In the news: Life and death

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.

2 Comments On This Topic
  1. Peter P
    on Aug 16th at 7:34 pm

    Interesting article.

    So… what do you think of DNR’s?

    Patients can opt to be DNR (Do not resuscitate) so that if they have a heart attack or something like that, the doctors have an advance directive from them saying they don’t want to be resuscitated.

    Take my 98 year old neighbor, for example. He’s beginning to get sick and has had a few trips to the ER with various issues. He has now signed a DNR form because he says his body is old and breaking down and if it’s his time to go, he doesn’t want the doctors artificially extending his life. Not to mention the physical trauma on his old body of the resuscitation procedures.

    Should he be able to sign a DNR?

  2. newsong40
    on Aug 16th at 10:34 pm

    That’s a really good question. To answer it, I think you have to consider whether there’s a moral difference between ‘killing’ and ‘letting die’ (and thus between suicide and allowing yourself to die when help was available). Much of my last philosophy module centred on this question, and it’s far too long, complex and involved to go into here.

    Briefly, much as I can sympathise with the fear, pain and fear of pain that leads people to request DNR orders, I think I tend towards the belief that they should not sign them.

    A few reasons I’ve come to this conclusion are:

    1) I think it’s consistent with my belief that they should not ask a Dr to kill them when life gets unbearable or unpalatable. There may be occasions when ‘letting die’ and ‘killing’ are substantively different, but I’m not convinced that being in hospital is one of them.

    2) If you’ve spent a lifetime eating healthily, exercising, taking antibiotics and other medications when you’ve been ill, so you didn’t die before your time, how do you decide that now is ‘your time’? God could have intervened at any point to take you, despite all your hard work, so why is now the time to stop fighting him and let him win? I don’t want to belittle your neighbour’s very real concerns, but I think, as the original article I quoted from suggested, we’ve got used to the idea that we are consumers of life. It’s a commodity at our disposal and though we may stop short of ending it ourselves, we have the right of veto over when it should or should not be artificially prolonged.

    3) To look at more general cases, a key factor is often that people don’t want to be a burden either on their families or the health system (especially in the UK where all those machines keeping you alive are costing the tax payer money). I’ve written elsewhere (May 28th) about the fallacy of being afraid of being a burden, and while it is laudable to consider how you’re spending other people’s tax dollars, a society which believes that the elderly, infirm and incapacitated are not worth spending money to protect is not what I consider to be a healthy one.

    I know there will be committed, Godly Christians who will disagree with me, and it may well be that they are right and I’m wrong on this one. I’m still thinking it through, and having no first-hand experience is a drawback, but this is where I’ve got to so far. Any thoughts?


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