A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Death, Terri Schiavo, Rationality, and Faith

One of the hardest things for a Buddhist is the direct evaluation of other religions. We are taught that the irrational critique of people of other religious traditions is as destructive to our potential future as the critique of our own. In our view, mere sectarianism of any form is a deadly poison to who succumbs to it and, therefore, is to be avoided.

Thus I have refrained from much comment on the Terri Schiavo case so far because the essential issue is not a matter of whether a particular individual is left at last to die, but actually is a reality check of our emotional attitudes toward death itself.

In addition, it is another pitched emotional battle in the American Culture Wars between the militantly Christian and the aggressively secular. Under the circumstances, if it is to be handled by a Buddhist at all, it requires the psychological equivalent of a biohazard suit: a rationality and tolerance as pure as possible.

But, in addition to this, a man like myself, who has made the Bodhisattva Vow of obligation to relieve all suffering wherever it is possible to do so, has an obligation to speak if he has any confidence that he can maintain that rationality and tolerance. So since matters are coming to a conclusion, I will step forward.

The rational case against those who wish life support to stop is clear and simple. The question boils down to whether there is a Terri Schiavo left at all. Assume there isn't. Assume that all that was Terri Schiavo was located in the higher centers of the brain which are now destroyed and the body in the bed is mere breathing clay.

If this is so, there is no compelling reason not to maintain the life support save for the monetary expense of doing so and the emotional trauma to such family as is left. The family problem is not our business and the waste of resources is not so great that it need to command so much of our attention. We waste far more every day in Iraq. Fundamentally, I think the anti-intubation partisans are suffering from the doubt that Terri might still be there and suffering the most appalling thing they can imagine, a fate, in their eyes truly worse than death.

The only thing to add to this is that if, under this assumption that Terri is truly gone, there is no rational case for stopping life support, there is no rational case against it either.

The only rational case for keeping the body alive is that there is a Terri Schiavo still there. The question then becomes whether there will be a Terri Schiavo anywhere if the body in the bed dies. If "all human life is too important to terminate for any reason" and the death of the body in the bed will mean the complete end of Terri Schiavo, then obviously life should be maintained.

But I don't think my Christian friends rallying round to fight for the continued intubation of Terri Schiavo would say they think this. They would undoubtedly say that if Terri Schiavo does die she will continue to exist and will face the judgment of God. Under the circumstances, then, the question becomes, Can Terri, in her present condition, do anything further about that fact?

For we must remember that Terri's condition is far worse than even the most hardened of criminals in our prison system, the ones who are kept exclusively in solitary confinement in a cell 23 hours a day, with only an hour of exercise and fresh air in an open air cage. Such prisoners are almost always permitted to read, if they wish, and are not deprived of religious reading, or religious instruction, if they seek it.

In the better prisons, they even have television, presumably including its Christian evangelists, to watch to pass the idle hours. They can convert, if they choose, pray, and seek forgiveness from God. At present, Terri cannot do any of these things, she is completely inaccessible to religious choice and religious action.

This is why, as a Buddhist, I remain neutral in the controversy. On the one hand, however long Terri lives, intubated or no, will be determined by the karma that is ripening in her present situation and, when that is exhausted she will die in any case.

On the other hand, she has little or no chance to create new karma for good or ill, and she will not have that chance until she dies, passes through the Bardo of Death, and takes a new rebirth. So, at the moment, she is merely, and rather pointlessly, marking time, and has essentially lost what we call "the precious human birth" which is precious solely because religious action is possible.

Moreover, the only reason thousands of people are trying to keep her alive is the ripening of an immense amount of Terri's good karmic accumulation from past lives. After she dies none of this good karma will be available to her any longer--it will have already been spent. So there is a distinct possibility that the longer she lives here, the worse her situation will be in future lives. No one can know this, of course, but that is a reasonable conclusion from the Buddhist point of view.

So about the intubation issue I remain neutral.

The clearest case and most rational case for intubation, made from the Christian perspective, is the one made by the Vatican, and is exactly the same case that they make for prohibiting abortion, contraception, and human stem cell research. And the same case, as well, is used by them to promote abandoning capital punishment. Given its premises, it is a perfectly rational and reasonable case, and this is so in all cases, including that of the death penalty. I seriously wonder if most of Terri's partisans would allow their own logic to carry them that far.

After all, the one thing that strikes me in all the uproar is the level of personal hostility from the intubation partisans toward the people who disagree with them: Michael Schiavo, first and foremost, and Judge Greer of Florida after that. Between the constant insinuations that Terri's condition is actually a murder by Michael Schiavo gone wrong, which Judge Greer, as an accessory after the fact, wants to help him make right, and the anonymous death threats to the Judge himself, we are far beyond the rational religious case that my Christian friends make for continuing intubation.

Under these circumstances, I can only ask how much uproar the Catholic wing of the intubation partisans would be making if it were Michael Schiavo who was in a coma. And I would recommend reading a marvelous Father Brown story by G.K. Chesterton touching on the issue, The Chief Mourner of the Marne.

And it isn't just the people who have actually acted in this matter that are targets of this personal animosity. MSNBC recently published a commentary by Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, where he argues for the removal of the life support. It is a cogent and restrained view of the other side of the controversy than the Vatican's. A conservative Christian blogger I know had this to say about it:

In reading between the lines on this piece, I see a guy who gave the issue a cursory glance and said, "Oh, pro-life conservatives. Well, we know all about THEM! Woman's vegetative! They should just deal with it. Husband's been targeted by some great organized effort. Just like the rest of the conservative Bushitler youths."

You can read the actual piece here. If you do, it is perfectly plain that there is no need whatever to "read between the lines" of the article. Caplan clearly means all he says and says all he means. He may easily be wrong, but he is not inconsistent or thoughtless, and he is only talking about the bioethical merits of the case of Terri Schiavo, and, in fact, talks about them in far more detail than a "cursory glance" would allow him to.

He is not talking about "pro-life conservatives" or "Bushitler youths" and there is absolutely no good reason to say that he is, other than to make the ad homenium argument of the title of the post I have quoted: Another intellectually lazy PhD gives his opinion.

As I have said, what is really at issue here is our attitudes toward death and not life. The emotive potency for Christians of the issue, as opposed to the rational argument about it, stems from one source: unacknowledged religious doubt about death, fundamental doubt about whether Terri Schiavo will merely cease to exist when her body dies.

I think this doubt is far more prevalent and pervasive among them than my Christian friends would find themselves able to admit. We can read a lot about religious faith in America. In fact, we pride ourselves on being "more religious" than, say, Europe, because more of us are willing to assert a belief in God, if asked by a pollster, however much God is really on our minds at any other time.

But we read very little about religious doubt. It is a sensitive area that nobody in contemporary life, Christian or not, seems willing to genuinely address. But in the Christian tradition itself, if I may say so from outside it, it is an issue of overwhelming importance, embodied in the Last Seven Words from the Cross. And I think religious doubt is the real source of the emotionally overwrought dimension of the American Culture Wars, and the case of Terri Schiavo.

I think, also, that I have watched the process firsthand in the death, a couple of years back, of my next door neighbor Fred (not his real name, of course) the evangelical Christian. When he first started to become sick, I happened to purchase a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha to decorate my garden. I placed it where I thought it looked best from the rear picture window of my house, showing the statue in three-quarter profile, looking over my recently dug fishpond, and, coincidentally, happening to face the Buddha toward my neighbor Fred's house.

I learned later that he was immensely troubled by this, that he thought I had placed the statue where it would "stare at him" every time he came out into his backyard. He was, I guess, "reading between the lines" of my landscaping. For many months I kept hearing this from others, though never from him, and wondering why on earth a neighbor's Buddha statue facing his house would be of any serious concern for a Christian man whose life was clearly ebbing. Surely he had more important things to do than worry about my garden.

He addressed the matter to me indirectly, by obliquely trying to evangelize me. Once when we were both out in our backyards discussing his pear tree, he abruptly and bewilderingly remarked that the reason he was Christian is that he "wanted to be right" about God.

Perhaps he wanted it too much, and could not bring himself to face his own doubts. I think so.

Moreover, I strongly suspect that he carried his self-hidden doubts past the death of his body and they gave him great problems. What the traditional Buddhist teachings say is that for as long as seven weeks following death the psychological components of your mind from your recent life play themselves out before you as a long continuous dream of hallucinations where you can no longer keep hidden anything you have refused to acknowledge in your embodied life.

Because we shun death, and hide it away as a culture, we lose touch with what most people in other cultures know: following a death, and, particularly, a lingering death, there is a residue, an atmosphere, sometimes lasting a few days, sometimes lasting several weeks, and permeated with the feelings of the deceased as he went through the death process. That atmosphere lingered long around the death of my neighbor Fred, and it was not pleasant. I felt it frequently myself as an anguished, fear ridden, chill.

So as I said to my Catholic friends, read or reread, and think about The Chief Mourner of the Marne, I say to my Protestant friends, read or reread, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and to both I say consider the possibility that your religious doubt may ultimately be as important for you as your religious faith, and you should look at it directly and courageously while you still can.

Having made the Bodhisattva Vow, after his death I prayed for Fred, as I pray for Terri, and I pray for all that the journey in the Bardo of Death that they may reach ultimate, unending, and completely non-referential happiness. And, also having made that vow, I know from direct experience that positive engagement with all of our ideas and emotions, whether the reference points we still cling to tell us they are "good" or "bad", is the true source which will lead to that ultimate and non-referential happiness.

For to have non-referential happiness, you have to be willing to totally give up those reference points and engage in what my teachers call the Journey Without A Goal.

May Fred, Terri, and all sentient beings find the path that is the start to that Journey.


Blogger Dave Schuler said...

Too many Catholics, I fear, misunderstand what the relevant Catholic teaching on this is. If it, indeed, was Terri's will that extraordinary means not be used to prolong her life, an injury was done her back in 1990 when the feeding tube was first inserted. Catholic teaching does not hold that when there is doubt there is a pre-disposition towards life (or rather that's only one of the considerations). Or that life must be grasped at at all costs.

If Terri can be fed by normal means, mercy would seem to require that that be done. If she can't, allowing her to die is not wrong.

11:27 AM  

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