Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Live right on

In Wendell Berry's novel Hannah Coulter, Hannah's husband Nathan has a repeated saying: "We're going to live right on." As Hannah trenchantly notes, Nathan does not say it often, and he says it only when living right on is going to be difficult.

In the end, Nathan gets cancer in his old age, and he declines treatment that he deems extraordinary and goes through a dying process that we now associate with home hospice care, eventually dying naturally in his own home in the presence of his wife and a close friend.

But Hannah finds it difficult at first to accept Nathan's decision to decline aggressive cancer treatment. Here is part of the scene:

My tears were falling into the bowl of beaten eggs and then my nose dripped into it. I flung the whole frosthy mess into the sink. I said, "Well, what are you planning to do? Just die? Or what?"

I couldn't turn around. I heard him fold the paper. After a minute he said, "Dear Hannah, I'm going to live right on. Dying is none of my business. Dying will have to take care of itself."

He came to me then, an old man weakened and ill, with my Nathan looking out of his eyes. He held me a long time as if under a passing storm, and then the quiet came. I fixed some supper, and we ate.

He lived right on.

I must confess here that, since the Covid-19 pandemic began, I have often felt a sense of paralysis that has prevented me from blogging, especially about the pandemic. Those who follow my public content on Facebook know that that has been loosening somewhat lately, as I state more forthrightly what I think in public posts. But for a while, I was simply not talking publicly. At first I wanted to tread carefully while watching how the empirical situation unfolded. Then I was almost stunned with horror at the destruction I saw being carried out by what I considered (and still consider) to be the disproportionate, unwise, and dystopian governmental response to the virus and, perhaps even more, by the fracturing and disagreement among otherwise sane and sensible people, including Christians and pro-lifers.

There were other reasons for not writing much on this topic. For a while I was finishing drafting my forthcoming book on John, The Eye of the Beholder. That manuscript is now with the publisher for electronic typesetting. Then I was working hard on my blog posts and video scripts for my responses to Michael Licona. That playlist and blog series are now completed. Then I was not wanting to do anything that might confusingly intersperse current posts at this blog with the massive archiving project in which others copied my apologetics and biblical studies posts over many years from What's Wrong With the World to this blog. So there was always something. And now I still have other work to do, including my duties at home.

In the back of my mind, too, was a feeling of utter weariness and a certain amount of shock at the attitudes being taken and their vehemence: Whom would I offend if I said openly that I think many if not most of the measures being taken against this virus are overly draconian and to that extent misguided, vastly overlooking spiritual and other intangible harms? Would that undermine my work in New Testament and apologetics? Who might hold such comments against me? Who might use them to portray me as some kind of anti-science kook? How much should I allow such considerations to weigh? And who has time for the never-ending squabbling of social media?

But recently, perhaps partly (in an odd way) as a result of the horrifically tragic death of Mike Adams, I have begun speaking out more, though in what I hope are judicious and thoughtful terms. See, for example, herehere, here, and here.

Today (it might seem, irrelevantly) I got my car's oil changed. While sitting in the waiting room at the dealership, clad (more or less) in a dutiful face shield, I was reading a back issue of The Human Life Review, produced during the New York City lockdown. It was a bit of a time capsule (of a time only a few months ago), with some articles showing no awareness of the pandemic and others being all about it. As usual with HLR, there were several well-researched and interesting articles about such esoteric and interesting matters as the under-reporting of abortion complications and the character of Abigail Adams (really). The short pandemic op-eds contained at least one cautionary note about the possible ill effects of lockdowns, but two of them expressed horror at what the authors saw as the brutal rhetoric, incompatible with a pro-life position, of those speaking against lockdowns. As we have seen for months, the pro-life version of, "You just want Grandma to die" is the claim that those who are raising the dangers of lockdowns see those in vulnerable populations as expendable. 

Now, to be fair, it absolutely does not help when some people speak against lockdowns by using talk of "quality of life years." Yikes! Don't do that. You just blur distinctions that need to be un-blurred, and you definitely give fodder to the "expendable lives" claim. Of course, others have pointed out more eloquently than I, and with more statistics, that many people will die as a result of economic and other indirect effects of the lockdowns themselves--people driven into poverty, people who don't get needed medical care, people driven to despair. Are their lives expendable?

As part of the archiving project, this older post of mine came to light--an important bit of work, if I may say so myself.

But now I can add to it. What I argued there is that there is a great danger in our own time of loving death too much rather than loving life too much. I pointed out that older Christian writers, such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, saw a kind of vitalism or transhumanism that seeks to retain and lengthen life at all costs as the great danger in their time, whereas our own danger is somewhat different.

All true. And yet we are also now faced by paradoxes. Consider: In Canada, elderly people (and non-elderly people, for that matter) can choose euthanasia but can't (as in most nursing homes in the U.S.) have relatives visit them, lest they contract Covid-19 and die. Think about that. They can choose death, even due to the loneliness of the Covid restrictions (see this anecdotal comment), but they can't risk death by way of such an ordinary activity as seeing their children, friends, and grandchildren. Euthanasia advocates have even scrambled to be sure that euthanasia assistance is available by Zoom.

As this conversation points out, because ours is a materialistic culture, the physical goal of avoiding death is elevated to the detriment of intangible goods. True. But at the same time, abortion clinics were kept open in my state of Michigan as "essential" even during the hardest lockdown. Not only did this involve deliberately killing babies, it also exposed the mothers and their relatives, bent on the death of the child, to potential medical complications and, for that matter, virus infection, for the goal of making sure that no unwanted child was born. This seems to mean that Thanatos will have his sacrifice, come what may.

Does our secular Western country fear death too much or too little? Does it worship Death or run from him?

As it turns out, both. As a woman planning to access assisted suicide says openly here, it's all about control. "I choose to be in control," she says.

Now, this is just exactly morally backwards. In answer to the misguided hand-wringing about supposedly heartless and "Darwinian" concerns about lockdowns, masking, and other draconian measures, and also in answer to the death doctors, we must distinguish all of the following:

1) Killing people directly and deliberately (as in abortion and assisted suicide and euthanasia). (Always wrong)

2) Foregoing treatment that the patient understandably deems extraordinary. (Sometimes entirely legitimate)

3) Withholding basic care, such as food and water. (Always wrong.)

4) Engaging in otherwise entirely legitimate actions, such as spending time with friends, opening a legitimate business, singing, going to church, traveling, etc., which by an entirely indirect and unintended process causes a death.

It should be evident that #4 is something that we all have to risk doing all the time. It is impossible to live at all without risking causing someone else's death. It is shallow to say that we can take risks only for ourselves. As I pointed out here, we must take risks for other people constantly. Just driving down the road to take your child to get a vaccination risks causing a death by an indirect process, in an accident--your child's death, for one. There is nothing remotely un-pro-life, much less "Darwinian," about saying that you, and others, should go ahead and live life in a more or less normal way, doing moral and even praiseworthy activities, even if this risks causing a death as a result of someone's catching Covid. Of course we must take into account the degree of risk and the importance of the activity in question, and of course there are reasonable precautions we can take (I am not advocating "Covid parties"!). And of course reasonable people can and will differ on what count as reasonable precautions. The point is that risking an indirect and unintended death by engaging in a legitimate activity is business as usual in a contingent world, not heartless immorality. Indeed, by not acting in a way that carries risk, for ourselves and for others, we may indirectly cause more deaths! 

This is where the older authors such as C.S. Lewis have much to teach us. Lewis's characters in his Narnia books talk boldly about "taking the adventure that Aslan sends us." In the water world of Perelandra, the unfallen Green Lady emphasizes the importance of "accepting the wave" that God sends rather than demanding certainty and security. This is exactly what we are now being told never to do. Our hyper-controlling world worships the god Death at the same time that it fears him with a great fear, and the end result is that we never accept the wave or the adventure. In a grisly reversal of all right values, we flee from Death even to the extent of killing our incarnate friendships and our joyful gatherings, while at other times those in our secular world choose to seek out Death (at the abortion mill, at the hands of the euthanasia doctor) to offer him a living sacrifice, unholy and acceptable. Being Christians helps us to see where all of that goes wrong, though one should not need to be a Christian to see it. 

Life is a contingent gift and must be embraced and lived. If you do not believe in God, you may not know how to express that, and in a sense you may not consciously believe it. But in your best moments, you sense it and know it. And you also know that life must be lived and seized and that life is not without risk. Indeed, any driving instructor knows that the student who tries too hard to avoid risk in making a lefthand turn is often the student whose driving is the most dangerous, the most indecisive and tentative, and hence the most likely to cause an accident. Prudence is not dithering. Prudence is not the vain attempt to avoid all risk. Prudence must not be turned into the enemy of all gallantry, courage, joy, and generosity. And prudence is not trying literally to put human relationships and societies into "freeze" mode, shutting them down indefinitely or over and over again, in the hopes that a pathogen will pack its bags and leave in discouragement and that one will do more good than harm by such means. (Nor is such a hope scientific in its basis. Wherefore acting on it is not, ultimately, prudent!) 

At the same time, if you actually do love and care about human life, you ought to be able to see the terrible irony in continuing to kill humans deliberately while compassing land and sea, causing untold spin-off harms (including deaths), in order to avoid causing a single accidental death by means of a single, specific virus.

So if the lady in the nursing home wants to see her relatives, let her see her relatives. Let her take that risk. Let them hold each others' hands and see each others' faces. That is a healthy attitude. It can and should be a part of a healthy worldview that is as far removed as possible from the euthanasia mindset. And if others want to work and rejoice and gather and see each other face to face, don't tell them that this must mean that they do not care about the elderly lady. Their actions can and should be part of a healthy worldview that is as far removed as possible from the desire to see others die or even to neglect them. It should be part of embracing life and should provide the society (both economically and interpersonally) in which the elderly can be cared for rather than being isolated "for their own good." But beware: If you tell all of these people that they must be anti-life to think this way, you risk their believing you, which would be a tragic confusion.

I hope to continue saying these things as a reminder from time to time, while I continue working on other things. 

Live right on. Dying will have to take care of itself.


Mikhail said...

Insightful, bracing post! Thank you for this post.

I have one question. You write that "others have pointed out more eloquently than I, and with more statistics, that many people will die as a result of economic and other indirect effects of the lockdowns themselves". Would you mind pointing to me to some of these resources?

Lydia McGrew said...

Sure, here are just a couple: