Summary: The message is part three of a series on end of life issues and deals issues surrounding dignity.
ETHICS AT THE END OF LIFE:
GUARDING OUR DIGNITY
Sunday, September 1, 2002
Today we will conclude a series on end-of-life issues. This message is hard but necessary. A large segment of our society is advocating that we should terminate our lives when things get difficult or when we fear pain and the loss of dignity. Unless we understand this issue as a church and as a people, we will be unable to answer the questions people pose and we will lose this issue and our society to this strong undercurrent.
One reason that people justify taking a person’s life is the fear of pain. A better solution is to realize that every pain medicine exists that is needed to alleviate all types of pain. We have the technology to keep people from suffering, and there are a lot of doctors and hospitals who understand this.
There are other types of pain that we often mistake for physical pain: emotional pain, relational pain, and spiritual pain–realizing we are mortal. This is a dark hole if you don’t have hope in God. Those who advocate terminating one’s life are those who simply want to avoid confronting God. This is hard for me to understand because when you confront God, you find light and hope and life. There is nothing to fear, and yet so many fear confronting their own mortality.
Today we will discuss the issue of dignity. In a nutshell, losing my dignity is the fear of behaving in a way that is contradictory to my rational self. The prototypical example that we use is an Alzheimer’s patient. A lady I know named Grace was one of the best accountants in the county in which I lived. Because of Alzheimer’s disease, she doesn’t know who she is or who anyone is. She exists in a world that no one understands. Is that reality a strong enough justification to permit a person to end their life or the life of another in clear contradiction of Exodus 20:13 which tells us, “You shall not murder.” If not, is there a better solution?
What is the probability that you will lose your rational self? Well, five percent of the general population will enter a nursing home, so 95% of us will never see that. Of those in the nursing home, 50% are there because they have outlived everyone they know and there’s no one to care for them. They are there just for that purpose. They are otherwise rational and are doing just fine. Forty percent of patients in nursing homes are Alzheimer’s patients. If you compute that out, the percentage is 1.25% that you could develop Alzheimer’s. Another study states that ten percent of us will experience some form of senility.
Senility, however, they are finding is not a product of aging. It is a product of your lifestyle. Like Galatians 6:7 reminds us, you will reap what you sow. I was reminded of this recently. I was having breakfast with a retired pastor who is 80 years old. I thought he was 55 or 60. He asked me, “Are you exercising?” I said, “No. I have four children now and that’s all the exercise I can handle.” He said, “I am reaping the benefits of what I sowed earlier in my life. You need to exercise, and you will reap the benefits. If you don’t, you will reap the negative consequences.”
The same thing is true of senility. If we are really concerned about losing our dignity, instead of taking our lives later on, we need to do some things right now. We need to live a healthy lifestyle. That means quit smoking, quit drinking excessively, lose weight, don’t abuse legal or illegal drugs, eat right, exercise, have regular check-ups and use your mind regularly. If you do these things, you can avoid the fear of losing your rational self.
You might say that you know someone who has done all these things and still became irrational and lost their dignity. This can be a blessing in a way because if you are in that state, you don’t know it. They call Alzheimer’s the “painless disease” because there is no pain. The greatest pain is borne by the family and friends who knew what the person was like in the past.
In every case, no one perceives this person as having lost their dignity. Why? Because we know that what we see is not the person that we knew. We know that what we see is the disease, so we uphold their dignity. We love and care for them because we know that it is the illness.
The bottom line is that I can’t promise you that you won’t become senile or that you won’t lose your dignity. I will say that the probability is 1.25%. Can you trust God with your life in the future when you have 98.75% probability on your side with God?