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So, things are actually fairly calm here this morning.  There’s been all kinds of weather lately, and then my mother has been ill.  It’s hard to know, at her age, what you’re looking at when people tell you that she has this infection or that.  Something that would mean not much of anything for me or one of the boys is a very big deal for her. 

But things seem to be improving, so I’ve got my fingers crossed.

We’re also at the stage where the “medical professionals”–the scare quotes exist because we’re not talking only about doctors and nurses these days.  We’ve also got social workers, hospice workers, “end of life counselors” and a whole array of other people who seem to think they have the right and the duty to sit in for the kind of thing you would have, in other days, talked over for yourself or discussed with a priest.

My general feeling that social work and clinical psychology have become a rival or substitute religion to the older stuff has been mightily supported by the evidence.  What these people hand out has nothing to do with “science” and everything to do with attempting to mold emotions into what they’ve been taught is “appropriate.”

And like true believers everywhere, they have no idea how enormously offensive they’re being, or how intrusive.  It seems to be an axiom of the profession that expressing your grief–even (or maybe especially) to total strangers–and avoiding pain are the two great goals of the “end of life process.”

Politicians yap about “privacy” when all they’re talking about is the government checking into the book buying habits of suspected terrorists–and I get that.  I’m opposed to the government checking into the book buying habits of anyone.

But the real assault on privacy comes with the fact that it is impossible to get rid of these people, and impossible to get these people to treat you like an actual human being.

Their idea of “respect” for your “culture” is, well–just that.  It’s treating a lifetime of commitment to an idea as if it were just another irrational emotion like any other irrational emotion, to be humored rather than understood, respected, or even opposed.  Opposition would work better than this, because opposition would mean we both understood that the question mattered. 

It doesn’t help that most of these people seem to know as much about human beings as I do about carburetors, to use a comparison I’ve used before.

I’ll revert to my original contention that these sorts of “mental health professionals” would know more about how the human mind worked if they ditched the clinical psych courses and spent four to six years reading Shakespeare, Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, Hemingway and, you know, what the hell, Barbara Cartland.

There’s a lot wrong with Barbara Cartland, but she had a pretty shrewd idea about how a great many women think.  Hell, Christie had a pretty shrewd idea of how lots of people think.

At any rate, the one thing I have to admit is that there has been no pressure, this time,  to put my mother out of her misery as if she were an ailing cat. 

I stress the “this time,” though, because as sure as God or evolution made little green apples, that line of argument will be back again any day now.   Along with not knowing much about how actual people actually work and not being able to even imagine any kind of intellectual commitment other than their own, these people tend to be totally flabbergasted by the idea that suffering is not always the worst thing that can happen to you. 

The idea that some people choose it just makes them think that the persons in question need therapy and counseling to rid them of their self-destructive addictions and raise their self esteem.

And I have responded to all of this by giving another whack at a translation of Augustine’s City of God, which I tend to think of as a great big mountain I have to climb someday, but that I almost never feel the need to get started on.

I’ve got one of those convoluted relationships with City of God.  I had to read a great deal of it, in Latin, in college and graduate school, but until a couple of years ago I was never able to find an unabridged edition of it.  I read a very abridged edition of it when I was in high school, published in paperback by Doubleday’s Anchor Books.  I didn’t realize at the time that it was abridged, or I wouldn’t have gone for it.

The edition I have now I got a few years ago when Amazon threw it up as a suggestion.  I went looking to see if it was the complete work or not, and I got a little nervous about the fact that it nowhere said that it was unabridged.

Then I looked at the product info and found that the edition was 1197 pages long, and I figured that if it was abridged, I might not want to know about it.

Anyway, the thing has been knocking around in my house and my luggage and my big totebag on and off for forever, and there was just something about all this talk about counseling for the “end of life process” that made me thing it would be a good idea.

For those of you who don’t know, Augustine wrote the book in the wake of a sack of Rome by Alaric in 410, to counter arguments that the conversion to Christianity was responsible for Rome’s defeat. 

What it really is is a long text, written in a hodgepodge of styles, about the nature of evil in the world and the way we should respond to it.  It is, of course, a Christian work and depends on Christian understandings of the reality of the world. 

If you’re used to thinking of Christianity as what you get when you tune into a broadcast by Joel Osteen or John Hagee, this will not be familiar to you.

The book is also written in short little sections, making it easy to pick up and put down, and wasn’t even conceived as a “book” at all, at least in the sense we think of books today.  

Back in the days before publishers and reviewers and the whole apparatus of modern publishing, writers wrote and passed their manuscripts around to be copied and loaned out and dispersed any way that could be had.   The imperative was to write something that everybody would want to read, because that was the only way your work was going to last at all.

Of course, by “everybody” here, what’s meant is the class of educated and literate people, which in the Rome of 410 amounted to probable only a percentage or two of the total population.

And Augustine is not necessarily the perfect thing for me to read when I’m in a mood like this.  When it comes to the great theologians of Catholic Christianity, I lean far closer to Aquinas.

But something I don’t agree with at all struck me, today, with the fact that the counselors and therapists I can’t seem to get rid of, who hover over my mother’s dying like buzzards, might be well served by being forced to read and confront Augustine, even when he’s being completely awful.

Augustine believed that the happiness of the saints in heaven would be increased by their contemplation of the torturous eternal pain of the souls in hell.

It’s the kind of thing that tells us a lot more about Augustine the man than it does about the religion he was committed to–and what it says about Augustine is not pretty.

But it is real. 

It’s not a very nice trait in men and women, but it does exist, and it exists on a wide scale throughout the ages.  We call it schadenfreude these days, and it’s everywhere we look, an inescapable part of the human personality. 

These idiots would probably call it a disorder.

Written by janeh

January 19th, 2011 at 7:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Finishing'

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  1. Hang in there.

    It’s not just social workers – some of whom can be very sensible and helpful. When my brother was alive, people ranging from ‘well-meaning’ neighbours to health care professionals told members of his immediate family he’d be better off dead – sometimes while in the room with him, within earshot, while he was fighting for his life and yet alert enough to know what was going on around him. These people need to be … defeated. Marginalized. Removed from serious consideration as a source of advice. Not that you need me to tell you that.

    I ‘did’ St. Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ fairly recently and found them fascinated, but I’m not sure if I’m up for The City of God, not at that length! Still, it sounds intriguing – but I’m working my way rather slowly through Jeremy Taylor’ Holy Living and Holy Dying (the emphasis on the worthlessness of the world rings oddly in a 21st century ear), the latest and best book by N.T. Wright, and (as part of a book study group) the second half of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, to be followed by ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’, which I already read years ago.

    I wonder what the book study group would think of the suggestion of ‘The City of God’ as the next target of our efforts? I think they might be as overwhelmed as I am at the prospect.


    19 Jan 11 at 8:46 am

  2. Oddly enough, I thought of you this morning, Jane, when I saw this headline:


    If that doesn’t work, just go to http://www.startribune.com which is the Minneapolis paper – it’s the main story in today’s edition. And it’s about an 85-year old man and who should be making his medical decisions.

    The headline is “wrenching decision” or something like that.


    19 Jan 11 at 11:22 am

  3. There’ve been similar cases in the UK and Canada, and probably everywhere else. I can’t remember whether the UK or the Canadian case I’m thinking of involved a small child instead of an elderly person, but the principle was the same.

    I knew of a situation personally in which two people of a similar age and medical condition were in the same ICU at the same time – the next of kin for one agreed to the withdrawal of life support as soon as it was obvious the person could not recover; the other patient had a larger family who couldn’t agree for a week or more, but I didn’t hear about any medical pressure to move faster in that case. But in those cases, well, there was no real question that even survival in a coma with a feeding tube was a possibility.

    That decision has to be made by the person, or whoever that person has designated to act in their stead, or whoever gets that job by being official next-of-kin or by a court order. Not the medical experts.

    But then you get the cases where the next-of-kin panics and wants the patient put down like a sick cat rather prematurely!


    19 Jan 11 at 2:42 pm

  4. As you say, a religion which dare not call itself such–because no priest or rabbi could legally or constitutionally be given the power awarded some of these people. They’re all very tolerant of diverse beliefs–but of course any belief which seriously contradicts their own is a sign of poor mental health and a need for more counseling.
    The good news is that it’s not a religion anyone will suffer or die for. They’ll litigate forever, but when a serious opposition arises, these people will go wherever the phrenologists went.

    Even the real medical professionals overestimate their own skills, though. An embarassing percentage of people diagnosed as in a “persistent vegetative state” eventually wake up if the family refuses to cut off food and water. Some report being conscious all along.

    Put me down on the other side for “checking book-buying habits.” People who get upset with the forces of order for “not connecting the dots” ought to let them have at least a few dots to connect. But that’s an argument for aother day.


    19 Jan 11 at 8:35 pm

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