Sickness, Death, God, Love and Questions

Just when you thought it was safe to grow up —

Folks in their 20s may run afoul of a quarter-life crisis: the doubt and disappointment of student loans, dull careers and iffy relationships.

Others learn that they’re terminally ill.

I learned about Michelle Pittman at Mass last Sunday.

An inoperable brain tumor will kill her.

She and her family have unexpected expenses. That’s why a Michelle Pittman Benefit fund was set up at a local bank:

Michelle Pittman Benefit
c/o MN National Bank
PO Box 306
Sauk Centre, MN 56378


Michelle Pittman’s situation and the benefit fund are the important part of this post.

I’d planned on writing about assorted crises, including terminal illness.1 That started me thinking about life, death and not having all the answers:


Life


(From Ramie Liddle, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

I’m not sure which would be harder: being told that I have a terminal disease, or that someone in my family does. Either way, it wouldn’t be welcome news.

Learning that they’re terminally ill, folks occasionally pick something from their bucket list: like the 90-year-old who went on a road trip.

Coping with impending death and other bad news isn’t new. Neither is thinking about it.

Over the last 28 centuries, folks like Adi Shankara, Ajita Kesakambali and Sigmund Freud added their views to humanity’s archives.

They agree that death happens, and little else. I figure that’s at least one step past the “denial” Kübler-Ross stage.

Maybe that’s better than getting stuck in Freud’s ‘three Rs:’ repression, regression and reaction. Western civilization’s current iteration seems to be getting over Freud’s view of religion as a “universal obsessional neurosis,” and that’s almost another topic.2

Questions

‘Why do we get sick?’

It’s not a simple question. There are several sorts of “why,” for starters.

We’ve learned that Hippocrates was right about disease and divine anger issues. Humorism, not so much.

Learning more about Varro’s “animalcules” eventually removed bloodletting from “The Principles and Practice of Medicine,” and that’s another topic.3

Blaming God, or the gods, for disease and disasters remains popular in spiritual niche markets. Like the Atra-Hasis epic, where Enlil deals with noisy humans by ordering our extermination. Several times. We survived, thanks to divine infighting, and that’s yet another topic.4

Where was I? Impending death, Freud, bloodletting and Enlil. Right.

My culture’s versions of divine retribution traditionally had God smiting folks as punishment: for opening a casino, avoiding smallpox, whatever.

“…There was the burgeoning Gulf Coast gambling industry, with a new casino that was to open on Labor Day weekend….”
(“Katrina: God’s Judgment on America,” Anonymous, Restore America (2005) via Beliefnet)

“Smallpox is a visitation from God; but the cowpox is produced by presumptuous man; the former was what Heaven ordained, the latter is, perhaps, a daring violation our of holy religion.”
(A physician’s reaction to Dr. Edward Jenner’s experiments in developing a vaccine for smallpox, (1796) via Psychological Sciences, Vanderbilt University)

Believing that God smites bad people with disease might be comforting. Until the believer gets sick.

Sooner or later, we’ll learn that sickness, pain and death happen to folks. No matter how nice we’ve been.

Some figure that God shouldn’t let that happen, so God isn’t there. Believing that may feel good, too, for different reasons.

Reality

The way I see it — backing up a bit here — I’m as sure as I can be that reality is real, that I’m not a figment of your imagination. Or vice versa.

I’m also sure that God exists: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1, 232260)

I think this universe is God’s handiwork. It’s more like a tent than something permanent, but it’s “very good.” (Genesis 1:131; Psalms 102:2628; Wisdom 11:2226; Isaiah 40:22, 51:6; Catechism, 282289)

I think God keeps this universe going. And that it follows knowable physical laws. Paying attention to God’s handiwork is a good idea, since there’s a facet of God’s truth is in everything we can observe. (Catechism, 268, 279, 299, 300310)

Natural process like fire and gravity exist. Learning how they work doesn’t bother me, since I think God creates everything. Including the physical laws we notice. And those we haven’t yet, for that matter.

It’s like St. Thomas Aquinas said. God makes things happen and creatures make things happen. It’s “and,” not “or.” (March 2, 2018)

Aquinas called that sort of thing “secondary causes.” He’d gotten the idea from St. Augustine of Hippo, and that’s yet again another topic.

Anyway, secondary causes are creatures acting and changing in knowable ways, following laws written into this creation. (Catechism, 301308, 339)

Ethics, right and wrong, apply to illness. That doesn’t mean I think preventing disease is “a daring violation” of divine wrath.

Being healthy is okay. So is being sick. How I act: that’s what matters. It’s even okay to help others get or stay healthy. (Catechism, 1509, 22882291, 22922296)

Interesting as all that may be, it doesn’t tell me why someone in her 20s is terminally ill.

Death and Deuteronomy

People suffer and die. I don’t know why. Not in detail, not in the sense of knowing what purpose someone’s death serves.

As “Gaudium et spes,” “Joy and Hope,” says, it’s part of our life’s riddle.

“…It is in the face of death that the riddle [of] a human existence grows most acute….”
(“Gaudium et spes,” Pope Saint Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

I don’t have an answer to that riddle. Not a complete one. I do have a few clues.

Given what our Lord said, I figure that early or unexpected death isn’t necessarily the victim’s fault.

“‘Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?”
(Matthew 7:13)

“‘Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?'”
(Luke 13:4)

Even so, I could assume that the fire and brimstone brigade are right, that God has anger management issues. Or shares their views on gambling and smallpox, and has a taste for indiscriminate retribution.

Or I could believe that since a loving God wouldn’t let folks suffer, God doesn’t exist.

Appealing as those answers apparently are, I don’t think they’re right. I’m also quite sure that I don’t know everything. God’s God, I’m not, and I’ve said that before. Often.

I don’t have all the answers. I do, however, have access to wisdom accumulated over several millennia. Some of which keeps getting forgotten and re-learned.

The importance of passing on vital knowledge to children, for instance:

“However, be on your guard and be very careful not to forget the things your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your heart as long as you live, but make them known to your children and to your children’s children,”
(Deuteronomy 4:9)

The next bit, Deuteronomy 4:10, says we should fear God: which may account for some of my culture’s more enthusiastic hellfire sermons.

Deuteronomy’s “fear” isn’t being scared silly. It’s more like respect, reverence and awe. (Catechism, 1806, 1828, 1831; General Audience, Pope Francis (June 11, 2014); “Fear of the Lord,” Angelus, Pope St. John Paul II (June 11, 1989))

‘Our Helicopter Parent Who art in Heaven?!’

I figure God is large and in charge. (Psalms 115:3; Catechism, 268)

The Almighty could keep me from making daft decisions, or clean up whatever mess I make — all without me lifting a finger.

That might be a nifty daydream. But would I really want God to fix everything?

Maybe not. Particularly since if God had cleaned up everyone’s mess, I wouldn’t be here.

Again, I think God creates everything, including this universe. I’ve talked about the Bible, Big Bang and using my brain before. (January 12, 2018)

Basically, I can think Genesis 3:119 is true without assuming it was written by a poetically-challenged American.

You know how that story goes. The first of us had it made, with only one simple rule. Then we decided we’d rather do our own thing. The man tried blaming his wife and God, which worked out about as well as you’d expect. (July 23, 2017)

When the first of us put our preferences above God’s, I figure the Almighty could have decided to (metaphorically) hit the ‘delete’ key and make another reality.

That’s not what happened.

Even if God had decided to keep us and this universe, we might have lost at least part of what makes us human.

We didn’t.

We were, and are, created “in the image of God.” We had, and have, dominion over this world: and our job, taking care of the place. That job comes with authority and responsibility. (Genesis 1:2628; 2:58; Catechism, 16, 339, 356358, 2402, 24152418, 2456)

We got off to a bad start. We’re still dealing with its consequences. The mess we’re in isn’t God’s fault. And God never forgot us. (Catechism, 30, 55, 390, 396401)

None of that helps me feel better about death and suffering. I’d be concerned if I started enjoying pain.

Pain

A few more ideas, and I’m done.

Life and health are “precious gifts” from God. Getting and staying healthy is a good idea. Within reason. Painkillers are okay.5 (Catechism, 15061510, 2279, 22882289, 2292)

Then, no matter what we do or how we’ve lived, we die. What happens later can be good news or bad news. (Catechism, 991, 997, 10211037, 10421050)

That, and the few clues we have about what’s next, are among the reasons I’m grateful for God’s patience.

“When mortals finish, they are only beginning,
and when they stop they are still bewildered.
“The number of their days seems great
if it reaches a hundred years.
“Like a drop of water from the sea and a grain of sand,
so are these few years among the days of eternity.
“That is why the Lord is patient with them
and pours out his mercy on them.”
(Sirach 18:7, 911)

“But as it is written:
‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him,'”
(1 Corinthians 2:9)

I’ve talked about that, and vaguely-related topics, before:


1 Life and death:

2 Dealing with reality:

3 Medicine, mostly:

4 Deities and disasters:

5 Life, death and viewpoints:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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4 Responses to Sickness, Death, God, Love and Questions

  1. I suddenly remember having to face discussions about theodicy and all that complex stuff recently. Not really easy stuff to think about, especially when the people discussing it are usually or, at the very least, prominently against religion. Even though I do understand and even praise that they would rather just have us humanity stop blaming others for our own faults, I guess it shows how we still have a long way to go when the attempts to actualize that intent go as far as thinking of God as a supposedly imaginary or false concept born out of stupidity and insanity. I think I’ve realized something about religion, though, no matter what sort it is: It shows how much we need a higher power to look up to. Atheists can even say that they don’t believe in one, but at the same time, they still have ideals – greater things – they look up to, nah? And as for considering ourselves lowly and useless while also considering ourselves the highest power, well, that isn’t really as great as it seems, as far as I know.

    • Not easy at all. When the ‘why does bad stuff happens’ question pops into my head, I’ll sometimes – often? – remind myself that I don’t and can’t know everything God does, and try to sidestep the issue.

      Seeing God and religion as a product of stupidity and/or insanity doesn’t take folks like Thomas Aquinas and Hildegard of Bingen into account. But I’ve run into enough loudly-religious folks who seem determined to prove the – scoffers? – right to have a little sympathy for them. Not agree – sympathize. A bit.

      Agreed. Folks will, I think, search for something to look up to.

      – – – And I’m not at all sure that considering ourselves, or humanity in general as lowly and useless is a good idea. As I see it, we’re pretty hot stuff. Not God-level, but we’re “little less than a god,” as Psalms 8:6 puts it. Which is a bit scary, and another topic. 🙂

Thanks for taking time to comment!