The government’s attitude to death is paradoxical. While imposing restrictive rules on the population last year to prevent us from risking our lives in the lockdown bought on by the “pizza strain” of coronavirus, the parliament of South Australia was drafting a euthanasia bill to permit us to end our lives. Voting on the legislation will occur this week.
I’ve had cause to contemplate death lately. My grandfather passed away in February.
He was a good Grandad. Having grown up in the Netherlands in the Second World War, he had the best stories.
He was also a role-model of the idea that hard work is its own reward. As a young man he worked at a cement company, then in the railways. Then he trained at Seminary, being by nature quite academic, and served as a Pastor for many years. But when his years of ministry ended, he immediately got another job – mopping floors at a supermarket. He didn’t consider any necessary job ‘beneath him’, but was determined to work and to serve. After a few years, he found himself managing the supermarket’s car park.
We retire for a reason, however. Unfortunately, age brings difficulty and indignity; it’s not easy and sometimes leads to conflict with loving relatives who wish they could make it so. Increasingly we pester or older relatives, to ‘take it easy’, ‘realise how old you are’, ‘stop taking risks’. ‘Let me do that; you’ll hurt yourself’.
On one hand, I see that the elderly will benefit if they have humility to accept their new limitations. It is, often enough, pride that comes before their falls. But on the other hand, I aspire to be as dedicated to service as some of my older relatives. And part of me aspires to expend myself in such service to the very last breath. The Apostle Paul described his impending death as, ‘being poured out as a drink offering’. How can I take that away from someone? The privilege of pouring themselves out until the last drop. Maybe sometimes it’s not pride that leads to their exertions, but rather they’ve ‘counted the cost’.
There is a close link between what one will live for, and what one will die for. Those who lived to serve their family would die in battle to protect it. In Church history, there were many martyrs who lived to serve God and died rather than deny Him. Literature is full of death, both tragic (Julius Caesar) and romantic (The Notebook), noble (Braveheart) and ignoble (Scarface).
Unfortunately, I don’t think our society is encouraging many people to live with a sense of duty and service any longer. The old nursery rhymes that warned against indolence and praised valour are being re-written and replaced with modern fables about fulfilling your dreams and being yourself.
Don’t get me wrong, aggregate Human nature hasn’t changed, and in fact, it is not within our power to change. Nevertheless, human nature has different outlets in different eras. I believe that the overriding character of our current era is captured by this stereotype: spoilt rich kids.
“Rich” because we have significant means that we’ve received at no cost. Technology has permitted this; Australia is so affluent that last year we stood down almost our entire workforce for weeks on end with a ‘stay-at-home’ order, and we didn’t starve to death. That would not have been possible a few hundred years ago.
“Spoilt” because someone else has always tried to make us happy. Whether conscious or unconscious, this engenders the attitude that other people in the world are obliged to create for us the conditions for our personal happiness. Hence we speak about what millennial employees “demand”. And we developed the ludicrous notion of the “right to not be offended” in lieu of the wisdom of “not taking offence”.
“Kids” because we’re not growing up. Children are meant to ‘launch’. If someone’s childhood is designed to prepare them for adulthood, they would be trained to increase independence, take responsibility and have a sense of duty. Rather than, like a newborn baby, continuously measuring the world around them by their own emotional state.
Can you imagine sixteen-year-old men today lying about their age for the privilege of dying in a war? Today, lying about one’s age is a technique used for access to alcohol, not valour.
And yet, dying is still something our young are willing to do. I heard several years ago that suicide had increased. Wanting specific numbers I looked it up and discovered that this was not true—the suicide rate was the same one hundred years ago. But then I looked at the breakdown of statistics by age. It used to be that the suicide rate increased with age, now it decreases with age. Why are our young the least eager to live?
Or maybe this is the wrong question. Maybe the right question is: what do our young have to live for? This last year activists marched for lives that “matter”. First it was ‘black lives matter’. The conservatives quipped, ‘all lives matter’ (which was apparently racist). Babylon bee came up with the provocative, ‘born lives matter’. But what does it mean to “matter”? It’s always the start of that phrase that gets scrutiny, not the end; yet defining “matter” is infinitely more important. Does your life matter? Does mine?
The ‘spoilt rich kid’ value system has this at its core: me, in this moment. It presumes that the world ought to satisfy my instantaneous physical and emotional needs. But, of course, the world is not such a place, and never has been. If we expect our contentment to come from satisfaction of our desires, rather than resilience to our circumstances, we will soon be sucking against a vacuum. If to ‘matter’ means to be served by others, rather than to serve others, then you cannot control how much you matter and you will never matter enough.
Spoilt Rich Kid is a stereotype, and thank God there are many exceptions. But it is also a culture.
Our government, and most governments in the Anglosphere, reacted in the pandemic last year to protect life. And yet, perhaps even without realising it, they imposed on us this insipid modern value system that values being alive but doesn’t have a reason for living. The same value system that sees many young people stalled in their parents’ homes into their thirties saw us all locked in our homes.
Yet some of us would rather walk in the park and enjoy nature and risk the virus than stay home. Some of us would rather sing at church and risk the virus than stay silent. Some of us would rather be visited by our neighbours and risk the virus than stay alone. Some of our elderly would rather be visited by their grandchildren and risk the virus, than never see their grandchildren again.
If the government had allowed us to apply our own values, they would not have denied us the right to take our own risks.
The initial government action was ostensibly out of a desire to avoid spread of the pandemic. Our personal sacrifices, such as mask-wearing and staying at home, were collective selflessness—meant to protect others, and protect the healthcare system. The collective good was the greater good.
Yet when a “flattened curve” turned out to be a mere “0.1 per cent of the population”, that reasoning fell flat. It fell even flatter in countries other than Australia where the virus ran amuck anyway, and no more so in places without lockdowns than places with them! It fell flat when the individual collateral was shown to outweigh the collective benefit and not by a small margin.
It has been many months and many scientific improvements since the ‘slow the spread’ argument ceased making sense. It is now apparent that those who take the risks are those who make them. The government has frequently spoken of an ‘abundance of caution’, by which it has imposed on everyone an extremely low-risk tolerance. Yet history has relied on people who take risks.
Many people have risked their lives in past medical emergencies, and saved others in the process. Christians in particular have helped out in infectious disease hospitals and in war zones. Samaritan’s Purse led the efforts in Ebola-stricken West Africa when no other organisations were there. Greater love has no one than this: than to lay down his life for a friend.
So I also have a paradoxical attitude to death. I’m opposed to euthanasia, and yet I would permit everyone to take their own risks with Covid. Why? Though we might risk dying, we are living.
I’m not opposed to euthanasia because of some ‘pro-life’ motivation that would happily lock people in their homes just to keep them alive. I call myself pro-life, but I hate the phrase. It implies I just like the idea of people being alive. Actually, I want more for people than that.
We all will die. I will die. You will die. But worse than the tragedy of death is the tragedy of a person dying for the same cause that he lived for: himself.
Nick Kastelein is a Christian and a conservative who grew up and lives in Adelaide where he works for an engineering consultancy.
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