Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Curious Case of Enduring to the End

"My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;

And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes."

Mormon Doctrine and Covenants 121:7-8

I used to think it was a virtue to endure pain and suffering. I used to think it made you a good person to silently battle the trials god would send your way. Bad things were the refiner's fire, as taught in Malachi 3, or 3 Nephi 24 (because Joseph Smith loved to copy from  the Bible).

At the very beginning of my faith crisis, I remember having a conversation with my mom about my grandpa, her dad. The end of his life was sad, he had just recently lost his only son, his health and mind were failing. He had moved away from his home to be closer to his son, and was now alone. Just he and his wife. My mom was still in Alaska. 

He was old. My grandpa was in his 80's when he passed away. I don't remember if it was a stroke or a heart attack, but it was traumatic. My husband and I had literally arrived at my home in Alaska hours before when my mother frantically began packing a suitcase and asked my dad to take her to the airport. She flew down to St George, and was able to be with him for a few hours before they took him off life support.

So in this conversation my mom and I had, we talked about my grandpa's last few hours. And how scary they must have been. And how terrible it was he was forced to live it out until his last breath. He didn't die right away. After he was taken off of life support, which he requested, he struggled for breath. He gasped. He choked. He suffered. Until the last moment, he suffered. There was no dignity. No peace. 

I wonder now though, if he felt he was doing the right thing, or if he felt god and his angles were with him. My grandpa was a very devout man, baptized into Mormonism later in life, but stalwart nonetheless. 

Regardless, in my mind, what he was forced to endure was cruel. Even my mom, a true believing Mormon, agreed with me. Though I know she has her reservations, she doesn't believe in needless suffering.

So why is it that Mormons believe so strongly in the doctrine of enduring to the end? Why do they have this complex of suffering? Why do they seemingly welcome trials?

I remember in Sunday school many years ago seeing a painting, with one man surrounded by devils and another man having only one devil. The story went that the man with many devils was the more righteous man because he couldn't be swayed, while the other man with one devil was easily swayed. Mormons believe the more righteous you are, the more trouble you will face from mortality and the adversary (Mormon's way of saying Satan). The more trials you receive, the more god loves you. 

I now think this cruel. To tell someone suffering that this is god's way of showing his love, its just cruel. Mormons get around the unfairness of it all by saying god knows each person individually, and therefore knows what trials they need to become exalted in the hereafter. For one person, their child must die from cancer. For another person, they must be wealthy and humble at the same time. There is such a dissonance between what people are "called upon" to endure, it makes absolutely no sense. Mormon's believe before mortality, in the preexistence, people were of different calibers of righteousness. And while they don't believe that anyone is punished for their premortal mistakes, they sometimes will say of a child that died too soon "they were too perfect". In Mormonism, children that die before baptism, which takes place at the age of 8, are saved automatically in god's kingdom. So in some ways, dying as a child is a merciful thing. And families use it as motivation to more fully live the gospel, so they can be saved right along side their child.

For Mormons, suffering is a virtue. Suffering quietly is godlike. When you are called upon to bear a burden such as terminal cancer, you must do so with a smile on your face. You must continue to have faith and be charitable and kind. You must not complain. Complaining shows a lack of trust in god, and weakness of the flesh. You may not understand why god has asked you to endure this, but you understand he knows better than you, and this is for your own good. You may receive blessings on healing, and they may or may not come true. If they come true it was god's will, if they don't, it was god's will. It's always god's will.  If you pray in faith to be healed and you are, your faith was sufficient. If you pray in faith and die, maybe your faith wasn't sufficient. Or maybe that wasn't god's plan. It always, no matter what, ends up in god's favor.

My original idea for this post certainly got away from me.....I meant to talk about euthanasia, and went in a whole different direction. 

I'd still like to touch on that. For my grandpa, when my mom and I talked about it, she didn't readily admit it, but we both came to the conclusion it was cruel and wrong to make him gasp until his last breath. That it would have been so much kinder to just put him to sleep. Mormons don't believe in euthanasia. They believe all life is in god's hands and sacred. They believe the body is a temple, and that we should not intentionally harm or destroy it. Intentionally causing death, like euthanasia, is against god's commandments. But pulling the plug and letting them suffer into death, that is okay.

When I worked lived in Utah, I met a woman who was due to have her baby the exact same day as me. We joked that we would be fighting over our doctor's time in the hospital. One day, I learned that her baby had a congenital defect, and would not live. She was given the option to abort, or let her pregnancy play out as long as it would. If she were to abort, she would have the option of seeing her baby alive, because they would deliver it within the amniotic sac. If she let it die in utero, it would most likely decompose before delivery.

She chose to let her pregnancy play out. I don't know if it is because of the doctrine of not killing, and not having abortions. But that is what she did. I don't pretend it is an easy choice. I myself could never have made that choice. I did know one woman who decided to abort by delivering her baby and seeing it alive. It lived a mere few minutes, and when they ruptured the sac and cut the cord, it died almost immediately. 

Cases like this remind me there is no inherent value to life. There is no inherent purpose. And forcing people to suffer out of superstition is wrong. In both cases, the women were advised to pray to see what god wanted them to do. Both of them thought their families were eternal and they would have their perfect babies in the world to come. And both of them went through traumatic experiences. And both of them were congratulated on their faith in god's plan. Neither one of them will live her life free of the pain and hurt this caused them, but they are both probably determined to endure it well thinking they will see their babies again. 

My grandma passed away two months after my grandpa. Alone in her room at the home. She was forced to live out the end of her life, lonely and sad, and physically deteriorating. My grandpa on my dad's side, was forced to live out the end of his life. At one point he shouted out that he didn't want to do it anymore, that he was dying. My amazing, strong, barrel chested Bumpa, was broken at the end of his life. And it was cruel. For a man who lived for the outdoor adventure of Alaska, I can't imagine how horrible that must have been. Not being able to have the use of your body. Your mind still sharp, but your body falling apart. But because our society is Christian, and we have superstitions about death and dying, he was forced to suffer to the very end. 

I hate the doctrine of enduring to the end. I think it is horrible. I think it is cruel. I think forcing people to happily bear their terrible circumstances to their very last breath is inhumane. I think its time we accepted the suffering of the world, without trying to justify in terms of deity. I hope we can get rid of the idea that certain things happen because god wants them to, or doesn't want them to. That when people get cancer, it's because of their body  not because god wanted to teach them something. That when a man is dying, we give him his dignity and don't force him to suffer. That when a woman loses her child, we don't torment her by making her think unless she is perfect she will never see her baby again.

It's time we stopped enduring, and started living.

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