating on in recent days: the endless pursuit of longer life.

Here’s the question I’ve been pondering: is it an absolute good to be continually striving for a longer life span? Such a question may seem a bit odd coming from a physician, whose mission it is to restore and maintain health and prolong life. But the article which Glenn linked to, describing the striking changes in health and longevity of our present age, seemingly presents this achievement as an absolute good, and thereby left me a tad uneasy — perhaps because I find myself increasingly ambivalent about this unceasing pursuit of longer life.

Of course, long life and good health have always been considered blessings, as indeed they are. But long life in particular seems to have become a goal unto itself — and from where I stand is most decidedly a mixed blessing.

Many of the most difficult health problems with which we battle, which drain our resources struggling to overcome, are largely a function of our longer life spans. Pick a problem: cancer, heart disease, dementia, crippling arthritis, stroke — all of these increase significantly with age, and can result in profound physical and mental disability. In many cases, we are living longer, but doing so restricted by physical or mental limitations which make such a longer life burdensome both to ourselves and to others. Is it a positive good to live to age 90, spending the last 10 or more years with dementia, not knowing who you are nor recognizing your own friends or family? Is it a positive good to be kept alive by aggressive medical therapy for heart failure or emphysema, yet barely able to function physically? Is it worthwhile undergoing highly toxic chemotherapy or disfiguring surgery to cure cancer, thereby sparing a life then severely impaired by the treatment which saved that life?

These questions, in some way, cut to the very heart of what it means to be human. Is our humanity enriched simply by living longer? Does longer life automatically imply more happiness–or are we simply adding years of pain, disability, unhappiness, burden? The breathlessness with which authors often speak of greater longevity, or the cure or solution to these intractable health problems, seems to imply a naive optimism, both from the standpoint of likely outcomes, and from the assumption that a vastly longer life will be a vastly better life. Ignored in such rosy projections are key elements of the human condition — those of moral fiber and spiritual health, those of character and spirit. For we who live longer in such an idyllic world may not live better: we may indeed live far worse. Should we somehow master these illnesses which cripple us in our old age, and thereby live beyond our years, will we then encounter new, even more frightening illnesses and disabilities? And what of the spirit? Will a man who lives longer thereby have a longer opportunity to do good, or rather to do evil? Will longevity increase our wisdom, or augment our depravity? Will we, like Dorian Gray, awake to find our ageless beauty but a shell for our monstrous souls?

Such ruminations bring to mind a friend, a good man who died young. Matt was a physician, a tall, lanky lad with sharp bony features and deep, intense eyes. He was possessed of a brilliant mind, a superb physician, but left his mark on life not solely through medicine nor merely by intellect. A convert to Christianity as a young adult, Matt embraced his new faith with a passion and province rarely seen. His medical practice became a mission field. His flame burned so brightly it was uncomfortable to draw near: he was as likely to diagnose your festering spiritual condition as your daunting medical illness — and had no compunction about drilling to the core of what he perceived to be the root of the problem. Such men make you uneasy, for they sweep away the veneer of polite correction and diplomatic encouragement which we physicians are trained to deliver. Like some gifted surgeon of the soul, he cast sharp shadows rather than soft blurs, brandishing his brilliant insight on your now-naked condition. The polished conventions of medicine were never his strength — a characteristic which endeared him not at all to many in his profession. But his patients — those who could endure his honesty and strength of character — were passionate in their devotion to him, personally and professionally. For he was a man of extraordinary compassion and generosity, seeing countless patients at no charge, giving generously of his time and finances far beyond the modest means earned from his always-struggling practice.

The call I received from another friend, a general surgeon, requesting an assist at his surgery, was an unsettling one: Matt had developed a growth in his left adrenal gland. His surgery went deftly, with much confidence that the lesion had been fully excised. The pathology proved otherwise: Matt had an extremely rare, highly aggressive form of adrenal cancer. Fewer than 100 cases had been reported worldwide, and there was no known successful treatment. Nevertheless, as much for his wife and two boys as for himself, he underwent highly toxic chemotherapy, which sapped his strength and left him enfeebled. In spite of this, the tumor grew rapidly, causing extreme pain and rapid deterioration, bulging like some loathsome demon seeking to burst forth from his frail body. I saw him regularly, although in retrospect not nearly often enough, and never heard him complain; his waning energies were spent with his family, and he never lost the intense flame of faith. Indeed, as his weakened body increasingly became no more than life support for his cancer, wasting him physically and leaving him pale and sallow, there grew in him a spirit so remarkable that one was drawn to him despite the natural repulsion of watching death’s demonic march.

Matt died at age 38, alert and joyful to the end. His funeral was a most remarkable event: at an age in life where most would be happy to have sufficient friends to bear one’s casket, his funeral service at a large church was filled to overflowing — thousands of friends, patients, and professional peers paying their respects in a ceremony far more celebration than mourning. There was an open time for testimony — and such a time it was, as one after another took to the lectern to speak through tears of how Matt had touched their lives; of services rendered, small and large, unknown before that day; of funny anecdotes and sad remembrances which left not one soul of that large crowd untouched or unmoved.

A journey such as his casts critical light on our mindless pursuit of life lived only to live long. In Matt’s short life he brought more good into the world, touched more people, changed more lives, than I could ever hope to do were I to live a century more. It boils down to purpose: mere years are no substitute for a life lived with passion, striving for some goal greater than self, with transcendent purpose multiplying and compounding each waking moment. This is a life well-lived, whether long or short, whether weakened or well.

Like all, I trust, I hope to live life long, and seek a journey lived in good health and sound mind. But even more — far more indeed — do I desire that those days yet remaining — be they long or short — be rich in purpose, wise in time spent, and graced by love.