Sunday, July 16, 2017

Accepting Mortality

Looking at this theologically, isn’t the refusal to accept our mortality just the same old lie “you will be like God”? The fact that we are mortal is a result of God’s righteous judgment in Genesis 3. Yes, Christ came and redeemed us, but final redemption of our bodies will not take place until He returns. This is a sure hope for all believers, and we are comforted by this when loved ones have gone ahead of us. But while we may be already, we are not yet.

 

There have been so many advances in public health and medicine that we live longer and healthier lives. While this is a wonderful blessing from God, have we forgotten that we are mortal? Do we believe that we will always be as healthy as we were in our prime with no diminution of mind or physical strength because conventional medicine (or alternative therapies) can provide a cure for everything? As a result of this, have we lost the ability to walk alongside loved ones who face aging and dying?

These are questions raised in Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. The author is a Harvard-trained surgeon who is on the faculty of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, so he knows of what he speaks. In his career as a physician, he has noticed the lack in the medical profession and even in society-at-large of helping people who face illness, disability, and death. These issues are treated solely as medical problems so the soul-care (my word) is absent when hard decisions need to be made. For example, very often the most aggressive treatment includes higher risks for poor quality of life. How do we balance the preservation of life and maintain its dignity and meaning? For the record, Gawande is no advocate at all of physician-assisted suicide and actually sees it as a failure to properly address mortality.

Like a good philosopher, he tries to get to the underlying mindset of our fear of mortality:

There is arguably no better time in history to be old. The lines of power between the generations have been renegotiated, and not in the way it is sometimes believed. The aged did not lose their status and control so much as share it. Modernization did not demote the elderly. It demoted the family. It gave people – the young and the old – a way of life with more liberty and control, including the liberty to be less beholden to other generations. The veneration of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by veneration of youth. It’s been replaced by veneration of the independent self.

There remains one problem with this way of living. Our reverence for independence takes no account of the reality of what happens in life; sooner or later, independence will become impossible. Serious illness or infirmity will strike. It is as inevitable as sunset. And then a new question arises: If independence is what we live for, what do we do when it can no longer be sustained?1

This makes perfect sense. This is why there’s a battle when the car keys need to be taken away, when the aging parent needs to move to assisted living. But don’t just blame the elderly. We are all guilty of the veneration of the independent self. I do this when I refuse to accept my limitations, refuse to ask for help, and don’t think I even need anyone’s help. But didn’t Jesus say, “apart from Me, you can do nothing.”?

Looking at this theologically, isn’t the refusal to accept our mortality just the same old lie “you will be like God”? The fact that we are mortal is a result of God’s righteous judgment in Genesis 3. Yes Christ came and redeemed us, but final redemption of our bodies will not take place until He returns. This is a sure hope for all believers, and we are comforted by this when loved ones have gone ahead of us. But while we may be already, we are not yet.

Accepting mortality isn’t being defeatist either. Isn’t God honored when we agree with Jesus and confess that we can do nothing without Him including drawing the next breath or taking the next step? When the world is dying around us, both inside and out, doesn’t this testify to the hope we have within us? Not living forever in this life but being with Him in heaven.

Like any spiritual discipline, dependence needs to be pursued because my natural bent is to be independent. But cultivating my need for God and others helps me now and can only prepare me for 10, 20 years in the future should Jesus tarry and God grant me that many more years.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End, Atul Gawande, Metropolitan Books, 2014, pp. 22-23. (italics mine)

Persis Lorenti is an ordinary Christian. You can find her at Tried With Fire and Out of the OrdinaryThis article appeared on her blog and is used with permission.

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