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:
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
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.
I think this universe is God’s handiwork. It’s more like a tent than something permanent, but it’s “very good.” (Genesis 1:1–31; Psalms 102:26–28; Wisdom 11:22–26; Isaiah 40:22, 51:6; Catechism, 282–289)
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 in everything we can observe. (Catechism, 268, 279, 299, 300–310)
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.
Ethics, right and wrong, apply to illness. That doesn’t mean I think preventing disease is “a daring violation” of divine wrath.
Interesting as all that may be, it doesn’t tell me why someone in her 20s is terminally ill.
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?”
“‘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?'”
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,”
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))
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)
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)
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 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 1:26–28; 2:5–8; Catechism, 16, 339, 356–358, 2402, 2415–2418, 2456)
None of that helps me feel better about death and suffering. I’d be concerned if I started enjoying pain.
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, 9–11)
“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:
- “Death, Funerals — and Life”
(September 30, 2018)
- “Job’s Friends”
(June 24, 2018)
- “Misusing Opioids”
(July 7, 2017)
- “Alchemy, Science, Life, and Health”
(October 16, 2016)
- “Miscarriage, Stillbirth, and Hope”
(October 9, 2016)
- “How to Survive a Quarter-Life Crisis”
Jessica Girdwain, SELF (March 11, 2013)
- “The Losses and Suffering of Terminal Illness”
Paul Rousseau, MD; Mayo Clinic Proceedings (February 2000)
- quarterlife crisis
- “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices”
Sigmund Freud (1907) via Naomi Janowitz, UC Davis
- How I see it
- My take
- “Atra-Hasis: a Survey”
James R. Battenfield, Grace Theological Journal 12.2 (Spring, 1971)
- My views
- USCCB (United States Council of Catholic Bishops)
- Human Life and Dignity, End of Life
- Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia: Beyond Terminal Illness
- Testimony on Pain Relief Promotion Act of 2000
- Respect Life Program
- Human Life and Dignity, End of Life
- Hospice care: Comforting the terminally ill
End of Life, Mayo Clinic
- “The Pain Relief Promotion Act: Will It Spell Death to ‘Death With Dignity’ Or Is It Unconstitutional?”
Joy Fallek, Fordham Urban Law Journal 1739 (2000)