My first thought on reading the emerging discussion on David Brooks‘ column is: Obviously Brooks is thinking through the lens of a limited anthropology, but he’s an interlocutor worth engaging. Let’s pull apart some of what it says and see where it leads.
For example: the discussion concerns Dudley Clendinen, who is foregoing treatment for ALS because he would rather die than become “a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self.” The comment by Brooks that has drawn a lot of attention is:
Life is not just breathing and existing as a self-enclosed skin bag. It’s doing the activities with others you were put on earth to do.
In making this comment, Brooks skips over an interesting question: can a person who is “conscious” but unable to move “do activities with others”?
Suppose your loved one were in this state. Would you leave him to rot alone in the hospital? Or organize all his family and friends to come in and talk to him, read, maybe just hold his hand and be present?
At an even more basic level, there’s prayer. As you know if you’ve spent any time with people whose physical capacities are radically diminished, prayer is a vital, life-sustaining human activity. And it is not something you do alone but something you “do with others” – three of them! No one is ever really “self-enclosed” unless he chooses to be.
So then: isn’t a society in which the default social expectation is to rally to people whose physical capacities are diminished going to be radically different from a society in which the default social expectation is that they should rid us of their troublesome selves? And is the way we deal with these issues in public policy contributing to a change in the default social expectation?
I actually think there is a real sense in which Brooks is right that when you can no longer “do things,” you are no longer alive. Life cannot be reduced to an ontological status. We just need to help people broaden their perspective on what counts as doing things.
[Addendum: This was poorly phrased. I can't do things while I'm asleep, but I'm still alive. I should have said that the ability to do things is a necessary part of an understanding of what human life is.]
How profoundly the Bible transforms our understanding of what it is to be human! And those who don’t receive the Bible can gain some measure of this wisdom at secondhand if we engage them in constructive conversation.