Flipside: Putting piety out of its misery

I had attended an editorial meeting during which the one-year anniversary of former prime minister Ariel Sharon's debilitating stroke had been discussed.

"How could I make such a decision, let alone initiate it?" wailed a distraught friend with an aging Labrador retriever, upon returning home from a Tel Aviv animal hospital, where her pet had been treated for dehydration. This, she explained, was the result of the dog's having been too weak and disoriented to make the journey to its water dish during the night. While hooking up the infusion bottle, she recounted, the vet had given her a special kind of knowing - simultaneously questioning - glance, as if to ask her whether he should be putting a substance other than water in the drip. "Expecting me to play God!" my friend screeched, causing me to hold my cell phone at a safe distance from my ear. "Can you imagine that?" I didn't need to imagine it. Mere minutes before, I had attended an editorial meeting during which the one-year anniversary of former prime minister Ariel Sharon's debilitating stroke had been discussed. "What happens in the event that one of his sons favors taking him off his respirator, and the other one opposes it?" a colleague asked, unclear about the law in this case. "That's not happening," another answered. "They are in agreement about keeping him on it." "Why in the world are they doing that?" a third challenged. "He's never going to recover, is he?" "Is he still receiving a pension?" a fourth, fiscally minded, fellow wanted to know. "Yes," another said. "That's what's funding his medical bills." "But why prolong the suffering?" another shrugged, while some others nodded. What with work to be done, and little time in which to do it, the issue of just whose suffering was at the root of such ruminations was not raised. "MAYBE THE vet was suggesting that you should put Batya out of her misery," I comforted my friend half-heartedly, wondering how I would - will - deal with a similar predicament. My own elderly dog has developed a limp, which makes it difficult for him to manage the steps to and from the street. This, in turn, makes his prostate problems even more of a pain - to both of us. "Oh, baloney," my friend said, causing me to laugh and cringe. If there's one thing she and I share it's an aversion to false piety. Batya, she insisted, is being cared for, coddled and even carried where she needs to go - not an easy feat for a middle-aged woman with an 80-pound pet. "If anyone needs rescuing from misery," she hastened to point out, "It's me - but you didn't see anyone hinting that I might consider contacting Dr. Kevorkian for a little medical assistance." Not to worry, I assured her. By this time next year, angst and aching backs are sure to have been included in the "woe-list" of ills for which death is the only compassionate course of action. Not to worry, she assured me back. New Year's resolutions aside, there's no chance of her becoming so selfless as to put her dog "to sleep" - nor so selfish as to supplicate for same. She only hopes, she said, that her children don't have other plans for her. "God willing," I said, wishing God were taking a more active - or proactive - role these days than He appears to be. Or do I? God's mysterious ways work - well - both ways, after all. Humankind wouldn't be in the mess of having to make moral judgements about when life begins and when it ends if God hadn't created us with the curiosity and capability that compelled us to intervene in this process in the first place. Which is probably what all that "in His image" imagery is illustrating. Let's face it: Had Adam and Eve heeded His warning against eating from the Tree of Knowledge, they wouldn't have been distinguishable from any other mammal in the Garden of Eden. Nor would the rest of us be around here today to argue about it. Furthermore, left up to God, it is not only likely that our comatose premier would have died soon after his second massive stroke, but that he wouldn't have lived past the age of 40 at best. And that's only if he'd survived fatal diseases like strep throat in early childhood. If - that is - he'd made it through the birth canal unscathed. In other words, my friend needn't have been so outraged at the vet's implied suggestion that she "play God." Apparently, it's inherent in our nature to do - or at least grapple with - just that. THIS IS not to say that her irritation with human behavior on this score isn't warranted. Because, whether or not it is in our nature to play God, it is clearly our duty to play the cards He dealt us. And as skilled as we may have become at the former, we are pathetically poor at the latter. Celebrating life doesn't mean walking around cheerfully care-free. If it did, we could have spared ourselves the millstone of mortality and remained in Paradise, naked and blissfully unburdened by child or parent. Celebrating life means accepting those cards with responsibility and creativity, not with recklessness and complaint. The tendencies that make this trying task nigh impossible are self-satisfaction and self-pity - two nasties in appalling abundance. That we are blessed with the ability to manufacture medicine and machines which produce and prolong our own lives and those of our loved ones comes with the trial-filled territory that is our lot. Ruing it from a religious perspective is pointless. Using it from a secular one as an excuse to do away with a living, breathing being who has become difficult to tend to by imposing subjective definitions of "suffering" and "dignity" on that being, is worse than disingenuous. Faced with the kinds of dilemmas that are becoming more common with every scientific breakthrough, each of us plays God's game differently, praying our choices are the right ones. But none of us has the license to feel smug about them. That really is God's prerogative. ruthie@jpost.com