There is in this nation a dying generation, one whose passing will be sorely missed. It is a generation that knew sickness and starvation in the Great Depression.
It is a generation that saw their siblings or parents, beyond the reach of medical care, die beside them in the comfort of home. It is a generation that saw their friends and brothers slain at their feet in the Second World War. It is a generation that felt the scourge of polio as it ravaged a multitude of young lives.
In short, it is a generation — and our country’s last — that remembers a time when death was a part of one’s day-to-day existence.
This valuable perspective, though, has been lost on the rest of us who have been brought up in a seemingly aseptic society.
Now, there is nothing wrong with aseptic technique. Modern medicine has eradicated many diseases that once were as common as life itself. For this we should be thankful. But our present situation goes far beyond being thankful for our longer lives, to a near denial of the reality of death. Quietly and carefully, we have succeeded in pushing death into a small secluded corner, from which we hope it will no longer bother us. Today death is increasingly hidden from public view behind hospital curtains or hastened by lethal injection. Death has been taken away from our day-to-day reality.
The result of this change is a growing discomfort with death, a belief that while it may actually happen to us, it will come painlessly and quickly at a time we find convenient. In fact, there is even a growing hope that it won’t come, ever.
Anti-aging products are top sellers, exercise videos, plastic surgery, anything to keep us young and free from decay. Stem cells are touted as the means to regenerate failing body parts. Computer-brain interfaces, we are told, will allow us to put our minds on silicon chips for safe keeping. We seem poised at an age of immortality, a time when we can say, in the words of St. Paul, “Death has no more power over me.”
This innate human longing for immortality is, as the words of St. Paul indicate, not a new development. What is new is the means by which we now pursue it. At its roots, the human longing for immortality is an extension of the longing the human heart has for God. Yet, we moderns, with the help of science, hope to circumvent God and achieve immortality on our own efforts. The humility that marks a heart truly longing for its Creator has been superseded by hubris, a hubris that gives us the urge to manipulate life to suit our needs and desires. If it will remove the pain and suffering of death then all the better. If it allows us to discard people who inconveniently remind us of the discomforting possibilities of human suffering, full steam ahead.
But toward what are we moving? The catchy slogan associated with the drive to legalize physician-assisted suicide is “death with dignity.” But there is precious little dignity to be found here. Rather than embrace the dignity of the one who suffers at the end of life, family members are keen on getting the situation “resolved” so that they can move on to the task of living their lives. Death, when it comes to those around us, can be so inconsiderate of our busy schedules. Could we pencil in Mom’s death for a Saturday so we don’t have to miss work?
A little more morphine here, a little less food there, a bit of outright negligence over here, it is happening out of the public view. Whether it is following the directive of a family member or the advice of a medical professional, the motive is usually the same: Let’s not look at death too long. Let’s sweep it under the rug as we have better things to do with our time.
While there is no obligation to prolong life by extraordinary measures, there is an obligation we have to our loved ones to experience their death with them. There is an obligation to stand by and support them, to care for them, to stare with them into the eyes of eternity and help prepare them for the journey. There is an opportunity to make peace, and to realize together our mortality, our own utter dependence. Yet we don’t, because death scares us, being so foreign to our modern sensibilities.
For all of us, death should be a lesson in humility, but rather than humbly accept the care of others at the end of life, we fight it. People sign living wills that will automatically “terminate” them when certain conditions arise. We refuse the need for help because we must always maintain control; death will bow to our wishes and respond to our beck and call.
If anything, we see death as a plague or a pathology that we can eradicate, like polio or smallpox, and as a society, we seem confident in our ability to achieve this end. We have declared war against such unsuspecting foes as cancer, Alzheimer’s and AIDS.
While there is nothing wrong with winning this war — it is in principle a noble cause — one must ask: At what cost victory?
In the current climate, our society has committed all the troops, boldly announcing that death will be defeated by any means necessary. Moral and ethical objections be damned, scientific progress will proceed unfettered by the chains of rational discourse. Against this tidal wave of political and scientific momentum, the defenseless human embryo stands little chance of survival. It is but a means to an end, a voiceless clump of cells, seemingly devoid of form and hardly something worth preserving.
But it is not formless, nor is it just a clump of cells. Rather it is actively engaged in a magnificent unfolding that will ultimately result in the familiar form of arms and legs and eyes. But this truth is trampled beneath the marching tide of progress. In its place, arbitrary lines are drawn: It hasn’t implanted into a uterus yet; it hasn’t developed nervous tissue; it hasn’t voiced a desire to live.
Against all rationality, we argue that it cannot really be a living member of our species. We declare this, because we need its parts for a higher good, to combat our own death and destruction. It must die so that we may live, and so we invite the ultimate irony to descend upon us. In a culture obsessed with prolonging life, we have made a deal with death. Death, we will use you as a means, so long as we can prolong the coming of our end.
But as we make this bargain, Christ’s own words, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,” should soberly echo in our heads just as the crowing of the cock echoed in Peter’s. For in the pursuit of earthly longevity our society has developed a callous disregard for the sanctity of life, and in the bargain, one by one, we are exchanging our true life in Christ for an unfulfilled promise.
In the end, life and death are not meant to be separated. Our grandfathers knew this simple truth, a truth we see in Christ. In him, life and death always are intimately connected, they form a dynamic unity.
The Christ of the Nativity, the newborn baby full of promise, is the Christ of the Cross, the broken and bloodied corpse. It is only through his death that we have our promise of eternal life. However, to obtain this we must, like Christ, willingly lay down our lives for him. As he exhorted us: “Whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it.”
So we are left with a choice. We can pursue the extension of our earthly life with reckless abandon, pushing death into a controllable corner or, like the generations that have come before us, we can humbly accept the reality of our earthly death, whenever and however it may come, for the sake of the Gospel.
Most of us have already heard the story of a young Child born in a Bethlehem stable on a cold winter’s night who chose the latter path.
Daniel Kuebler, Ph.D., is an
assistant professor of biology at
Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.