The Feast in the Jungle: Gratitude and Distrust

Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” has been playing through my mind at odd hours recently. If you haven’t read it, I won’t give the plot away, but it’s built on a premise of fearing the thing which your own fear creates. If you had not feared it in the first place, it would never have been anything to fear.

The fear of never being happy is something akin to that. Not actual unhappiness, mind you, but the state of fearing unhappiness. It is nebulous enough to be the perfect beast in the jungle. Whenever the landscape even slightly begins to resemble a jungle, a stray branch here and there, our hearts turn to look for the beast.  Here comes unhappiness. We expect nothing less.

This fear can happen equally in moments of happiness. You’re driving down the freeway in your new car. Your hand rests on the thigh of the spouse of your dreams as you hurtle toward the beautiful city of your ideal job. The promotion you just received at that job is what paid for the car- in cash. You just got accepted to the graduate school of your dreams. Key relationships in your life are on the mend…Where does your mind go? If it’s anything like mine, it goes immediately to the fear of losing it all, or any of it.

British pop star Natasha Beddingfield sings these lyrics in one of my favorite songs: “I see the girl I want to be, riding bareback, carefree, along the shore.” Sure, they’re silly, hip-hop, late teen angst lyrics. So? I’ve been that girl: I’ve ridden bareback, carefree along the shore. Literally. It was glorious. Yet I immediately distrusted my happiness. I can feel the tendency acutely, the automatic, almost assumed, fear: loss of the present good. In that moment of abundance, when our entire lives are almost exactly how we want them to be, we look for the beast.

I’m not even addressing the fleeting joys of material possession. Relational & spiritual statuses are included. We are talking about experiencing a good and real and total kind of happiness, and still fear comes instantaneously. Why do our hearts turn to this doubt of continuance- that what is, won’t endure? Rather than looking for the abundance of God’s love poured out to us in ways that are obvious and tangible and in our native language, we search for the hidden terribleness beneath it all.

This is a not-so-subtle subversion of the Gospel. The tenets of our faith are exactly the opposite: Beneath all the evil we see, the great love of God will triumph. Satan prowls the earth, but Christ holds the keys of hell, and against the gates of heaven the devil will not prevail. Where do these fundamental gospel beliefs go when we stare in the face, not of evil, but of good?

They dissipate. At their base, the subconscious beliefs driving the distrust of present goods stem from bad theology of two kinds. The first is a complete reversal of the belief tenets laid out above: Evil is rampant and God’s goodness is only a break point in a monotonous routine of Satan’s ultimate triumphs. Heaven may be heavenly, but hell is more widespread. When goodness happens, it’s bound to be fleeting.

The second perversion of the truth is more subtle, for it has more of a biblical ring to it: the Lord is Lord of good and evil. If “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” sums up our entire theology, we may as well abandon any auspices of a unique worldview and join the Stoics. The Lord does give and the Lord does take away. One cannot read the entire Bible and not be fully impressed by that fact. But there is a clear hierarchy and a uni-directional timeline.

“For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you,” the Lord tells the Israelites in Isaiah. Be shocked by the supposedly all-loving Lord’s admittance of desertion, but be aware of the details. Brief moment. Great compassion. The moment of desertion is not greater than the following compassion, nor are they equal. “For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you.”

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” Paul tells us in Romans. Not. Worth. Comparing. The language here does not allow the experience of suffering to be isolated, exalted, or equalized with the glory. Lamentations offers a similarly obvious ordering: “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth… For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion.” The Lord causes grief, no denial there either. But he will have compassion “according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” The flood preceded the rainbow and a new life. The cross led to resurrection. The Babylonian captivity transitioned to the return to Jerusalem. Every ancient biblical story embedded in our culture follows this narrative arc. Moment of grief, then the great compassion. 40 days of flooding–a new population. Death for three days–the path to eternal life. There is reversal of neither order nor apportionment of glory.

There is a great correlation between the man who stands in his soul’s dark night and despairs of God’s presence, and the man who stands in great abundance and despairs of God’s impending absence. The former man fears God will never return; the latter man fears He will soon leave. Both are the renderings of that union with God which Aquinas calls Love. Both are a reversal of the truths described above.

So why do our hearts look for the beast in the jungle to spring? In other words, why do we anticipate in wealth the sudden Job-like stripping of our experience of God’s manifold blessings? The fact that it would be Job-like is not enough to justify such a worry. The belief re-creates narrative lines in the Bible where God performs the role of the feared blessing-stripping. However, Scripture also supports a deeper view that God also, and more ultimately, wants us to experience His blessings.  The great and arduous expressions of His love throughout the Bible should make us look for the bountiful feast when we see a jungle, and nothing less. ‘

Logic, Anyone? (Part I)

The most common arguments for abortion rest on fallacious logic. This is not to say that every argument for abortion invokes faulty logic. However, in my experience traveling to many US college campuses and dialoging about abortion, studying abortion ethics at Oxford, and interning at the Yale Bioethics Center, this is the prevailing argument used in favor of abortion:

We agree that human persons should not be killed.
However, the unborn [qualify with developmental stage] is not a human person.
Therefore, the [human being not yet attained to personhood] does not have the same rights as a human person.

This line of thinking usually attributes the “right to life” in the rights attributed to human beings established as persons but not to the unborn “pre-person.” It carries emotional weight by pitting the being-who-has-not-yet-attained personhood (the embryo or fetus) against the rights of the being-who-has-obviously-attained-personhood (the mother). When it is thus framed, many people would argue that the non- or pre-person may morally be aborted.

It took a Yale professor to show me the flaw in this argument. Karen Lebacqz is a thirty-year bioethicist from Harvard who now teaches at the Graduate Theological Union and Yale. Her many contributions to the field include helping draft the internationally recognized Belmont Report.

Lebacqz introduced her “Methods in Bioethics” seminar this summer with a reprisal of basic logic. With a bachelor’s degree in philosophy tucked under my belt, I expected nothing new. When we began by reviewing this simple fallacy, I almost fell asleep:

Major Premise: Red apples are good to eat.
Minor Premise: This apple is green.
Conclusion: Therefore this apple is not good to eat.

This is the fallacy of the “Illicit Major,” in which the converse of the first statement is assumed to be true. I had spotted plenty of these fallacies while working on my undergraduate degree. Simple enough. But then we changed the terms:

Major Premise: Human persons should not be killed.
Minor Premise: The embryo/fetus is not a human person.
Conclusion: Therefore the embryo/fetus can be killed.

This is the same fallacy: the major term is undistributed in the major premise, but distributed in the conclusion. In other words, nothing has been said about non-persons, so we cannot draw a conclusion about whether we may kill it, at least not without making a fallacious argument. Simply assuming that an embryo/fetus is not a person does not grant us the right to terminate it. Additional arguments—and robust ones at that—are needed.

These additional arguments must state clearly and defend the hidden assumption that it is permissible to kill a non-person.

However, most people who use the above argument for abortion also argue that certain non-persons ought not be killed. While Lebacqz used the example of a redwood tree, I would point to the vast animal rights movement. I don’t think dolphins are persons, and I don’t think they ever will be. But I would do everything in my power to stop someone who threatened to shoot a dolphin.

Assume, then, that the unborn are not persons. But don’t think it is therefore obvious that abortion in all instances is morally acceptable. If a dolphin was growing inside my friend’s womb, I would do everything possible to convince her not to have an abortion. Only if her life was in danger would I drive her to an abortion provider (and I’d do that if it was a baby, too). While unborn babies are far more precious than dolphins for many reasons, this “hierarchy” has no bearing on the fallacious assumption that “we can obviously abort non-persons” operating as a hidden premise in this common argument for abortion. If abortion advocates want to persuade those who have taken logic, they will have to provide arguments that are much more robust—and logically valid. ‘

The Baby-Face of Bioethics

“I don’t know.”

This was the advice Dr. Mark Mercurio, director of the Yale Pediatric Ethics program, gave to a room full of Yale University bioethics students in a lecture on how neonatologists should find their way through ethical quandaries. It is not that he is unqualified. Quite the contrary.

Dr. Mercurio’s extensive training and experience includes degrees from Princeton, Columbia, and Brown University and residence experience in pediatrics in New Haven, Connecticut— America’s first city to have a newborn intensive care unit. His fatherly wisdom and good humor have clearly aided the Yale Pediatric Ethics Program (where he serves as Director) and the Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital Ethics Committee (which he chairs).

Dr. Mercurio spoke to the summer interns at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics on the bioethical quandaries facing neonatologists forced to make life and death decisions for non-autonomous, non-cognitive human beings. Their most frequent patients are premature newborns (often with congenital anomalies or genetic disorders) with low survival chances. But the newborns can’t give informed consent for either life-saving techniques or to be taken off the ventilator. While considering medical knowledge, ethical principles and the individual facts of each case, neonatologists must listen to or refuse the parents’ judgment in light of the patient’s best interest, and affect life and death accordingly.

Consider some of the ethical issues involved: for example, the neonatologist must tell a new mother that her 23 week old, premature infant has less than a 25% chance of survival, and that she and the father will have to decide whether “it’s worth it” to try all life-saving techniques, but that even survival most likely means a life of severe impairment. Occasionally, the parents can’t decide and leave the decision up to the doctor, or make a request the doctor cannot morally honor. What if the family’s best interest conflicts with the patient’s best interest? What if the baby will be in a vegetative state and the parents are unable to provide adequate care? Is it legitimate to consider society’s best interest? What of allocation of medical resources? The neonatologist must weigh all of these factors and more, and yet act with immediacy.

The expert’s best advice to Yale’s budding bioethicists as to how to decide these life and death matters?

“I don’t know.”

This same refrain is echoed time and time again in our discussions here at the Bioethics Center. As ethicists sitting in a room at a university, “I don’t know” is the only right answer. We don’t know what the baby’s future will be; we can only conjecture from insufficient data and probabilities. We don’t know if the parents can afford medical care for the child, whether the disease will onset in its most crippling form or whether the child will live a fairly comfortable life. We don’t know if the baby wants to live or die; we argue about whether he or she is even a person yet. We don’t know how to resolve conflicts of interest between the family’s best interest and the patient’s best interest, or where the family’s best interest is the patient’s best interest. To give the wisest, safest, and humblest answer, we must always say, “I don’t know.”

But a neonatologist does not have such a privilege; a decision must be made. Dr. Mercurio referenced a continuum of benefits and burdens as an equation to be constantly balanced when looking between the right to life and the right to mercy (dying with dignity, in essence). In my mind I had the vision of a constantly tipping scale between pleasures and pains, where at any moment the needle could slip away from degrees of “worth it” and point to “no longer worth it.”

Is the decision to stay alive and not seek or allow or cease to prevent death only framed by that endless equation? When probabilities and conjectures are the only data available, making such decisions is simply not a matter of science or perfect rationality. Human judgment, faith, and emotion inevitably creep in, or even overshadow what vestiges of reason remain. Even reason is in a fallen state and cannot infallibly guide us to right decisions in cases replete with unknown variables. The presence of emotion guarantees a more human decision, at the very least. But the unqualifiedly right decision?

My fellow interns, the staff, the lecturers, and the seminar leaders at the Center come from all over the world. They have various areas of expertise, are deep thinkers, honest in their pursuit of truth, and earnest in determining ethical fairness. But when “I don’t know” is the fruit of their well-reasoned philosophies, I begin to question redemption’s place in reason. If reason itself is fallen, it is no surprise that “I don’t know” floats around the university like a disembodied ghost.

Yet there must be a place for the Spirit of truth to heal our human judgment—to give insight into human purposes beyond maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain (often the only guidelines of medical ethics), to help us discern ethical principles, to give us confidence that we are making better-than-humanly-possible decisions in the face of the unknown. My bioethical instincts say “I don’t know” about that role, but I’m fairly certain I do know that just such a Spirit is often missing. My obligation then is to pursue that Spirit Himself, and tease out the intricacies and robust impact of His work in our bioethical reasoning.