I read recently that people with ADD were far more likely to develop dementia in their old age. I read a few days later that people who had taken a certain medication for longer than a short period were far more likely to develop Alzheimers. I was on the medication for 12 years (and I have ADD). Such statistics are far from certainty – but they increase the chances that I will end my life less alert and aware than I am now. I’m not surprised. Once you reach senior years, such thoughts are always somewhere at hand – if you can remember which hand. Why would someone want to live so long?
An article in the Atlantic recently proclaimed, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” There were plenty of statistics to accompany the article. Chances are, the author will still be in good health at 75 – why not go while you’re feeling good? And, it’s better for the planet and friends and family not to be a burden. And then there’s the fear of drooling.
In a culture that loves youth, such articles should not be surprising. The author was not advocating euthanasia (he opposes it). He simply hopes to go at 75. He is a professor of bioethics (go figure).
What’s wrong with such a hope?
The Orthodox Church is no stranger to hopes concerning death. At virtually every service we pray that God would grant us:
…[to] complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance…
…for a Christian ending to our life: painless, blameless, and peaceful; and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ…
The end of our life is clearly a matter of prayer. And we pray for a good end. It is a prayer for a good death. What constitutes a good death?
I worked for a couple of years as a hospice chaplain when I first became Orthodox. That work was primarily in the mountains of East Tennessee. My patients were largely Baptists and Pentecostals, but almost all were believers. Like most people, my patients would have preferred a death that was painless and peaceful. “Blameless” for them would have meant a death in which they were clearly professing Christ as Savior. A good death was defined by the life to come.
I saw many such good deaths. I learned to admire them.
Our culture is frightened of death. Most people in the modern world have never seen anyone be born and have never actually watched anyone die. The two things that no human being can avoid are missing from their experience. It is little wonder that we have such conflicted ideas about aging and death.
I grew up with old people in my life. My paternal grandparents were easily as close as my parents themselves, my grandmother in particular. As a child I was acquainted with my maternal great-grandmother in her last years. She had been born before the American Civil War and seemed truly ancient. Older people were the respected centers of every family gathering. Children played smaller roles than they do today, though there were more of us!
What is most lacking in our modern culture is a proper sense of tragedy.
Human life is tragic – or that is the Christian account. All the hope and wonder with which we are born is threatened to be erased with our death.
As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, And its place remembers it no more. (Ps. 103:15-16)
Many of the moments of our grass-like life are tragic within themselves. Very few people are born and live without moments and stretches of genuine suffering. Sickness and every form of setback are our common lot. Though we strive for pleasure, it is not the stuff of our daily existence. It is not so tragic that we don’t generally long for more – but the inability to accept the tragic creates its own kind of tragedy.
It is also the unique teaching of Christianity that the tragic world is real and is both the arena and the means of our salvation. Christ is the tragic God.
Some may recoil at the language of Christ as a “tragic” figure. But His death on the Cross insists that we see this. The Cross is described as “shameful,” a “criminal’s death,” etc. It’s utter shamefulness is often lost in our modern culture, and lost among Christians who have so surrounded it with sacrificial and atonement doctrine that it’s tragic and scandalous character is obscured.
The story of Christ is a tragedy. But it is a tragedy that ends in triumph. The story of Christ, it should be well-marked, is not the story of His destruction of the tragic character of our life. Indeed, we are told that the Cross is the lot of all who follow Him. The Christian life is a voluntary following of His tragic path.
What makes it Christian is the faith and hope, as shown in Christ’s resurrection, that such a path is, in fact, triumphant, healing, redemptive, sanctifying, justifying, illumining, etc. The tragic path is the path to union with God.
The task of the Christian Church in the midst of our modern culture continues to be the proclamation of this tragic path (and its triumphant result). A good death is a death that is conformed to the death of Christ. A good death is not defined by the absence of suffering.
I recall Stan Hauerwas saying in a conversation that it is not the job of the Church to remove suffering, but to be the kind of community that can rightly support people in their suffering.
This will include end of life situations – all life situations. The great temptation for the modern Church is to see the modern “dream” (as in “American Dream”) as a normative goal of life – a preferred way to live. When this is the case, the Church will begin to become the locus of support programs for life-coaching and general improvement – a cheerleader for the Middle Class life. When the bourgeoise pleasures of consumer culture begin to wane, why would someone want to go on living? “Get out of the way and let the next guy have a chance.”
The suffering of old age is indeed tragic. To watch a brilliant mind numbed by dementia is devastating. To see the savings of a lifetime devoured by sickness is tragic as well. But they are tragedies that have been gathered into the Cross, the Great Tragedy, and by that gathering they become a locus of triumph, healing, redemption, sanctification, justification, illumination. If this is not true of all tragedy, then the Cross would be empty and of no effect.