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Conservative Political Commentary

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Lady Liberty

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Death Made Easy?
posted by Bathus

I have somewhat mixed feelings about "living wills."

Perhaps it is my instinctive aversion to accepting any fashionable concept that needs a euphemism for its name.

Maybe I wouldn't object if they called it a "dying will," so we could be a little more sure that we aren't kidding ourselves about exactly what's involved.

Yeah, I understand the idea is to relieve your family members of the burden of difficult decisions about end-of-life care and also to make sure that your own wishes are clearly expressed and honored.

On the other hand, as a lawyer I have learned entirely to disrespect the power of any flimsy piece of paper to ensure that people's true intentions will be honored. In the event of a real conflict, whether about end-of-life questions or anything else, a piece of paper usually serves merely to provide additional pretexts for whatever machinations the most manipulative person in the situation wishes to pursue.

The words we sign our names to today--words which seem so unambiguous, iron-clad, definitive, and comprehensive when they only apply in the abstract to some vaguely described future hypothetical situation--rarely retain that power and clarity when it's time to try to put them to work to deal with the hard cold reality of an actual life-or-death situation. If you are gravely ill, I'm sorry to inform you that no piece of paper is going to protect you from scheming in-laws, vengeful ex-spouses, selfish children, soulless lawyers, or callous money-grubbing doctors, if they have something to gain from either your excessively extended life or your untimely death.

These days, it seems to me the increasingly greater risk is not that your fleshy existence will be dragged out a bit too long, but that the chorus will already be warmed up to sing your swan song halfway through the second act.

When I hear people say, with reference to someone else who is suffering through (what looks like) the end of their days, "If I'm ever in that condition, I hope someone will put me out of my misery," I want to say, "Hey, what makes you think you deserve to get off so easy!" What I mean is, dying isn't designed to be convenient or easy. Elsewise too many of us might find assisted suicide, or withdrawal of life support, or withdrawal of feeding, or prohibition of extraordinary care, or whatever you want to call it, just too tempting a solution for all manner of life's difficulties--both for ourselves and for other inconvenient persons.

The truth is, as we sit here relatively healthy and only minimally capable of imagining the confusing circumstances that might surround what might be, or might not be, the end of our days (for the human mind naturally closes itself off to all conceptions of the circumstances surrounding one's own death), it is impossible for us to rationally say "this is what I would want."

No one really knows what he would want. All we know now is what we think we would want, but we have no idea what we would actually want when the time comes.

A little trick that life plays on us dozens of times every day is that we really don't know what we want until we find ourselves in an actual situation that presents the concrete choice that we had previously considered only in the shallow abstract. Death is a bridge we can't know exactly how, or when, to cross until we actually come to it. Unfortunately, when it comes to grave illness, at the moment when the choice becomes sufficiently concrete that we might know what we really would want, we often aren't able to express our wishes, much less to insist upon them.

But instead of trusting in some legalistic piece of paper, which only expresses what we wanted at the time we signed it and is obsolete to deal with the horrible complexity of that moment when we need it most, the best we can hope for is to have a spouse or a child who knows us well enough and loves us well enough that they will then enter into our hearts so far as to understand what would be our true wish. That is a terrible burden for a loved one to bear, but it is also the kind of burden that is given to love and that love can bear.

So yes, my wife and I occasionally talk about "what we would want when the time comes," but those vague and abstract musings cannot and should not, any more than some legalistic document, be presumed to supply an easy answer about what's the right thing to do with my bag of bones in the particular real life situation when it looks like my time might be up. Instead, my wife's just going to have to play it by ear. Like all of life's most difficult decisions, the best way to approach it is not to go into it with preformulated ideas about what must be done, but to muddle through when the time comes.

That approach is definitely a lot harder than just pulling out the notarized form to verify which box has been checked. What makes us think it's all supposed to be so damned cut and dried? Can't we leave aside the legal forms and act in accordance with our God-given humanity for just this one thing? Dammit, it's right and natural that these things should be difficult, that they should be confusing, that they should require tears and tribulation.

So, assuming I'm not blessed with the good fortune of getting hit by a dump truck, when the time comes that it looks like I might be sliding irretrievably into the abyss, my poor wife's just going to have to pray and cry and be confused. No piece of paper is going to let her off the hook. But when she's done praying and crying and being confused, I trust that she'll make the right decision much more than I would ever trust some legal paper to make the decision for her. I trust her future judgment more than I trust my own present judgment, even assuming that a legal form written by an anonymous lawyer could capture even my present conceptions about the subject.

I wish Terri Schiavo had a spouse like mine.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that I would want to hang onto life at any cost for my own selfish sake, but I really do think we all have a God-given duty to keep up the struggle to live the life He gave us until it's beyond question that He has better plans for us. Exactly when that moment has arrived is something that can't be determined in advance according to some dry legal formula.

So in case anybody ever asks you, my message to the doctors is, "You haughty SOBs had better keep doing everything you can to keep my body and soul on speaking terms until either I or my wife tell you otherwise." And my message to the lawyers is, "You bastards just leave us the hell alone." If there's a living will composed of just those two sentences, then maybe I'll sign it. Otherwise, I think a living will is at best useless (accomplishing nothing that would not come about soon enough anyway) and at worst might very well get you killed off before your time.

posted by Bathus | 3/24/2005 09:28:00 PM
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Blogger Phil Dillon, Prairie Apologist said...


I'm glad to read your thoughts. I look for something from you any chance I get and was delighted to see your thoughts.

I'm only a layman, but I've felt that these things were absolutely worthless myself.

My wife has an aunt, 89, who is quite wealthy and in the early throes of alzheimers.

We've been amazed at how many of deceased husband's children can hardly "berar" seeing her in this state. They use polite language that tells the rest of my wife's family that they want this to end, mercifully of course.

The problem with this worthless bags of crap is that they've never worked a day in their lives. They need her to die so they can the style they're accustomed to. They've gone through their inheritances and now they need the money in her trust fund to keep going. Hence, she's just a "shell of herself." She's not "there."

You're right on and we need to get more from you.

I've got my own opinions about the current "test case." My reaction has been visceral more than logical and I've found it's made me a pariah to many of my fellow evangelicals. They tell me I'm not thinking clearly and I tell them they're so full of shit they squish when they walk. I, for one, don't like the idea of killing folks and then telling everyone we've done God a favor by doing the evil deed.

I'd appreciate it if you'd look my recent stuff over and letting me know what you think. Even if you tell me I'm wrong I think it will be with grace and truth which is more than I can say about my "brethren."

Again, good to see you're still in fighting trim.

4:46 PM, March 26, 2005  

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