Choosing Life, Part 1

Talking with each other about sacred choices

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

Unless you have been totally absorbed in the pennant races (go Phillies!), you may have seen or heard the “debate” on issues involving health care. I hesitate to use the word “debate,” as most of the conversation has less to do with you and me and more to do with politics and power (and so what else is new!).

Part of what seems to be organized scare tactics has to do with the nonsense about end-of-life counseling. Let me say up front that Judaism is all in favor of this, and just about every strand of Judaism has produced materials to assist in these discussions. Many congregations have developed ongoing educational programs that teach people how to make sacred decisions as life ends. I know, because part of what I do for the Reform movement is to help set up and create these programs and resources.

Having people talk about what they want and how they want it is empowering and, on a moral and ethical level, good. These discussions allow for all concerned to have their say and to let individuals and families know wishes and provide opportunities for conversations about very serious and sacred issues. Are these conversations easy? No. But many of you reading this have had these conversations. They help reduce anxiety for all concerned and set out parameters of action that respect the people involved. Having a conversation about an advanced directive or health care proxy, or doing a “pre-need” meeting with the funeral director can be sacred moments. Studies, like one recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, also showed that patients who were dying from cancer benefited greatly from having the chance to talk about their own wishes, families, and lives.

Medical technology has given us the gift of longevity. This is blessing. Yet, that same technology has made it possible for some to exist in various states of limbo. What to do, what would “they” want? These are the questions being asked right now by people all over our country. A recent op-ed in the Washington Times recounted the author’s discussion with her mom over a so-called living will: “Such discussions and signings with older parents had become commonplace among my friends of a certain age. . . . These were not morbid tasks, merely the latest reality bequeathed by technology that can keep a body physically alive while those parts we think of as constituting our humanity have flown away.”

I believe that it is incumbent on all of us to have these conversations. I know from the work I do for the Reform Jewish movement, setting up these programs and producing resources and materials for individuals and congregations in this area, that providing nonstressful opportunities for open, honest conversation and education about traditions, customs, personal beliefs, and wishes can be empowering.

These discussions are tough. Obviously, few people want to sit down and discuss the possibility of death, be it their own or their loved ones’. This is basic fear buried in the deep recesses of the souls of so many who protest any attempt to create opportunities for these conversations. The silliness of government-controlled end-of-life mandates has gotten out of hand. The cries of “no government interference in my health care” are outrageous, unless those same people are willing to forgo their Medicare and Social Security.

Choosing life is a theme of the upcoming holiday season. It urges us to make sacred choices. One of those choices we now have, in light of medical technology and longevity, is to ensure that conversations about end-of-life wishes are had in every home, religious institution, continuing care or assisted living facility, doctor’s office, and coffee shop. Wherever it is best, seize the chance. In doing so, you have the chance to dignify and sanctify life.