The downside of killing people

A Filipina, an Ethiopian, and a Pakistani walk into a nursing home. …

This is not a joke; instead a recollection from several years ago as my parents were exiting this world. The institution, providing a form of terminal care, with bed and board, continues around two corners in Parkdale here. It is “the last place on earth” for 128 patients at any given moment; never less, for there are waiting lists. It has a better reputation than some nursing homes.

The three in question stand out in memory because in two cases they were outstanding nurses, and in the third, an outstanding administrator. Each, in her particular role, had the grace of what I suppose our pope would call “mercy,” if he means by it the ability to go somewhere beyond the rules in offering comfort and fellowship to the dying. Two Christians and a Muslim.

I am thinking, partly, of their services to my parents, who had also the luxury of frequent visits from their children and friends, and the company of each other until my father died. We appreciated them; but other inmates of this nursing home were in a position to appreciate them more. For those had been more fully “warehoused,” by families with money, signing off on “a problem.” I knew several who were never visited at all; who had only the fear of death to interrupt the bleakness of their days; and memories tormented by those who, having acquired legal custody of their savings, left them there, and skulkily walked away. In age they endure something of the experience of a conscripted soldier on the battlefront — long stretches of debilitating boredom with short passages of terror for relief; and such new companions as they might find, dying all around them.

But there is no mud or cold in these trenches. Instead they find the sterility of a modern, hygienic, institutional environment, with distracted keepers — a professionally-trained staff. Anything resembling blood and guts will be cleaned up promptly; cadavers are removed with speed and discretion.

Under the state’s new “euthanasia” provisions, those who have decided on, or been persuaded to “assisted dying,” will be executed in a cool and professional way. A priest I know walked in unexpectedly on a rehearsal of this process. His spontaneous expression of outrage was condemned as an unconscionable disturbance.

So where was I? Yes, thinking of three nurses, each (by no coincidence) seriously religious according to her traditions; and each a conductor of kindliness, patience, warmth and concern — beyond the medically urgent or necessary. Their very presence on a shift, especially in the night, was a source of strength to many poor old customers; of that feeling of safety, founded in trust, that a soldier might have when he discovers that his superior officer is genuinely competent; that he also cares what happens to his men. Conversely, their absence could be a source of anxiety.

The word for this in English was once “condescension”; a usage that would be inconceivable today, for it acknowledges that people are and will ever be unequal in power. In any moment, you depend on persons “above”; those “below” depend on you. (I put these words in quotes to convey that the relative positions are not always fixed; they may even change at different times of day.) Trust is involved as a condition of every mediation. And when it breaks down we have the horror of equality: Hobbes’s warre of all against all.

I think of these three particular nurses, each to my knowledge a universe in herself, on this vexed question of “euthanasia.” I am reasonably confident that each would accept being fired, rather than participate in regulated murder. One might call them “selfish” or “rigid” in a very narrow, and sophistical sense: willing to part with career and livelihood, rather than agree to the dictates of Hell.

The post-modern mind cannot understand them. It asks, “But what about all the other patients who rely on you, who turn to you for such comforts as they have? How can you abandon them? Why can’t you just suck it up, the way we all have to do sometimes, and keep your religious opinions to yourself? Tell your ‘god’ you were just following orders.”

This is, all should see, a vacuous argument, to which only silence can respond. It serves only to reveal the void of conscience, that follows from law in which conscience has no place. It speaks of a future when all human decency will be driven underground, and every decent person will be isolated; and of a fleeting present when the response to evil was fluffy and lax, professionally accommodating, and demonically glib.

One thinks of the ultimate act of condescension: when Christ came down from Heaven. And of what He taught us: be rigid, hold your ground!