The Church of Good Health: Body, Mind, Spirit? Body…Body…Body?

It’s curious to find my first post today to be about health, since I have succumbed to some raggedy-assed virus of a sort. I haven’t exactly crashed and burned as in the past, but it’s been a logey and cruddy sort of day. But enough about me.

Ann Althouse has an interesting post on a recent statement by the Vatican. Althouse herself, crediting the Vat with having a made a good point, says: Perhaps as an ethical matter, anyone contemplating something like cosmetic surgery, ought to think again and contribute the money he or she would have spent on the surgery to a charity that provides basic health care to the poor.

I concur! What a grown-up sort of thing to say! It gives me goose-bumples!

The truth does that to me!

She gives due consideration to another part of the statement, too, wherein the Vat asserts that richer countries have developed a sort of “Religion of Health.”

Vatican officials … held out Pope John Paul II’s stoic suffering with Parkinson’s disease as an antidote to the mentality that modern medicine MUST [emphasis mine] cure all, calling this a “religion of health” that is taking hold in affluent countries.

Althouse gets their point, and asks a question: People often say, without any sense that they are saying something offensive (and idiotic): “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” To make health one’s central value is exceedingly shallow. Is health becoming a religion? Some people make it the central value around which they order their lives. Health is worshipped.

This is such a good and necessary discussion to be having today, in an age where, increasingly, illness and suffering are looked upon as so purposeless, so unredemptive, that for many
death seems a sensible and pragmatic alternative.

Yes, you read that correctly, I did write ALTERNATIVE.

I think the Vatican’s remark on the pope’s condition is an excellent one. The man is suffering with an illness that has substantially limited the workings of his body, but not of his mind. Because of those corporeal limitations, we hear more and more that “he should retire,” but why, exactly? Should he retire because his appearance makes us uncomfortable? Because we’d rather hear an Eternal Truth delivered from the mouth of a handsome and vigorous, athletic 54 year old than from a bent-over man of slurred speech and trembling hand? Is the Truth, so delivered, more true if the messenger is pretty?

Has our elevation of the human body so overtaken our regard for our minds or spirits that the body’s capabilities are to be weighed as more valuable than the other two?

If this is how we are thinking, then the problem is not with the weak and sickly people, but with us.

If that is how we are thinking, we staggeringly out of balance.

I’d rather have ten people in wheelchairs thinking clearly and giving us living examples of the wisdom to be gained, and the heroism to be found, in embracing their limitations, then a hundred gorgeous beings who open their yaps to deliver vapid, empty pronouncements on whatever trendy thought is popular that week.

This is a very big issue, and those who read me regularly know that I seem to write about it with some frequency – not because I am obsessed, but because the issue keeps coming up. In some ways I begin to think that there is no issue more pressing – with regards to our common humanity and our understanding of the value of the human being – than this question of illness and suffering, life and death.

When my brother was dying, during those long months, occasionally a well-meaning person would ask me if I didn’t think it would be better – more “compassionate” – if we couldn’t simply give him “a needle or something” that would end his ordeal a few weeks earlier. All I could do was relate as best I could what a terrible loss it would be to all of us if a single moment of our time with S – and his time with us – was hurried away. When one’s time has come, one’s time has come, of course…but until that time, we wanted S with us, and he wanted to be with us, too, which is why even the doctors and nurses stood in wonder at his lingering, and his life-force.

Some disagreed with me. One friend in particular thought there was something heartless in my “arrogant certainty” that S’s suffering (and ours) could have any sort of genuine purpose. “Look at what your poor mother is going through!” She said.

I did. Oh, I did. Even now, remembering what this dear, tireless woman endured at her son’s deathbed, I cannot stop the tears.

But ask my mother what she would have preferred and she will tell you – having S, in any condition, is so much better than the world without him, a world she’s endured for a month, now, with a pain that seems gargantuan compared to any pain she might have felt before.

My friend did not understand this – she is convinced that a thoughtful and compassionate world should be one without pain or suffering. She means well. She can’t bear to see anyone having a hard time. But her solution is one that, in the end, cannot serve the human being or the world, because the fact is, everyone has suffering in their lives. It is inescapable.

Some of us suffer in body, some in mind, some in spirit, but we suffer – all of us – in some way. Yet death is never suggested as the “compassionate” answer to mental illness. One does not tell a man with bi-polar disorder that death would suit him. One does not recommend that a woman dealing with neurosis find her solutions in a vial of cyanide. Euthanasia is not touted as a practical and tender answer to one who is spiritually bereft.

No, it is only when the body is compromised in some way that the idea of death is promoted as merciful, and preferable.

That is understandable in a fundamental way, of course. While we cannot “see” the condition of the human mind or spirit, we can see the body, and humans are conditioned to want to fix anything that is out of order.

But when something cannot be fixed…when medicine has no more to offer…does it follow that the next step is throw the body out – or store it away, somewhere so we don’t have to feel so uncomfortable at our failure to fix it? At our limitations? Is there nothing more to be learned or understood, gleaned or threshed out? Oh, I think there is. So much more.

We live in a disposable society, and I fear the idea of casting off what is useless to us has seeped into our ideas of life and death. It says something
about our values, but also about our creativity and our willingness to look at things in broad, rather than narrow ways. An inventive, open mind will look at something cast off and find a new application for it. A pitcher with a crack at the bottom can still hold an arrangement of dried flowers and bring beauty to a room. A cracked mirror can be taken from its frame, and the frame re-used and the mirror broken further and used in mosaics.

Some will read that and argue that I’m making the case for ending a life and harvesting the organs. Indeed, I am not. I am making the case that a human body with a mind that works, even on rudimentary levels, has something of value to it, if one only has a willingness to really regard that human being in his or her totality – and sometimes that means breaking down every part of that person’s existance and looking at it anew.

It seems to me that part of growing in wisdom is to embrace life – truly embrace it – in all its variables, in its joys and in its sorrows, in its times of glory and its times of shame. We can only know joy if we first know gratitude that we’ve been delivered from despair. We cannot draw the happiness to us and then resolutely push away pain. It simply does not work. Push away the pain, shut yourself off from it, and eventually the joy will be dulled.

Dull the joy enough, and after a while everything will seem commonplace and unremarkable, and nothing will make much of an impression…and it will easy to shrug off euthanasia, because death won’t seem much different from life.

These days, imperfect babies are routinely aborted. People trapped in comas are lucky if they have family fighting to keep them alive, because – increasingly – the idea of letting a human being starve to death to “get it over with” seems correct and “humane.” And once upon a time, I might have agreed. Or I would have told you that the western habit of getting-the-old-and-infirm-out-of-sight-while-we-creep-toward-legal-euthanasia was still an unsettled idea for me.

But my brother S helped me to settle this matter in my mind. I learned in three months by his bedside what 41 years previous could not teach me. And what I learned was valuable, and S could not have taught it to me had we placed the importance of a healthy body over his sick and broken one.

Because what I learned was so very valuable…it came at a great, great price – a price he (and we, as a family) paid. And S, my dear, beloved brother…I would not trade those months at your side for all the gold in the world.

UPDATE: Ms. Althouse has an update on this topic of Health as Religion. She expresses some real concerns with the actions of Arkansas Governor Huckabee and his thinking regarding the body being the Temple of God. While I appreciate his sentiment, fundamentally, that gluttony and excess are sinful (all too common a sin, too. I count myself among the excessives!) I also agree with Althouse that Huckabee is taking all of this to some troubling places within government. Interesting reading.

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