Disclaimer: I read this to somebody who told me it might not be very useful or interesting for people who don’t believe in God. I decided to post it anyway, and believers and non-believers should feel free to read or not read as they wish.
I’m not going to write about what I’ve been going through for the past few days, ever since I found out that my worse-than-death fear was on the list of potential surgery complications. Suffice it to say, words like “suicide” and “euthanasia” factored into the discussion.
I’m in a better place today, because I took time off to process my feelings. I know that sounds corny, but I realized that by pushing myself to carry on as if nothing had happened, I was pushing myself beyond what was healthy for me, and I needed to take a step back.
That’s been one of the most difficult parts of this process -taking a step back, relinquishing control. As a religious individual, this process is complicated by the fact that I believe in God, and believe I am bound to observe halacha — Jewish law.
Because I believe in God, I believe everything happens for a reason –even things I do not understand. I also believe that my surgery’s success is in God’s hands — but, ironically, that’s one of the reasons I don’t find the 98% chance of no major complications to be comforting. The numbers don’t really mean much to me, because God is above statistics. However, I do believe in a God of mercy and kindness, and that is comforting.
Some atheists say that humans created God as a psychological tool for dealing with their own mortality. However, I find the concept of death as nonexistence to be much easier than the concept of an afterlife. First of all, once you don’t exist, you can’t feel anything, so what’s there to fear? Entering an unknown phase of existence is much scarier. Secondly, an afterlife means that my responsibility for my actions doesn’t end with death — and to live with that realization, that sense of complete responsibility for one’s choices, is extremely emotionally challenging.
Furthermore, because I believe in God, I believe I am bounded by God’s laws — laws that impede my autonomy over my own body. In modern Western thought, an individual has ownership and complete autonomy over their own body — including the right to maim or kill that body. Furthermore, there’s no reason that life/existence is objectively superior to death/non-existence — the fact that most humans prefer one over the other is not proof of anything.* All I can say is that, in my subjective experience, life is better. If someone else’s subjective experience is that they prefer death, I can’t deny them that. In Judaism, one’s body belongs to God. One has lots of autonomy over it, but not complete freedom. The area that one has autonomy over is limited by the boundaries of halacha, which put certain options off-limits. Halacha is guided by the principle that life is holy, an objectively good thing that must be protected. That’s why one may violate the Sabbath to save a life, and why self-maiming and suicide are forbidden.
This is the first time I have had to come to grips with the limits halacha places over my autonomy over my body in a real way. I’m finding it extremely challenging — though, I also hope, that through this spiritual struggle, I will learn how to make my relationship with God stronger.
Rabbi Akiva used to ask: What does it mean to love God with your soul? It means to love Him, even if He takes your soul.
I’ve been thinking recently, about that statement. I pray to God I never know an opportunity to fulfill Rabbi Akiva’s words. But this surgery is an opportunity to strengthen my love for God, by learning to love God even when I’m hurting, and even when I’m angry. It’s a challenging task, but I must have faith in God that He* thinks I’m up to it, or He wouldn’t have put me in this situation in the first place.
*To be clear: “I want to live” is a fucking great reason to do everything within your power to live, including surgery. Who cares if it can’t be “objectively” proven that life is “better” than death? Can we even objectively prove that we exist? Also, there are secular theories that do have a basis for explaining why life is objectively good — this piece is my generalization about Western thought — not saying there aren’t exceptions to the rule. If you’re looking for secular humanist resources, I recommend the writings of William E. Connolly and Alain de Botton.
*I’m only using “He” because there are no gender-neutral options available.