THE PASSION and the Dead

Ron Panzer
President Hospice Patients Alliance
February 11, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

There's a lot of talk about the movie "THE PASSION," and there's a lot of talk about the "brain dead" (and related subjects). Completely different topics coming my way, coming your way. We can't avoid hearing about them although we try not to think about brain death or injuries.

On the surface, they have nothing to do with each other. Used to be, people were either "alive" or "dead." Now society has redefined "death" to include the "brain dead" (as "good as dead"), "vegetative" (not brain dead but also "as good as dead"), "brain-injured" (not brain "dead" but certainly "as good as dead") and the "hopelessly injured."

It's the same with "passion." There's the really, really "passionate," the very passionate, the passionate, the somewhat not so passionate and the really not passionate. That's where the "hopeless and brain injured, and the idea of "passion" or, rather, the idea of the "utterly not passionate" meet.

The "utterly not passionate." I would call them the "heart dead." They have not had a heart attack or stroke; it's not even something physical, but it can affect the physical and can even be lethal to others. "Heart dead." It's all about passion, or rather, the lack of passion.

People who are "brain dead," or "hopelessly injured" are said to be not "really" alive, "as good as dead." I say that the "heart dead," the utterly without passion, are not "really" alive! They are dead to life.

And the irony is that it is the "heart dead" who so readily look the other way when other groups of individuals are labeled as "good as dead," as "nonpersons" and targeted for real death.

We have ever-increasing, redefined categories of those deemed to be "as good as dead," and "candidates" for organ donation, or should I say "candidates" for organ harvesting or death. The severely injured are no longer spoken of as "people" whose organs are to be taken from them. There is no mention that these patients' chance for recovery will forever be barred (since they will be dead, not from their injuries, but as a result of the taking of their organs). We don't even have "simple death" anymore. People can't just "die," they have to be evaluated to find out if they are "suitable" "candidates" to donate their organs.

It seems that anyone who is unfortunate enough to have a serious accident is hastily declared "beyond help" and the vultures rush right in to harvest the organs or just "let" (help?) the victim die. It used to be that the "system" did its utmost to save lives and prove the wonders of medicine. That is certainly not the case today!

There is nothing wrong with someone donating their organs if they had chosen to do so, but the slippery category of the "hopelessly" injured or "brain injured" keeps expanding. As a rule, the efforts of the medical establishment to treat and save the injured keep shrinking while the salaries of the owners and chief executives of the for profit health care insurance corporations and HMOs keep expanding.

One would think that as modern medical science and technology advance, the ranks of the "hopelessly injured" would become smaller. Yet the quickness of health care providers to "give up hope" and send these vulnerable patients to the organ harvesting tables or to hospice makes one wonder: are these patients truly "hopeless" or is there a financial motivation involved? Is the decision to forego treatment based upon sound medical science and a specific and individual patient assessment, or is it based upon the cold, hard calculators of bookkeepers and accountants.

There is a striking contrast between the passionate pursuit of medical excellence embodied by medical pioneers like Ignaz Semmelweiss, Joseph Lister, Michael DeBakey (among many other exemplary physicians) and the life-denying treatment denials of nameless, faceless "ethics" committees that are set up with the pre-determined goal of denying care to those they determine to be "hopelessly injured." In the rare instance that a "hopelessly injured" patient survives, despite all efforts to assure her death, these same all-knowing physicians shake their heads, never admitting they were wrong or that their life-denying decisions would have resulted in a premature and untimely death.

Strange how two completely different topics such as passion and the "dead" can be related. But what are we talking about, really? What is "passion" all about anyway? And what does it mean to be "alive" or "hopelessly injured?" What does it mean to be "dead?" Do people really understand what passion is? Do we understand any more what it means to be "dead?" Has the language allowed into use been so twisted and redefined by the secular bioethicists (see Dr. Dianne Irving: What is Bioethics?) that we can no longer see what is right in front of our faces? ... that we can no longer speak clearly about what is so obvious.

People without passion don't fully "exist" as a full human being.

There are many different types of "passion." And there are all sorts of books, movies and music about passion, most of it about romantic passion. It seems that as human beings, we crave passion. We crave the intensity and fulfillment that come with it.

I once attended a nursing seminar entitled "A Passion for Excellence" in nursing, and that's obviously a different kind of passion, a dedication to one's work. There are people who have a passion for their hobby, their work, and their sport. Parents have a passion for their kids, and kids have passion for a lot of things, especially playing with friends and their toys. Children in modern Western society have a passion for video games.

There must be a common thread of meaning in the different uses of the word. The word "passion" comes from the Latin root word "passus" or "pati" which means to suffer or submit. It is clear that those who speak of "THE PASSION" are using the word closer to its original meaning.

There is something about us (as human beings) that seeks out passion of some sort. It's something central to what we are as human beings. "Passion" also means to feel intensely about something. And when one feels intensely about something or someone, there is pleasure and there is pain or suffering of an emotional, psychological or even spiritual dimension.

And even if warned, "don't touch," "don't get involved," "you will get hurt," we can't help ourselves. Passion is part of the human experience, something that makes us who we are. It is our nature to feel and thirst for passion. Without passion, people cannot care, cannot thrive, and cannot fulfill their dreams.

People without passion don't fully "exist" as a full human being. They're "hollow" people. They become "heart dead," moving through life but not partaking of life.

The classic story of Romeo and Juliet demonstrates romantic passion with all its highs and lows: the joy of being with the beloved and the anguish of being apart. People of passion are willing to submit to the pain that their passion necessarily must bring. They would not have it any other way.

Without passion, however, one wouldn't care at all; indifference and apathy would flourish. Those who have passion feel "alive," know their lives have "meaning." They have purpose and focus. They "know" in the moment, with all that they are, that their passion has a lot to do with the purpose of being alive. Not that the purpose of life is easily put into words, but nevertheless, it is real and overwhelmingly experienced by the passionate.

Passion is intense. People who are passionate feel so deeply about something, they'll do just about anything for the object of their passion. People who are passionate about goals become leaders in their field. They, like Olympic champions, have the enthusiasm and energy to excel.

Galileo, Columbus, Martin Luther, Florence Nightingale, Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi, Jesus, ... they were all truly passionate and tireless in their efforts. They changed the world around them, giving all they had. Legendary characters such as Odysseus personified human passion, endeavor and love while suffering disappointment after disappointment. Great people of intense passion may suffer much in this world, but that is not all! They also can experience the joy of inner fulfillment and success in their mission in life.

There's something about passion that leads to suffering as an unavoidable consequence. And that's where the idea of "submission" comes in. "Submission" is not very popular in modern secular thought and it certainly is not part of what is called the "me" generation! But the idea of submission, as a virtue, is promoted in religious thought. It is and was central to basic society and standards of behavior. One submits one's individual will to that of one's parents, authority and God. One submits to the mundane obligations of daily life in order to provide for and care for one's family. This type of submission arising out of passionate love has nothing to do with exploitation or oppression.

The religion, "Islam," as a word, means "submission" to the will of God. And that "submission" is to be something passionate, intense. The idea of "submission" is also central to the Jewish and Christian faiths. "Not my will, but Thy will" be done is central to a life of faith.

Even in worldly endeavors, one has to submit to the discipline of work or one's hobby. One submits to the wishes of one's beloved, whether a romantic "beloved" or THE Beloved. The relationship between man and God is often compared to human passion. A life of faith is necessarily a life of inner passion.

In submitting, one gives up some individual control of circumstances and choices. One allows another (or another's needs) to determine that choice. One sacrifices the ability to choose the "easy" path, to choose what one prefers for the higher cause of fulfilling one's goal, or pleasing and meeting the needs of the one you love.

People whose hearts are open are passionate, each in their own way. They have intense feeling. They have dedication to someone or something.

Real passion is not casual; it implies commitment, dedication, and intensity of relationship. Real passion is not a momentary fling or curiosity. It is an all-consuming thirst, a drive to do, to find, to be.

However, when the "me" generation blossomed, it was not out of passion or dedication, rather it arose out of defiance of authority, lack of respect for elders or the law, and a disdain for submitting to any established moral code or ethics. The "me" generation was about "doing your own thing," "anything goes," and a lack of commitment. Situational ethics and moral relativism are part of that approach to life. Some of those who lived through those times, who gave their hearts to a person or a cause, who were willing to sacrifice, dedicate themselves and commit, often found themselves disillusioned and heartbroken by the instability and lack of commitment which were and are intrinsic to the "me" generation.

The ideas of the "me" generation do not spring from passion but from boredom, rebellion, distrust and anger. They spring from inner emptiness arising from a closed heart. The means of fulfillment proposed by the "me" generation produce artificial "highs," temporary thrills, passing "joy." And the end-result may be depression, loss of focus and even suicide. "Me" generation people seek to fill the vacuum of their lives and the hollowness within. Like all human beings, their inner being calls out for fulfillment, but they reject the wisdom conveyed by established paths. They refuse to submit to discipline. They try to avoid even the slightest "pain," and seek only pleasure, something that is not possible for those living in this very real world.

The "me" generation never disappeared. It wasn't just a passing adolescent stage from decades ago, but became mainstream culture. Teenage hippies with their moral relativism and situational ethics grew older but not necessarily wiser and made their way into society and into positions of power. What else could happen when the "hippie generation" and baby boomers came into their own? They assumed power over the government, the panels, the policymaking committees and corporations that decide just about everything in our society. However, their situational ethics does not make for a stable society. That which may be desired by one may be harmful to another. Moral relativism and situational ethics lead to anarchy.

Whether it is "freely" partaking of uncommitted sex, drugs, alcohol or violence, human lives are lost to disease, over dosage and injury. The "me" generation's actual practices have resulted in millions of deaths and harm to the very fabric of a stable society. There is nothing "free" about it. In other words, there are consequences for every choice and behavior.

As a nurse, I've taken care of 40 year-old mothers who were dying of end-stage cirrhosis of the liver from years of alcoholism. I've cared for "free-thinkers" who had sex with people they didn't even know and didn't love and then died of AIDS. I've seen the babies who were disabled from birth due to drug abuse on the part of their mothers, "cocaine babies" who will never live a normal life. And I've cared for paralyzed patients with spinal cord injuries sustained from gunshot wounds during fights or from injuries sustained in drug or alcohol related accidents.

The papers and the movies don't tell the real story: the subsequent lifetime of years upon years of heartache and hardship of those wounded, injured, disabled or destroyed through uncommitted sex, drug or alcohol abuse and violence. And those who promote these make millions of dollars by selling music, art or literature glorifying that destructive "culture." The people who follow that message find disappointment and death.

The reality of life is something parents tell their children about every day: "be careful," "don't do this, don't do that," because parents love their children and know that the fantasy world presented in the major media does not convey the real threat to one's health or well-being contained in the ways of the "me" generation, situational ethics, or moral relativism.

People whose hearts are open are passionate, each in their own way. They have intense feeling. They have dedication to someone or something. But not everyone gets to have his story told. Even an outwardly ordinary life can contain great meaning, richness of passion and purpose.

On the other hand, "hollow" people seek the cheap thrills, the quick fix, the drugs, alcohol and casual relationships. They are among those I call the "heart dead." But there are others among the "hollow" people who are "heart dead." They may be working and living among us, but they don't feel "alive." They may have much to say about what happens to others, may be in positions of power or influence, but not feel or "see" the others around them as "real" people. They may not be open to the intimacy, the vulnerability of understanding that we are each just one among many and all an equal part of the mix that is called "humanity." The "heart dead" live among us but never really "see" others and never really "listen" to others' voices or concerns.

The "heart dead" avoid suffering, submission to others or even to life or God. They are without passion and do not understand passion. They move through this life though they are not "alive" to life. The "heart dead" are anti-life, anti-God and self-focused. For them, the value of others' individuality is minimized or nonexistent. "Self," their "self" is supreme. And "society" as a whole is important, but only according to their shifting values and thoughts.

Not allowing themselves to feel intensely, not permitting themselves to submit to something or someone greater, they reject the reality of suffering and make suffering itself an evil. "Pleasure is good - pain is evil" "Life is good - death is evil" ... so goes their reasoning. And they would never wish to submit to anyone or anything that limited their pleasurable enjoyment of life, so therefore nobody should ever have to suffer.

So strong is their aversion to the basic suffering in life, that they would rather choose death than confront their basic vulnerability, lack of control, limitation and what they perceive to be the humiliation of submitting to suffering, dying and death. They therefore promote assisted suicide and death as viable "solutions" to the problem of suffering, dying and death. Even when excellent end-of-life care can relieve pain, they still choose accelerated death, because their basic approach to life denies the realities of life which include loss of control, vulnerability, dying and death!

The heart dead cannot accept the cycles of life, the pairs of opposites in life, that there is a beginning and an end, pleasure and pain, or birth and death. Whatever "passion" they have cannot be the type of passion that books are written about nor can it be the type of passion that inspires the telling of tales and legends throughout the ages. The "heart dead" cannot be admired for their courage, because they actually flee from life, hide from the realities of life and often, in their blindness, destroy life.

There is something about the human condition that struggles admirably through life for a purpose, for a goal, for something that uplifts one and makes the ordinary existence seem to be lifted up, ennobled. While parents may condemn the obsession of the younger generation with video games, one must look to the content of the video games that are most successful. Yes, there are many that are simply cheap violent thrills. But there are many that transport the player into a mythic world where there is right and wrong, the "good" and the "evil," and an all-important battle to win the prize, ... something almost completely lacking in prevailing societal teaching or example.

This "me" generation, a secular generation, does not engender mythic battles and achievements, because it rejects those values which make mankind "human" and which inspire and empower mankind to achieve great things. If we as a society choose to behave like animals, then we may not pretend to be "above" the animals. And so we find the secular bioethicists like Peter Singer elevating animal rights while simultaneously devaluing the human rights of the disabled, the different, and the "helplessly injured." Because they do not believe in an absolute "right" or "wrong," they have no constant or absolute basis upon which to judge actions. No unyielding foundation upon which they can build. The "anything goes" rationale fits right in with moral relativism, i.e., no absolute standard for right and wrong.

But the human soul thirsts for something greater, and the belief in standards of absolute right and wrong is something basic to the human condition. Rather than condemning those who subscribe to a belief in right and wrong, one must recognize the reality of right and wrong, good and evil.

The stories of knights in shining armor fighting epic battles to defend the lady or the crown describe human passion and inspire passion. There is no "hero" of great virtue in the "me" generation, nothing that could inspire entire generations for ages. But the story of the quest for the Holy Grail, stories of chivalry, and courage, and fairy tales such as Cinderella, are told generation after generation. They affirm the good and reward the reader with a renewed confidence in their faith. They affirm righteous and fair behavior along with sacrifice and determination.

These stories revolve around true passion. They include great sacrifice on the part of the heroes, and they include great suffering willingly accepted for the sake of the principles that governed their lives: honor, chivalry, love, devotion to God and King. These stories encouraged submission to the authority of "the good king" as well as acceptance of and an understanding of the harsh realities of life.

Those who refuse to give, who are only concerned with their own self-interests, who choose not to care, who reject the path of sacrifice and suffering, find themselves alone; the little they did have is taken away.

Great passion involves great love. And as it has been said, "there is no greater love than that of one who sacrifices his own life for a friend." Sacrificing one's own life can be done in a moment or be a lifelong labor of love in caring for those who are dependent and vulnerable. Submitting to suffering, sacrificing oneself even to death, one saves the life of the other. Outwardly, it appears foolish. But those who take that path know that the path of sacrifice and suffering is chosen out of great passion and love.

When we serve, when we care, when we submit to the realities of life, we lose some of what we may momentarily have desired, but we gain much more in the rich fulfillment of our passion and love. Those who have much to give in this way are given even more.

Our modern culture likes to ignore the harsh realities of life, mentally living in a false world. Rather than speaking of the constant portrayal of the ever young, ever healthy and ever alive, I would like to point out that this obsession with the young and healthy is directly tied into the "me" generation's cultural fear of being the "never again young," fear of being "the never again healthy," and fear of confronting the finality of death. Those who cannot accept the world as it is are uneasy when life's changes suddenly intrude upon the fantasy world the "heart dead" have created for themselves. Unable to prevent life from intruding into their dream, they seek to control these changes to suit their desires, to minimize pain, to even control and choose the timing of their own death. That is what is so central to the "me" generation: control of one's own life, not submitting to others or to other things.

And this explains the "me" generation's aversion to being vulnerable or helpless and dependent upon others. "Hopelessly injured" means being destined to live in a way that they would not wish to live, cannot imagine living and could not tolerate living. Projecting their own desires for complete self-control onto the lives of others, they say that others (the "helplessly injured") are "better off dead" than disabled, chronically ill or very elderly.

They would not wish to live under those circumstances. Those who use "quality of life" to determine whether a person is to be cared for (or even allowed to live) do not accept suffering as a natural part of life; they refuse to submit to the natural changes of life. For them, disability becomes a mark of revulsion, designating the disabled for devaluation, shunning and even imposed death.

Those who refuse to give, who are only concerned with their own self-interests, who choose not to care, who reject the path of sacrifice and suffering, find themselves alone; the little they did have is taken away.

And it all makes sense, because those who reject life are "heart dead" and do not feel the value in others' lives. Their "compassion" involves no sacrifice, no suffering, only death for those whose lives they devalue. They are quick to end the lives of the severely disabled, the different, the ailing. They are quick to deny treatment to the injured. They are quick to plunder the organs of the severely injured.

But real compassion for others always involves giving of oneself, even to the point of one's own daily, ongoing suffering, pain and sometimes death. THE Passion of life.

That is the example of giving without holding anything back, feeling so intensely that words fail, submitting one's will to something higher, sacrificing everything out of love. There IS something called "passion" and there are the utterly not passionate, the "heart dead." The really "dead" to life are walking among us. They are not "brain dead," but "heart dead," and though they think themselves wise, they do not understand the most basic facts of life! They do not live life and are not "of" life - that is why the culture they have built and promoted is called the "culture of death."