more deneen: on the health care “debate”

I try not to make a habit of delving into these sorts of issues on this blog.  I think, though, that anyone witnessing the tone and lack of substance of the current debate over health care has every right to concerned over the future of our society.

Patrick Deneen, in a piece at Front Porch Republic, gets to some of the deeper issues that neither side in this debate have stopped to notice:

This “debate” takes place in the backdrop of a set of deeper beliefs that pre-determine its outcome. First, we know that we are not likely to live in places for any appreciable length of time, so we require fungibility of care. This means that we come to expect impersonal care, and know that we will necessarily be treated as data. The question is, which data-keeper will treat us? We are treated as parts, not wholes, and so our illnesses are treated as discrete occurrences, not as part of a treatment that cares for the human creature in all of our personal wholeness, from diet to exercise to the essential belief that we belong somewhere among particular people. One argument never advanced in the health-care “debate” was that it would be invaluable to strengthen communities. The best health-care provider is the local family doctor who knows the general health – and beyond that, has a broader personal knowledge – of each person, from cradle to grave. The backdrop of the health-care debate was that we have rejected that option because of our addiction to mobility and its attendant “restlessness,” so that the debate all along was over means, not ends.

It follows that we need some kind of provider because generations no longer care for each other. Above all, children no longer care for their parents as they age and die, so we need to farm out that activity to another caretaker. That costs a lot of money. Further, we know deep in our bones that we live in a society in which upon our deaths we will be almost instantly forgotten. Whether one believes in an afterlife or not, in previous times, an afterlife was at least assured through the memory of successive generations who would remember and tend the legacy of departed ancestors. Today, all we have is the life we now live – and our dignity demands, if nothing else, that it be extended as long as possible, by whatever means. Lastly, we have come to define liberty as “the endless power after power that ceaseth only in death.” By that definition, death is the worst thing imaginable. We all live in the shadow of Hobbes, and have accepted that the basic motivation that animates us is fear of death. The character Nathan Coulter in Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter – who, learning of his terminal illness, refuses an intensive treatment of radiation therapy in order to die at home – is incomprehensible to us. In the light of these facts about ourselves, there is no fundamental disagreement that health and longevity are inalienable rights. The only question worthy of debate is who shall provide it – State-supported corporatism or corporate-supported Statism.

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Secondly, Lauren Winner on marriage.  In the newest issue of Christianity Today, she has contributed a book review that calls attention to a couple of academic studies of marriage counseling in the 20th century.  As she points out, it has become commonplace to say that marriage is “work.”  There is some truth to this: more couples need to know what they are getting themselves into when they make their vows.  But marriage, as the Orthodox wedding ceremony observes, is more even than this: it is martyrdom.  (And by that, I don’t mean playing the martyr.)  As Gordon Hauser observes:

A longstanding Eastern Orthodox tradition also recognizes that a marriage relationship is hard work.  This tradition sees marriage, in fact, as a vocation to martyrdom.

Sarah Coakley, professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School, writes about this tradition: “To romantic Western eyes this may at first appear grim and masochistic; but on reflection it dignifies as ascetical the daily losses, displacements and ceding to the ‘other’ that constitute the ordinariness of the married state.”

Marriage is a kind of spiritual discipline that teaches us to surrender ourselves to God, which is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.  Coakley goes on: “Herein lies life and joy and peace, according to the gospel: ‘finding’ my life–not as teeth-grinding, ‘achieved’ unselfishness, but as sheer loss, the surrender of all my well-made plans.  This is prayer at its purest; this is the true meaning of ‘ecstasy.'”

And from an Orthodox source:

As we said earlier, every Christian living in the world comes in contact with suffering. When Christians live together in a family this suffering is sometimes even magnified. In getting married; most young people today expect only happiness and a peaceful life of well-being. The Holy Church forewarns us about the essence of Christian marriage: it places crowns upon our heads–symbols of both victory and martyrdom, joy and sorrow. But we pay no heed to this. The world around us, with its false and unchristian pronouncements about the evil of sorrow and sufferings, does not prepare one for the inevitable, and when a person is faced with suffering and misfortune, he is totally unprepared to accept them, to cope with them. All too often, people seek to escape the difficulties of married life by divorce. Martyrs knew they would be tried and tortured, and they went to their martyrdom with joy, with the singing of psalms and a firm confession of Christ. In the same way, one should enter Christian marriage with a readiness to endure and to suffer, knowing that this is what is required, and that here lies a ready path to salvation.

The fact that there are difficulties in a marriage is not to say that the spouses do not love one another. But love has its price suffering. The holy Apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Corinthians, teaches that love beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. This is true love. The ancient Stoic philosophers recognized the interrelation of love and suffering, and for this reason they advised not to love anyone, otherwise one would inevitably meet with suffering. Epictitus formulated a rule: “Kiss your wife and children, demonstrate affection; however, do not love them! If you love them, you will become distressed if they die.”

Sadly, today’s couples are not prepared to accept the everyday shortcomings and weaknesses which they notice in each other: laziness, vain talking, criticism, all kinds of habits, tastes, offenses, rudeness. They annoy one another. In society one can conceal one’s weaknesses, one can hide behind a facade of propriety, but where is there to hide in a family? Husband and wife cannot isolate themselves from one another. They have to put up with one another, to endure suffering, t bear one another’s burdens. Constant effort is required in order to deal with the myriads of irritations and difficulties which husband and wife encounter almost daily through many years of Christian marriage. This is what might be called the asceticism of family life. In bearing these trials, these sufferings, in developing strength of will, patience and meekness, in placing one’s trust in the Lord and not in one’s own strength, husband and wife grow closer to God and to one another. This in turn serves as a lesson for the children.

Suffering is a spiritual school in which both parents and children are educated. In the words of one religious writer in Russia, “Religion cannot be learned, like a science; it is grasped not by the mind but by the heart, through action, through direct personal experience. It is a spring, flowing into eternal life, and no reasoning about the water, no knowledge about it can satisfy a man’s thirst if he himself does not drink from the spring.” Archpriest (later Hieromonk) Sergei Chetverikov likewise emphasizes that knowledge about God must be distinguished from knowing God. Fr. Sergei recalls how, like every child, he came to know God in his early childhood not through external experience and not through any rationalization, but through direct inner perception. Suffering provides an inner experience by means of which members of a family grow strong spiritually.

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2 responses to “more deneen: on the health care “debate”

  1. Funny thing about mobility: I was just reading today that we’re actually less restless as a society than we were when my parents were my age. In 1970, 20% of people moved annually; by 2008, it was 10%. Part of this is obviously that more people (theoretically) own their own houses and thus don’t have to move because a lease expires.

    What we see, IMO, is people relocating further than they did a generation ago (like, in my case, from rural West Tennessee to suburban South Carolina), but actually moving less as a whole.

    Just thought it was interesting.

  2. I think with the economy the way it is — and it’s likely to stay this way for the foreseeable future — that makes sense. People move for career advancement, for jobs (or, at least, the promise of jobs). No jobs, no need (necessarily) to move.

    Deneen, of course, is speaking rather to the overall tendency of American society since at least WWII.

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