Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age

Medical technology brings no peace like trusting in a God who is actively at work

“We can only be grateful for the powerful technology we have. Yet because the United States has more of it than any other country, we who have access to it are challenged to restrain our tendency to use it. But it will always be difficult to use wisely as long as the world is as bad as we fear.”

 

Life Outside the Garden

Our personal judgments of good and bad carry a heavy weight in life beyond the garden of Eden. In the garden, like the child learning to exercise autonomy within limits, we exercised our freedom under protected conditions. In choosing to reject those limits for a life based on our own assessments, we lost something essential for healthy existence—a sense of place. In moving out into a limitless world, as Romano Guardini writes in The End of the Modern World, “even as this new world view affirmed a freedom of space it denied human existence its own proper place. While gaining infinite scope for movement man lost his own position in the realm of being.” In the garden, our human ancestors had a central place; outside it, we cease to experience a world that guarantees us a place in the total scheme of things. Not knowing where we belong, each one of us is forced to find our own way.

This places intense pressure on the reliability of our personal decisions, thus making us uniquely anxious in our choices. No wonder we plan incessantly in order to minimize chance and contingency. If we get it wrong, so we think, there is nothing in a hostile and impersonal universe that will rescue us. It certainly adds to the worry and anxiety with which most people pursue health and fear sickness today. Every uncertainty, every contingency that makes the world less predictable and more beyond our control, is a source of great dis-ease. So we reach for every new technique and technology that will enable us to regain control. Alone and unsure of our place in an uncaring universe, we rely on our knowledge of good and bad and the technical solutions that promise deliverance.

Armed only with these resources, we struggle with a common problem in medicine today: how far to go. It comes up in numerous scenarios, from cancer treatment to testing for a potential problem. In each case, the most common fear is not going far enough, and this is fueled by the anxiety that something bad is out there, and if we stop too soon, “it” will happen. The related assumption, of course, is that in stopping too soon, we have lost the chance to control “it.” One example, in an age of medical imaging that reveals the minutest details, is seeing something we weren’t looking for while looking for something else. The problem is that we often don’t know what to do about the fearful “it” we have found.

The patient, an elderly woman visiting her family for an extended stay from another country, had been experiencing pain in her leg for several months. One night the pain was unbearable, so her family took her to the emergency room. The treating physician, wanting to investigate if compression of a nerve in her back was causing the pain in her leg, ordered a CAT scan. The powerful images that looked inside her body revealed nothing unusual in her back but saw something in a completely different place. Though the findings, called “incidentalomas,” were small and nonspecific, the word abnormal appeared on the report. In these situations, the fear of something bad may be generated by the doctor, the patient, or both. In this case, the medical system reacted with fear, which ultimately led to three additional studies and a painful biopsy before all were assured that this was nothing bad.

Besides the thousands of dollars spent to confirm “normal,” one other casualty of “too much” in this case was the patient’s actual concerns. In the pursuit of a normal test, the patient’s ongoing pain was completely neglected. Her final reaction to high-tech medical care revealed her frustration: “I’m going back to my own country, where at least the doctors listen to the patient instead of looking at tests.”

We can only be grateful for the powerful technology we have. Yet because the United States has more of it than any other country, we who have access to it are challenged to restrain our tendency to use it. But it will always be difficult to use wisely as long as the world is as bad as we fear. If only we could depend on something more than the power of our thinking and the tools we possess to stand between us and disaster.

Embracing Contingency

We are outside the garden now; we have eaten of the tree, and there is no going back. We know too much to return to its innocence and safety. The world is scary, accidental, and random, but the more we attempt to control the chaos, the more we fear what remains outside our control. Unfortunately, at one level the world of Genesis beyond chapter 3 confirms our fears. Outside the garden the human race faces a world of violence and pain; the soil is hard, the thorns are sharp, and from the moment Cain killed Abel, because Abel received a blessing that Cain did not, jealousy and envy have marked nearly every human story. Sarah envies Hagar, Jacob envies Esau, Laban envies Jacob, and Rachel envies Leah—over and over creating trouble, violence, and injustice.

Read More