This week, one helpless woman's trials have absorbed the nation. Helpless, but clearly not powerless, Terri Schiavo has confronted us, and we've been unable to look away.
Even though we've wanted to. This morning on CNN, Jack Cafferty exploded with a surprising, virulent, "I just wish this story would go away!" I think even his co-anchors were a bit taken aback, Bill Hemmer reminding him of the broader implications. Cafferty was unconvinced, and continued to mutter.
It's like that other thing, that other image, that's hung, been smashed, re-invented, hidden, kissed and abolished:
Also, you see, about suffering. Also about helplessness and abandonment.
We want to look away, and we do try. We do try to ignore it, but it pulls us back. Why? Because there comes a time, regardless of how much we've worked out, or how successful our treatment has been, or how comfortable our retirement's been - that we're there. Right there.
One of this week's memes has been "Would you want to live this way?"
Here's the news flash from my end: I fully expect to.
Oh, not precisely as Terri does, but in some way, certainly. Unless I die a quick, sudden death, and who knows, even if I do,l I will probably go through a period of physical and mental incapacitation, of suffering, of decline, of being bedridden and helpless, sick, dying and in pain.
The people in my family tend to live a long time, but their deaths have not been easy ones. There has been suffering, and I am not stupid enough to think that I will be excused from that table.
With Terri as my teacher this week, I have gone to school. I've confronted, in some sense, my own future, and pondered my response to it.
Unlike those who would like to caricature the position against removing Terri's feeding tube, this is not about valuing physical life above anything else (Oh....they sneer...I thought you Christians were supposed to want to go to God...why the fixation on staying on earth?) The Catholic ethical tradition is quite clear on this, although the rapidity and complexity of technology makes it difficult to tease out, especially when one is actually in the pain of the situation itself. There is, of course, a time to let go. There is a time to step back. (This Godspy piece unpacks those complexities, and yes, in relation to feeding tubes.)
But in following this situation, we know that in a way, all of us are being faced with a choice, and all of us are choosing. We're choosing how to approach our lives, how to live them. Do we live in the mystery, the reality of this life and all of it is :
1) A gift we are given
2) An existence that involves limits, frustration, and suffering.
God could have made us angels who do not grow, learn, suffer and die, but He didn't. For some reason, we live on earth, for some reason we have these bodies, and because we have them...they must matter. What we do with them matters. How we live in them, how we accept their limitations...matters.
But of course, we think we would rather be angels. So, we try, we try very hard, with always, invariably, disastrous results (Read Walker Percy for this - Love in the Ruins and the Thanatos Syndrome). It never works. We are always the worse for it - not for trying to work with God in doing His will, and preaching and living the Good News, but in trying to be God and labor under the illusion that the goal of life is to live it without suffering, rather than looking back up at that Cross and seeing the real point: the suffering has meaning, the limits teach us, form us, and our call is to love through it.
Is this fatalism? No. But it is a recognition of what the bottom line is, what our guiding principle is: to do God's will. To love as He loves, which means to treasure life, respect the gift, with an eye towards Heaven. When we start purposefully ending life, we've crossed a line that's never been successfully crossed without causing great harm.
But back to the point of this post:
Like all of us, I've done a lot of thinking this week. But unlike others, it hasn't deepend my interest in living wills - at all. It's deepend my interest in living my life today - in not complaining about my slight pains and frustrations. It's deepened my interest in my own moments of self-indulgence, both small and great, and seeing them as the escapist cop-outs that they are. It's deepened my interest in trying to understand that living the American Way of distraction and escape leaves me empty, there is another way, it's the Way of the Cross, and there is a truth there that's confronting me every which way this week. It's deepened my insterest in preparing myself and my family for the day that will come for me and for them, as well - not in terms of legal documents, but in terms of our spiritual stance.
I want to be ready. But I've also decided that lawyers can't help me. I've decided that I need to prepare. But I've also decided that medical consulations aren't the kind of preparation I need.
"Surely you wouldn't want to live this way?...."
That's the cry of the hour. But it's a cry not related so specifically to Terri Schiavo as just to the limited, painful way of life that is not of the angels, but of creatures made of mud, who have sinned, but somehow, in their creation, share in God's life, and are graced, in all of it, including the suffering, to grow to be more like Him.
"Surely, you wouldn't want to live this way?...."
I've decided that...I do, in the deepest sense, in the sense of living in reality and mystery. I do. Because if I don't, why do I have that Crucifix in my room, anyway? What is the point? I say I believe that way is the way to Life...do I?