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Rugged Frailty

In Perelandra, the second book in C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, Venus is an Eden-like planet, complete with an Adam and Eve. Weston, a human from earth is possessed with a demon and comes to Perelandra in order to cause the Fall there. The hero, appropriately named Ransom, is sent by God after Weston to preserve the innocence of the Eve character. The longer Weston is on Perelandra, the more depraved he becomes. He mauls some frog-like creatures horribly, and Ransom stumbles upon them, and seeing their suffering condition, tries to put them out of their misery, but they will not die, because Death hasn’t entered that planet yet. Ransom realizes he’s just adding to their suffering and leaves them, since he is also unable to heal them.

What has stuck with me about that episode since I first read it in college is
how when God, who is Life in and of Himself, gives life to a creature, that gift is, in effect, a command to live. And though on Earth the Fall has brought death to all, there is still something of the stubbornness of Life, fighting to obey God’s command.

We have all seen how fragile life can be—snuffed out in an instant by surprisingly simple things. But what amazes me more is how rugged it is—people, animals, environments that should be dead, blighted and barren, live on, pushing through the oppression of illness, poison, or whatever.

This is particularly poignant in the elderly. Their own bodies are falling apart, or illness or accidents strike, and yet these incredibly frail beings just keep on breathing, eating, sleeping, all necessary biological functions still keep continuing. And even when some of these shut down, it is amazing how long life clings.

I knew a couple in their 80’s who were in a horrible car accident with many fatalities. They themselves had severe injuries, multiple broken bones, internal injuries, and so on. It was hopeless. Yet, they lived. They were in ICU for several months, and endured many difficult procedures. The accident finally claimed them nine months later, but it had to fight to claim them.

Much of their extended family is very long lived. It is difficult to watch them fight so hard after long lives lived well, but they keep pressing on. For those of us who are younger, watching, it is a source of awe. They are so diminished in their life force, so incapable of doing things so basic we don’t even take them for granted, so frail. Yet, there is a stubborn vibrancy that has not surrendered and refuses to admit defeat. God gave them the gift of life, and they simply refuse to let it be taken from them.

What about ‘quality of life?’ They are suffering, struggling, needing people to pull them off the toilet. How noble is it really to have such things drag on for years? How can this be a blessing for anyone? What about the ravages of senility, where the mind, the essence of a person is gone or locked away permanently and they are nothing but a burden? How can we possibly support that and glorify it?

Such quality of life arguments can be made, and can be appealing, but I do not find them convincing. The main problem I have with them is our own ignorance and selfishness. Selfishness because we define quality of life too narrowly, which is largely due to our ignorance. I cannot claim to know or understand why a good God will allow a family to be ‘burdened’ with a healthy Alzheimer’s patient for 10+ years. All I can claim is that God is good, and therefore, there must be some purpose to it. There are many things in life that are not fun or enjoyable, yet we willingly either do or endure them, usually because we know there is a higher purpose. However, it is hard to willingly do or endure troubling times when we don’t know why it is occurring. This is where we must have faith. Not blind faith, but faith that has seen purpose and God’s provision in the past and therefore trusts when these things are not apparent, because God has promised they are there always and to be with us always. When we declare a life useless or over, we sin by putting ourselves in the role of God, judging the value of a life from a human, temporal perspective.

Knowing this does not really make it easier to go through it. We must still grit our teeth and push through it. Jesus did the same. Scriptures say that when Jesus prepared to leave Galilee for the last time, he ‘set his face like a flint towards Jerusalem.’ What makes this even more remarkable is that He did know why everything was going to happen. “For the joy set before Him, Christ endured the cross.” Even on the cross, He cried out in despair as the bond between Him and the Father was ripped away.

If Jesus can sinlessly react in this way to an understood trial, it is not unreasonable for us to groan, mourn and despair through trials we do not understand. God did not punish Job’s despair and sorrow, He rebuked him for believing his trials to be capricious and without purpose, and at the same time, refused to reveal that purpose. With this kind of evidence, how can we say in good conscience there is no purpose in end of life trials? It is a weighty thing to declare finished a life God has not yet called home.

Watching the elderly or the very sick is like watching a movie about a siege like the Alamo. You know the outcome, and it is heart-wrenching to watch, yet what keeps us glued to the visage is the heroism of simply withstanding, whether it is in the smallest acts of defiance or cavalier disregard for the enemy.

This is why it is good and right to honor the elderly, and when they leave us, to remember them and honor their memory. No matter how difficult it has been for us remaining who had to sacrifice our routine, strength, finances in aiding our elders in their final struggles, we should honor them for their obedience to God’s most basic command, to live.

Finally, we should pray that we have someone to aid us when it comes time for our final battles, to send us Home in love and camaraderie, having done for us what we could not do for ourselves. Even from the beginning, God declared, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” How much worse is it to be alone at the final end? If such images strike fear into our hearts now, how then can we let it happen to someone else?

Death is the final enemy. Jesus has overcome it, yet we still face it. How strange—in any fight, we either win or lose. In this fight we have won the war already, yet we are guaranteed to lose this one battle, sooner or later. How much better to face a certain loss with those we know and love at our backs, helping us to finish well, passing through loss to the final real victory we have been promised—the victory consummated this Easter day.


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