I Don't Want to Be an Expert on My Cancer
I read the novel 20 or more years ago: The Good Husband by Gail Godwin, an Episcopalian who still lives in the Hudson Valley. The intellectual woman at the center of the novel is diagnosed with breast cancer, rather far advanced. She decides to forego treatment, saying something like: I don’t want to spend the rest of my life becoming an expert on my cancer.
So she approaches death neither denying it nor focusing on it. For the time she has left, she has life and (hence the title) a good husband. I remember thinking this was a brave and not necessarily correct moral choice. We have a moral duty to preserve our life for the sake of what God wants us to do. But we are not obliged to try at any cost to prolong our life. So it could be exactly right to refuse treatments.
What I recall as particularly interesting in this novel was the main character’s attitude to her approaching death. She did not want to become an expert on it! She had other things to do!
Death is an undeniable reality. But we all know that modern medicine presents us with moral temptations, a main one being that if we just eat the right things, and take the right prescriptions, and, and, and . . . then death can be pushed off indefinitely into the future.
There is another cost that, perhaps, we don’t reckon with seriously enough. It is cost of focusing our attention upon such things as diet, activity, tests, follow-up appointments, more tests, more adjustments, more appointments. All that takes a lot of attention (and to an extent, it is our moral duty to attend). But at what cost?
Godwin’s character said: I don’t want to give my cancer that much attention. It will kill me, but in the meantime I will do other things that I can do.
We professional religious people (priests like yours truly) are often preaching to ourselves. I return again and again to Psalm 90: So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom. Not: that we may apply our hearts to the odds and options before us as we face our mortality. Wisdom: that’s what matters.
I think: I’m on the far side of 50 now (on the very far side, actually, even the far side of 60, but who’s counting?) and so I’m definitely beyond the midpoint of my earthly life. What is wisdom? What do I want to be doing the rest of my days? What does God want me to do? What should I be about for the time that remains, whatever it may be?
That’s a great question, whether we’ve received a cancer report or not.
Out & About. I am to preach on Sunday, August 11, at the traditional services of Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.
On the Web. I recently reviewed the book Modern Kinship, which styles itself as a Christian guide to queer marriage. Why the review? I’ve been thinking about marriage (and friendship, and kinship) for some time, and it was a chance to lay down some markers. I’m not keen on the book, but I’m also not keen on a lot of heterosexual marriage either. Here’s the review: https://livingchurch.org/covenant/2019/07/16/are-kinship-and-marriage-synonymous/
What Theologians Read. This week I read the Autumn 2015 issue of City Journal. (I told you I live in the past!) While still focused on New York City, this 25th anniversary issue is on the American city, with articles on Nashville, Buffalo, Baltimore . . . and even Oklahoma City. You can peruse it here: https://www.city-journal.org/magazine?issue=209 . The people of God, the prophet Jeremiah says, are to care for the cities where we live; and the kingdom to come, of course, will be a city descending from heaven to earth. This journal is a bit wonkish for my tastes, but (agree or disagree) I admire its care to advance humane urban life.