Tag Archives: Disease

Death with Dignity; Life with Faith

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29 year-old Brittany Maynard died on Saturday, November 1 by swallowing lethal drugs made available to her under an Oregon law that allows terminally ill people to choose when to die.  Diagnosed with incurable Brain Cancer at the beginning of this year, Brittany was given six months to live.  As her disease progressed she “suffered increasingly frequent and longer seizures, severe head and neck pain, and stroke-like symptoms. As symptoms grew more severe, she chose to abbreviate the dying process by taking the aid-in-dying medication she had received months ago” (http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/health/281248621.html).

This is a story of human tragedy that deserves our compassion.  Apart from any conversation about the moral and spiritual legitimacy of euthanasia, the terrible circumstances that Brittany Maynard and her loved ones found themselves in and the difficult choices that they faced should leave us “humble” and “modest” – what theologian Gabriel Fackre once described as the two “least appreciated” theological virtues that we have at our disposal as people of faith.  “Humility” acknowledges that we don’t know everything, and “modesty” is how that “humility” behaves.  It doesn’t say too much, too quickly or too loudly.

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We are told that Jesus wept when He finally got to the tomb of His good friend Lazarus (John 11:35).  There is a theology in the tears of Jesus Christ that deserves much more attention than they have traditionally gotten.  Reduced to a riddle – “What is the shortest verse in the Bible?” – we have been distracted from the powerful point that the weeping of Jesus Christ makes about where God is and what God is doing about human suffering (see Hebrews 2:10-18; 4:14-16).   Where Christ’s title “Emmanuel” – “God with Us” (Matthew 1:23) gets most powerfully incarnated for me is at the tomb of Lazarus when He broke down and wept before the exercise of His sovereign power in bringing Lazarus back to life.  When Paul told the Thessalonians that Christians “grieve, but not as those who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13), I think that he was holding together both Jesus’ tears and His display of power at the grave of His friend. It’s in-between these “furious opposites” that my faith lives.

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After the catastrophes that befell Job, what Marilyn McCord Adams calls “the horrors,” we are told –

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.  (2:11-13)

If this is where they had stopped, Job’s three friends would have been hailed as spiritual giants, pastoral role models for us all.  But they didn’t.  They opened their mouths and spoke.  They said too much, too quickly and too loudly, with the result that they muddied the waters of understanding and obstructed the channels of compassion.  I have observed a fair amount of this in the blogs and Facebook pronouncements of my ministerial peers in the weeks since Brittany Maynard took her leave of this world.

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Many of my more progressive colleagues have used the death of Brittany Maynard to make their freedom of choice argument while many of my traditionally-minded colleagues have used the tragedy of her death to defend their prolife convictions.   Predictably, they have lined up on opposite sides of the field of this familiar battle to launch their volleys, and in some ways, this is exactly what Brittany Maynard wanted.   She made the conscious decision to go public with her private tragedy in order to advance the conversation about death with dignity in our society.  She chose to make her private drama a media event.  She wanted it to be the story that led the national news, and it did.  This gave her suffering a greater purpose, and I respect the courage it took for her to do this even as I admire the clarity with which she did it.  The tragic circumstances of her life provided her with a “bully pulpit” that she used quite effectively.  She strode into the public square with a statement to make.  But the nature of the public square is dialogical; other voices are going to answer back, and they have, as the blogs and Facebook postings I’ve read in recent weeks prove.  My problem with so many of those other voices has been their smug tone and their shrill arguments.  They have been so eager to score points in support of their predetermined positions that I fear that they’ve lost sight of the fact that this is about real people suffering in real ways from real threats to their existence.

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Of all the responses that have been made to Brittany Maynard’s circumstances and choices, the most compelling one that I have personally come across was made by another terminally ill young woman, Kara Tippett.  On both her web page – http://mundanefaithfulnrss.com – and in her recently published book The Hardest Place: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard (David C. Cook – October 2014) – Kara Tippett has staked out the exact opposite position that Brittany Maynard took while suffering the same exact set of circumstances, what Kara has described as “a road that feels simply impossible to walk.”  Kara Tippett wrote an open letter to Brittany Maynard.  You can read it at http://www.aholyexperience.com/2014/10/dear-brittany-why-we-dont-have-to-be-so-afraid-of-dying-suffering-that-we-choose-suicide/  Rather than the rhetorical broadsides, “in principle” arguments and political salvos that I have read elsewhere, this “one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread” approach has such power for me.  How I wish that Brittany and Kara could have sat together, talked together and cried together.  And how I wish we could have all been there to eavesdrop on that imagined moment.   I suspect that in the solidarity of their suffering, there would have been much for us to learn about how to face our own dying, and the dying of those we love the most, with dignity and in faith.  As Dr. Candi K. Cann, a Professor of Comparative Religion down at Baylor University, has written –

This is a complex issue that requires an equally complex response. I would agree that there is beauty to be found in both suffering and in death: a kind of beauty and embracing of life that one only finds when faced with the last breaths and days of someone we love who does not want to die. I believe that we learn lessons in sickness, in suffering, in dying, and in walking that journey with someone who is dying, but I also believe that it is easy for one person to judge another’s capacity for suffering based on their own experiences and prejudices. …Both Brittany and Kara write beautiful justifications for their positions on life (and death), and I admire both women — Brittany for taking ownership of her life and the way she wants it to end, and Kara for fighting to be present with her family and to find ultimate meaning in her suffering. The world is indeed a brighter place with both of these brave women shining light on these important issues and our need to bring death into the conversation of our daily lives. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-candi-k-cann/two-perspectives-assisted_b_5960716.html

 

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Robin Williams, Depression and the Church

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My last two postings have been on the Dark Night of the Soul. This week, after the second posting, the news of Robin Williams’ suicide broke, and since then there has been a wide-ranging and nonstop conversation throughout our culture about depression, and while I deeply grieve the trigger, I gladly welcome the result. It’s long overdue. Depression is not well understood either by those who suffer from it, or by those who know and love people who do. And as the tragedy that is Robin William’s death so painfully shows, this kind of ignorance has devastating consequences.

Because everyone has periodic episodes of reactive or situational depression, stretches of feeling “blue” when things have not gone your way that becomes the interpretive grid that most people use to understand what depression is all about. It’s part of the inner response to an outer experience of loss, disappointment, failure, betrayal, sickness, discouragement or struggle. Something negative happens to us and depression is one of the things that we feel as we process the experience. It’s one of the phases or stages of adjustment; think of the way that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross mapped the grief experience in her seminal work On Death and Dying – Shock, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Depression is just part of the journey, one of the steps along the way to healing. It’s real and it hurts, but it’s temporary, it passes. The circumstances change and we start to feel better. In fact, people in situational depression are often encouraged by their family members and friends to “get out,” to “do things” and “go places” in order to start to feel better.   Because it was a situation or a circumstance in your life that made you feel bad, just engineer a change in your situation or circumstances and you will start to feel good again, or so the conventional wisdom goes.

 

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We used to have a Mary Englebreit illustration printed on a piece of fabric and hanging on a wall at the house. It showed a rather stern looking little girl with her feet firmly planted, her hands on her hips and a set to her jaw with the words in the text box over her head reading “Snap out of it!” And that’s what depressed people are expected to do. Because experiences of reactive depression pass with time, when it is perceived that someone is staying too long at the fair – that one is wallowing in their misery – this impatient little girl shows up with her scowl and her screech. And while this kind of “shock” therapy, this swift sharp whack up the side of the emotional head might work for someone who is situationally depressed, it can’t touch the other kind of depression that there is, “clinical” or “endogenous” depression.

If reactive depression starts outside of us with a difficult circumstance or a bad situation, constitutional depression starts inside of us. While reactive depression is triggered by something that happens to us externally, clinical depression is just part of the way that some of us are wired internally; it’s part of our state of being. The way that I have sometimes described my own experience of being clinically depressed is to say that while we all fall into deep, dark holes from time to time that we then have to climb out of, that there are some of us who find ourselves in holes so deep and dark that they can’t be climbed out of. They are not a temporary state, a passing emotion that we can “snap out of,” they are where we live.

Since his suicide, I’ve heard people in the media wonder about what could have been so terrible in Robin Williams’ life to have prompted him to do this. I’ve heard the speculations that he was having money problems, or relationship problems, or career problems – a cancelled television series, or a health problem – more heart disease, or a substance abuse problem, and that it was this problem, whatever it was, that prompted him to take his life. But that’s reactive depression thinking in a clinical depression life. Something didn’t happen to Robin Williams this week that resulted in one desperately bad and irreversible decision. No, Robin Williams was sick; had been for a long time, and it was that disease – clinical depression – that killed him. Like any disease, you can live with clinical depression, function at a very productive and creative level, even while you are desperately ill. Think Abraham Lincoln. Think Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Think Vincent Van Gogh. Think Ernest Hemingway. This is what has confused so many people about Robin Williams. We saw his genius. His gifts were obvious to us. His accomplishments were great. But all of this happened against the backdrop of his very real suffering from a very real disease.

A few years ago we admired the strength of Patrick Swayze as he continued to act while battling terminal cancer. And when his disease finally claimed him, in the sadness of his death there was a widespread recognition of the courage that he had displayed in the way that he had continued to ply his craft when it would have been so easy for him to just have rolled over and quit. He “played hurt,” and we greatly respected it, even saw it as “heroic.” Well, so did Robin Williams, only it appears that he “played hurt” for his entire career. But because his terminal disease was mental rather than physical, it’s unlikely that his passing will be viewed by society at large in the same way. But I do. For all of the sadness of this week, I want to go on record here with my admiration, respect and honor for the courage and strength of Robin Williams.

Some of the most courageous people I know are those who battle mental illness. There are men and women all around you every day in the cubicle next to yours at work and on the pew next to you in worship who have to muster every last ounce of strength they have just to get out of bed in the morning to step into another day. They carry burdens and fight battles that we can’t even begin to imagine. And because we just don’t “get it,” because we don’t understand mental illness as a disease that is just as real and devastating as cancer, diabetes or emphysema, we think that these people could “snap out of it” if they really wanted to. Tell that to the next person you see having a heart attack!

It was in a class on ministry that I took in seminary taught by Dr. Charles Kemp that I first heard the quote: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” He said that this was one of the most basic principles of pastoral care. And if Robin William’s tragic death this week is to have any enduring impact on us, I urge it to be this.

In Matthew 12:20, it was said of Jesus Christ that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” In the history of interpretation these descriptions have been applied to the discouraged and the disheartened, to those who have been overwhelmed by their lives and are just barely hanging on. And it seems to me that the stance that Jesus took toward such people should be the stance that we as part of His church ought to be taking as well, and this begins with simple kindness, and a recognition of the depth and the darkness of the fight that so many find themselves in every single day.  DBS+

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I highly recommend –

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http://calvarychapel.com/resources/article/view/robin-williams-and-secret-suffering/

 

 

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