"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Friday, May 27, 2011

Would You Want to Know the Hour? A Brain Dump on Death and Suffering

My "worlds" converged this past week as my personal reading paralleled a recent discussion in my “current events/debate” elective at my English school. The topic? Death and dying well. I guess I’ve had death on the brain lately. Sorry to sound morbid. J

Knowing the Future

We discussed in class whether or not we would like to know the hour of our death in advance. The topic was based on a news story I had them read concerning a pricey blood test—about $700—that some scientists suggest is an accurate predictor of our biological lifespan. The test measures “telomeres,” a part of our DNA that controls our cell division in a way that is somehow responsible for limiting the length of our lives.

Supposedly this test is on the way to becoming more available, and many have already expressed interest in taking it and are willing to pay the amount necessary. Here’s a link to an article that can flesh this out a bit more: "Lifespan Test." Sounds like there may be related tests in existence already.

There are pros and cons mentioned in the article. Some arguing against its value suggest it could be abused by companies who would attempt to sell “life elixirs” and profit off of the fear. There is also concern for how people would react to such knowledge. Insurance could be a problem if such knowledge was available to insurance companies.

Yet many arguing for its value see the potential to gain insight into a variety of age-related disorders. Such knowledge about one’s age could also help inform choices now, as people might choose to live a healthier lifestyle if their “biological life” indicated they had a significant amount of life left, or perhaps live more indulgently if they knew the end was near.

So this is obviously not an exact measurement, like some kind of time travel device giving us a glimpse of the future. A car wreck could thwart what any test suggests about our life span. As could unhealthy eating habits that might lead to various diseases. It’s not as if gaining such knowledge gives us license to take more risks. But what value is there in knowing? This is a bit of what my class and I were trying to decide.

My students unanimously agreed “no,” they wouldn’t like to know the length of their lives. We didn’t talk much about the reliability of the test nor the science of it, nor its accessibility. We all seemed more interested in the philosophical side of the issue: the value of knowing the day of your death.

Most just felt it would be too hard on family and friends to know the time of death, something that would cause dread and sorrow in their lives. They also felt that it would be too much knowledge, power, control, to be aware of when we’d die. And while it’s not the point of this particular medical test, which doesn’t foretell events, we got caught up in the more “Back to the Future” logical conundrums of whether or not such foreknowledge leaves us with or without power to alter our “destiny.”

Death and the Point of Suffering

I just finished “God, Medicine, and Suffering” by Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas here looks at stories of people who’ve dealt with the death of children, the role medicine plays in our lives, and a question many if not all people have asked at some point: what is the “point” of suffering?

His answer to that last question is thought-provoking, somewhat inspiring, and kind of annoying, in ways. He essentially says there is no point to suffering. He’s not interested in explaining suffering as a way of making us better and stronger people, or making us need God; such “purpose” makes God out to be kind of cruel.

Actually, what he’s really doing is suggesting that the question is the wrong question to be asking. For early Christians, he says, “suffering and evil…did not need to be ‘explained.’ Rather, what was required was the means to go on even if the evil could not be ‘explained’” (49). And later: “Suffering (for early Christians) was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge requiring a response” (51).

Hauerwas displays a part of his “narrative approach” to theology here. He is not as interested in the “why” as what we do as individuals and communities in response to suffering in our own histories and our shared human story. How do we rightly live with suffering, with sufferers, and how do we display virtue and character in such situations?

Drawing on the “Psalms of lament,” Hauerwas suggests we not deny that suffering is a part of our story, feeling instead like we’re required to be continually happy and optimistic. He writes: “Creation is not as it ought to be. The lament is a cry of protest schooled by our faith in a God who would have us serve the world by exposing false comforts and deceptions. From such a perspective one of the profoundest forms of faithlessness is the unwillingness to acknowledge our inexplicable suffering and pain” (83).

Despite what at times feels like discouragement, Hauerwas seems to be offering several encouragements. One is to experience the freedom in not denying the horrible nature of suffering, especially suffering that one doesn't seem to really "cause" like child illness (as opposed to suffering resulting from violence, systemic poverty, or bad eating habits) We should lament it and name death and suffering for the horrible things they are.

Another encouragement is to try to understand your life as not having a point in itself (individualism), but as finding its meaning in connection to the larger narrative of God’s creation of and relationship with us, trusting in this God and this story.

Yet another encouragement is to see the point of life as not being “to live as long as possible” but as having more to do with enjoying our friendships with God and with others and seeing our lives as one piece in the larger narrative of the life of God, learning to accept our deaths with grace rather than despair (this is where he is very critical of medicines whose purpose is to extend the lives of those inevitably dying).

I'm not necessarily advocating total agreement with Hauerwas, and am still contemplating what he has said myself. But he does make some provocative points.

A Connection and Relatively Lighthearted Question

I guess the common theme between Hauerwas and our class discussion—beyond simply “death”—is our ability to deal with our deaths and the deaths of others well; how accepting death might free us as individuals and communities to not think of our lives as being about building up our own empires, finding a way to defeat every illness and hindrance, or finding means of distracting ourselves from our hurt, pain, and suffering. Knowing that the “point” of life is not to live as long as possible but to find meaning in our relationships and in how our lives give glory to God and contribute to the greater narrative of God’s life might enable us to better “cope” with the reality of suffering.

The majority of my students didn’t want to know their future, even in regard to other bits of information other than their death (like what technology will be like, how much money they'll have, etc). They seemed to be disinterested in that kind of knowledge and power, preferring instead to accept life as it comes and embrace the surprises.

What about you? Would you want to know when you would die if you could, whether through medical test or through time portal? J Why or why not? (These are not necessarily rhetorical questions; comments are welcome.) Would this be valuable and helpful knowledge? Or would that knowledge do more harm than good?

A More Serious Question

I guess the other more important question in all this: can our desperate need to find reasons and explanations for suffering—which often don’t seem to really satisfy—actually prevent us from really finding a way to cope and go on in the midst of such suffering? Should we consider that as creatures of God our “meaning” comes from our connection to the story of God and not from whether or not our lives last a really long time or even from our individual ambitions?

I have experienced the tragedy of losing a loved one. My childhood best friend, bound by his depression, killed himself at the age of 16. My Grandpa, a significant part of my childhood, slowly saw abundant life disappear due to his Alzheimer’s in his final years.

The latter example is easier for me to accept as a “part of life.” The former seems a bit more unfair and offensive to me. Yet despite my frequent cries of “why” in the midst of these events, I wonder if maybe God was telling me, “no ‘why’ Matt.” Or that the "why" is not as important as the "what now" and "how do we then live?" Maybe such events will make more sense to me some day. I hope.

Until then, I think it’s right for me to cry out in rage when such suffering occurs, while finding goodness in the way such moments are opportunities for love and community, with one another and with God, who, despite our suspicions of God’s character and power that often arise when we encounter suffering, hurts deeply with us in our pain, perhaps far more deeply than we do. That’s comforting, I guess. At least I feel like it should be comforting.

Feel free to comment and indulge in hypotheticals or share some insights I might have missed in regard to the topic at hand!

(Source: Hauerwas, Stanley. God, Medicine, and Suffering. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1990.)

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