Sunday, 7 June 2009

Is there life before death? On aged care and anxiety

A guest-post by Scott Stephens (an abridged version of this post was published in Eureka Street)

Sigmund Freud once wrote that the only feeling that doesn’t lie is anxiety. This is a hard thing for us to hear, because few feelings terrify us more than anxiety. Anxiety disrupts our carefully constructed and managed zones of comfort, and acts as a stubborn reminder of the world without. Anxiety, in other words, is the way are affected by the reality of the things we can’t change, the things that just won’t go away. Perhaps that’s why we try so hard to suppress it. We convince ourselves that, if we ignore it, if we sedate it, if we pretend it isn’t there, if we close our eyes, it will just go away. To be sure, one of the great luxuries of modern life is that we have so many ways of avoiding the things that make us feel anxious.

If we don’t like the traumatic images we are seeing on SBS World News, we change the channel and watch The Biggest Loser instead. If we don’t like what we are hearing on Radio National, there’s plenty of vulgar banality waiting on Triple M. If you don’t like all that talk you hear in church about sin, repentance and following Jesus, you can always stay home and watch Hillsong and feel much better about yourself. And that’s not even to mention our contemporary panoply of narcotics – from alcohol and prozac to retail therapy and comfort food.

But deep down, the anxiety never goes away. It’s always there, lurking just beneath the surface. As Freud explained, anxiety is immutable because, ultimately, it is the chill of death’s own inevitability. So what happens when we try to do to death what we do to our other, more contingent sources of anxiety, and just ‘change the channel’? How, in other words, do we try to forget our own mortality? The answer is devastatingly simple: nursing homes.

While there are, no doubt, some wonderful examples of aged care facilities that provide both community and dignity for those who have entered their twilight years and are in need of additional care, this is certainly not the experience of the majority of our elderly. For, increasingly, the elderly have become the ritual sacrifices that we as a society offer to the most implacable of our modern gods: what Hervé Juvin has described (in his mordant masterpiece, L’avènement du corps) as a kind of provisional immortality, a deathless existence realized in unlimited consumption.

Precisely because they are painful reminders of our mortality and fragility, and thus disrupt our sacrosanct comfort, so many of our elderly are consigned to sub-standard, and often degrading, care as a way of classifying them as not really alive, but ‘not yet dead’. The cold reality of aged care is that institutionalization has become a mechanism of our desire to forget death and our wish to go on living unperturbed in our capitalist nirvana.

But it is now imperative that we recognize that our collective failure to care for – and indeed to honour – the lives of our elderly degrades us all. Further, the systemic forgetting of the elderly is one of the great causes of the weakness and moral impoverishment in our culture. Lives tempered by age and shaped by hard-earned virtue are gifts of God, and it is to our detriment that we ignore them.

Perhaps it is time to revive the long Christian tradition that regarded old age as a theatre of virtue and courage. Aging was imagined as a kind of final transaction, whereby the elderly show what the good life looks like, having finally reached the point where they can drop all pretense and start telling the story of their lives honestly – or, to put it in a more Augustinian fashion, to tell the story of their lives as an unbroken confession of sin enabled by God’s grace.

But the elderly, in this perspective, also bear witness to what the good death looks like, how to face the completion of one’s life with courage and faith. Aquinas, for instance, regarded the martyr as the archetype for Christian courage in the face of death. All the while, those gathered round in loving community express their humble gratitude for these lives well lived, and urge them not to waver in their faith as they sprint toward their final prize.

There is a rather surprising fictional counterpart to this Christian tradition in the final volume of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The children, Lyra and Will, have made their perilous journey to the world of the dead on the pretense that Lyra must apologise to a friend she inadvertently betrayed, and for whose death she was responsible. Once there, it becomes clear that their destiny is much grander than that: their destiny is to defeat death itself by, quite literally, cutting a hole in the other side of this cavernous Sheol and thereby allowing the atoms of the ghosts of the dead to disperse into the benign indifference of the universe.

When one of the harpies – whose role is to torment the dead by hissing and spitting their venomous reminders of the dead’s failed lives – objects that releasing the dead would negate their very reason for being, one of the children’s traveling companions makes a remarkable suggestion:

‘Then’, said Tialys, ‘let’s make a bargain with you. Instead of seeing only the wickedness and cruelty and greed of the ghosts that come down here, from now on you will have the right to ask every ghost to tell you the story of their lives, and they will have to tell the truth about what they’ve seen and touched and heard and loved and known in the world. Every one of these ghosts has a story; every single one that comes down in the future will have true things to tell you about the world. And you’ll have the right to hear them, and they will have to tell you.’

Could not this rather purgatorial vocation be a model of the community’s care of the elderly? To listen with humble gratitude to lives that have finally learned to tell the truth about themselves, that have stripped themselves of every last shred of pretense, and that now simply need a loving community to hear.

However much our death-defined culture may wish to deny it, there is life before death. It may be weak and frail, but so are the other gifts that God has given us in order to demonstrate his grace, and confound our supposed strength. As the apostle Paul put it, ‘the weakness of God is stronger than human strength’.


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