When it comes to dying, doctors don’t always take their own medicine.
A poignant example is that of a highly respected clinician who was diagnosed with cancer and yet chose not to avail himself of chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment. Instead, he closed his practice and spent some quality time with his family before passing on at home.
In a heartfelt blog a University of Southern California professor, who’d been mentored by the clinician, graphically describes why he and so many colleagues forego the costly and “futile” end-of-life care demanded by others.
“The patient will get cut open, perforated with tubes, hooked up to machines, and assaulted with drugs. All of this occurs in the Intensive Care Unit at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a day. What it buys is misery we would not inflict on a terrorist,” writes Dr Ken Murray, MD.
Considering that heart-wrenching description of what it takes to gain that extra few hours, days, weeks or even months, why would any of us choose such a course of action? Perhaps we believe it’s the only way we can cheat mortality and prolong our lives. Would it make a difference, though, if we were convinced death wasn’t actually the end?
It seems it would. In her research into Victorian attitudes towards dying Deborah Lutz found a very different experience resulting from the then prevailing faith in life after death.
“Today we try to deny the body’s movement toward death, its inevitable decay. The Victorians, instead of fearing the process of dying and the corpse, felt reverence,” the University of Louisville English professor wrote in the New York Times recently.
She explains that Victorians often saw the “triumph” of salvation etched in the faces of those passing on and heard it echoed in their final words.
“References to the peaceful or rapturous countenances of the dying can be found everywhere in Victorian letters and literature,” she wrote.
Few would deny that sounds a more pleasant exit strategy than “medical care that makes people suffer”, as Dr Murray ruefully describes it.
Still, is it the best course to assume that death is, in effect, a friend – a sweet threshold into everlasting life to which we should passively resign?
The case of a London 7/7 terror attack victim suggests another way to examine the question.
As Australian Gill Hicks lay on the brink of death amidst the twisted wreckage of one of the underground carriages, she found herself struggling with competing options.
“I could hear two voices – one telling me to close my eyes and go to sleep in peace. That was Death. But the voice of Life was furious that I was even considering giving up,” she told the Daily Mirror.
In that intense moment, prayer proved pivotal in finding the strength to go on – not a formal prayer but heartfelt words she spoke to God.
“I don’t know if I shouted, whispered or maybe just mouthed these words. What I am sure of though, is that I did think them – I made a conscious decision to stay alive. It was such a profound moment, one that is with me still today.” she writes in her moving biography.
This decisive, triumphant instance of thought yielding to living rather than dying hints at the need to deal with death as a foe, not a friend – even when it seems to promise us peace. That’s in line with the Bible, which speaks of death as “the last enemy that shall be destroyed”.
Why the last enemy?
Perhaps because there is plenty of opportunity to test the Bible promise of eternal life right here, in the minutiae of our daily lives.
That’s a lesson I have been grateful to learn from a spiritual teacher who lived through those halcyon Victorian days described by Lutz.
Despite being of that era, Mary Baker Eddy didn’t revere the death process in the way the professor says her contemporaries did. Instead, as a deep metaphysical thinker, healer and writer, she saw a need to see beyond the comforting belief that death was in and of itself a transition that could somehow solve “the problem of being”.
“If the change called death destroyed the belief in sin, sickness, and death, happiness would be won at the moment of dissolution, and be forever permanent;” she writes in her main work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, adding:”but this is not so.”
“Not death, but the understanding of Life, makes man immortal,” she further explained.
Put another way, experiencing immortality begins with life before death – that is, gaining a sense of spiritual life here and now. This entails recognising there are two perspectives of life constantly vying for our allegiance. One is a material sense of life as finite and limited – as sometimes happy, sometimes sad. The other is a deeper view of identity as divinely created and consistently joyful and purposeful. To accept the latter as the reality and strive to express it in our actions is to “choose life”, as the Bible puts it.
Making this choice is far from being an abstract exercise. While we seldom face the kind of life and death situations that confronted Gill Hicks, making the right choices about who we understand ourselves to be can be key to our wellbeing each step of the way.
Indeed, I have experienced many healings through glimpsing the underlying, immortal nature of mankind. I once gained complete freedom from a fever when I glimpsed this to be true for myself. And an irritation with someone that bordered on hatred melted into a warmhearted affection for them when I glimpsed their immortality.
It can take considerable courage to choose to identify ourselves spiritually in the face of the entrenched worldview that we’re only physical organisms . It can take prayer, patience and persistence.
But each time we successfully choose “life over death” in even these modest ways, and find it can heal us, it shines a little more light on immortality – the immortality that the Bible promises belongs to one and all, both before and after “the change called death”.
This blog was first posted on The News Hub as “Seeking immortality through life, not death”.