Sometimes being a clergy person can be like fortune telling. Fortune tellers have to sense their clients’ needs, personality, tastes and tendencies just from one minute of observing their apparel, manner of entering the room, tone of voice, presence or lack of agitation and so on. The expectations of fortune-teller supplicants are high, and they want wisdom and clarity by the time they have seated themselves in front of the gyrating crystal ball. Prior to hospice care per se, I had served a congregation in Parsippany, New Jersey. I never knew from moment to moment whether someone was going to ask me a trick question like why my sermons were so long or a trivial question like where I got my haircut or a profound one like what the meaning of life was.
One day, I was downing a quick lunch in the temple kitchen in between appointments when the telephone, within an all too easy reach, pleaded for attention. I fell for it. The first-time caller did not want me to predict her future, but she did want me to shape it. Without so much as a how do you do, she told me her loved one was unresponsive and on life support. She wanted to know, “Would it be a sin if I pulled the plug?” Instant wise (well, I like to think so) and clear (that at least is certain) answer: “No.” She felt absolved by this answer, sighed in relief and after I evaluated a few crucial details like how long the patient had been unconscious, she bowed out of the conversation now that she had gotten what she had hoped for.
Someone overhearing the phone call said, “She knew she was going to pull the plug no matter what you said. She just didn’t want to feel guilty about it.” Perhaps. But is that a bad thing? When we make wrenching decisions with the intention to be ethical, they become “wretched’ decisions when we pour guilt on ourselves on top of everything else.
When I said no, it’s not a sin, I felt that I was relieving the caller’s suffering but also that I was following the precepts of my religion. Judaism is based on a system of laws, many of which aim at a compassionate outcome balanced with avoiding abuse. Jewish law balances “allowing death” with what it designates as “murder” by distinguishing between passive euthanasia and active euthanasia. The former is for example removing a feeding tube. The latter is for example giving the patient an injection that would end the patient’s life.
As I see it, this distinction tells me we may not hasten death, as the assisted dying movement proposes, but nor should we prolong a life that is truly over. As a mourner once told me, “we should not cause a person to merely exist when he is no longer living.” Indeed, a future filled with nothing but a heart beating and air going in and out of lungs for the sake of avoiding guilt for members of the family is not a future at all.