Peter Popham wrote in The Independent on Saturday an article inspired by the recent announcement of Christopher Hitchens’ terminal cancer diagnosis.
Entitled “We have to confront our fear of death”, he notes that in a post-Christian society, removed from the church’s regular reminders that the way we live has consequences for us after death, and its focus on the death and resurrection of Christ, most people in our culture today push aside the thought of death, including their own.
Yet his article moves on from this to a reading of how people treat life while they have it. He mentions living wills, saying they sound like a good idea, but:
…there is a delusion at the heart of this activity, quite as much as there is in the attitude of those who devote as little thought to their death as they can. And the delusion lies in believing that the self is a fixed, unchanging entity, while one’s life is something distinct and separate from it which we can enjoy like an ice cream when it is in good shape but may discard like poison when it turns bitter.
He gives a recent case study of a woman who, faced with a painful illness, made an advance directive then tried to kill herself. Her attempt failed and, rather than leaving her to die slowly in intense agony, as adherence to her written wishes would have required, her partner called an ambulance.
While expressing compassion for her fate, Popham states that:
Her error lay in having arrived at a commodified view of life, as if it were a piece of property whose disposal was entirely her own business: exactly the sort of mad idea that our materialistic society breeds. Whereas the truth is that the self, to the extent that one can speak of such a thing, is in constant flux, one’s expectations from life are in constant evolution, and nothing we do is “our own business” – everything impinges on everything else in the universe.
“We needed to rouse ourselves,” Popham concludes, “from the sleep of superstition, but in doing so we have collapsed into the narcosis of materialism.”
Naturally, I disagree with the first clause – I don’t consider faith in God to be ‘the sleep of superstition’ from which it was necessary that we awoke, but ‘the narcosis of materialism’ is real enough (and a great phrase!). Perhaps a truer assessment of the situation would be that ‘in closing our eyes to the uncomfortable truth of God, we slipped into the narcosis of materialism’.
Either way, it’s encouraging to see someone who is obviously not a believer speaking against the slide towards euthanasia and assisted dying.