An elderly woman in our ward recently passed away. I visited her in a hospice before she died. Her room at the hospice overlooked a garden with floor to ceiling windows open to the summer breeze. She was the only patient in a spacious, decorated room filled with comfortable furniture for family and friends to gather. Staff were friendly and unhurried. The woman’s husband and I took a long walk down the garden path which led to a dramatic lookout point over the beautiful Calderdale Valley. I don’t think one could ask for a more comfortable and caring place to die, or to witness the death of a loved one.
Modern medicine regards death as a great failure and sometimes takes irresponsible measures to try to keep people alive as long as possible in joyless, chaotic hospitals with no quality of life. But in the hospice philosophy, dying is not a tragedy. It is simply another stage of human development, like childhood, adolescence or middle age. This final stage often bears the greatest spiritual fruits, as families gather around their loved ones, speaking truths and expressing feelings for each other they had long kept locked away inside their breasts. Hospice is all about providing a comfortable and welcoming space for this to beautiful transformation to occur.
My experience at this hospice got me thinking about the LDS metaphor of the gospel as a hospital. Elder Holland and others have noted that the church is a hospital for healing the spiritually sick. But what if some of our spiritual afflictions, like some of our physical ailments, cannot be healed? Is there room in the gospel for a hospice as well as a hospital? Our physical body has periods of sickness, health, chronic ailment, and eventually death. But no one is overly judgemental when it comes to the body. If we go to a hospital, the doctor might say we did something we did “wrong,” like failing to exercise or eat properly. But we know that physical sicknesses are often out of our control, so we don’t blame ourselves and others too harshly.
Our attitudes change when it comes to spiritual sicknesses. When someone has spiritual problems, we propose all sorts of things they should do to remedy the situation, and we notice all the bad things they did to create the problem. But what if spiritual sickness is no different than physical sickness? What if it comes along, randomly, like bacteria in the air, for a variety of reasons, some of which are completely out of our control? In a spiritual sickness we expect to be healed. But why should we, when many physical ailments cannot be healed? If God gives people chronic and malignant physical sicknesses, why wouldn’t He give them chronic and malignant spiritual sicknesses as well?
My father is one of the most long-suffering and obedient members of the church I know. He has spent his life anxiously engaged in trying to overcome his personal weaknesses. But like many of us, he still struggles, even after decades and decades of effort, to control his temper. God promises to help us make our “weaknesses into strengths” but in reality, does this always happen? Like Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” it seems we are destined to carry some of our spiritual weaknesses with us to the grave.
Hacking Rather Than Healing
In the case of chronic spiritual ailments, the hospital metaphor can be a bit demoralising. If healing never comes, even after years of trying to overcome the problem, perhaps the answer is that God wants us to learn to live with it, to manage it, rather than overcome it. A friend of mine once said that we sometimes look at our problems as if they were black stains on the living room carpet, and we spend all our time scrubbing and scrubbing, trying to get them out. But maybe God wants us to live with the stain, to make it part of the furniture.
People who suffer from physical disabilities find all sorts of creative ways to live effectively, from increasingly sophisticated artificial limbs, to mental tricks to help chronic stuttering. It’s about hacking, not healing. “Life-hacking” is a modern term associated with finding creative solutions to chronic personal weaknesses without having to overcome them entirely. It’s a pragmatic approach to life that recognises that some of our weaknesses our here to stay. Could we teach “spiritual life-hacking” in church, proposing strategies to deal with weaknesses, rather than overcome them? Bridling passions rather than squelching them? Strengthening weaknesses rather than eliminating them?
“To Succour Them In Their Infirmities”
The Book of Mormon says Jesus takes upon himself our infirmities that he may know “how to succour” us in our afflictions. What does succour mean? I don’t think it means “healing.” Succour is more associated with hospice than hospital. Jesus is there with us, comforting us AS we suffer, with us AS we die. For me, that is the deepest essence of the atonement. The reconciliation comes as God shares the suffering and tragedy of life with us without necessarily healing or eliminating the suffering.
Of course the deepest essence of the gospel is repentance, change, and healing. We’ve all seen wonderful transformations in people’s lives when they begin to live the gospel. Just because there are cases where change is not possible doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to stress the healing-dimension of the gospel. But I think we should always make some room for spiritual hospice as well as spiritual healing.
- Do you agree that we are overly judgemental when it comes to spiritual ailments compared to physical ailments?
- Are we realistic enough about the chronic nature of some of our spiritual ailments? Should we try to “hack” them instead of “heal” them.
- How do we balance the hope the gospel brings for healing and change, with the realisation that not all of our problems are destined to be overcome?
Thank you for this article. I am hospice volunteer, mostly providing respite service in the patient’s own home so that the primary caregiver can take a break. If a patient has COPD, I do not ask him if he was a smoker.
Within the LDS Church, there is a huge expectation of deference to priesthood authority, the Church Handbook of Instructions, etc.
There is also a belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin called this belief “erroneous” in his conference talk, “Concern for the One,” April, 2008. Nevertheless, this misconception persists.
As someone with Asperger’s, I have a lifelong struggle meeting these expectations.
Thank you Nate for a thoughtful and complex post.
I have long felt that those who suffer chronic mental illness fall into this category. Interestingly, many people I know confuse the suffering of mental illness with spiritual problems. “How can you be depressed, knowing all the plan of salvation has to offer you” etc etc.
It seems to me that the perception of the gospel that a lot of people have is that resolution to illness, injury, problem, sin etc is expected. I believe a lot of situations in this life will remain largely unresolved.
By overly judgmental, are you talking about us judging ourselves? Or others?
Assuming you mean ourselves, yes, I’d agree that we overdo it.
I think counseling is a great hack. I can just see your father beating himself up. “This temper of mine . . Oh, man, there I did it again. I’m a terrible person.” Likewise, I can see him sitting before a counselor who asks, “What were you afraid of when you reacted that way? Let’s think about what some of your triggers are. . . . Because your mother/father did this, X will probably always be your first impulse. . . . Your needs are valid. What can we try that meets your needs but helps you understand what your wife is asking?”
Counseling acknowledges that we have human needs that will never go away, needs that get shoved out of sight in gospel sermons and articles on selflessness.
Reading fiction and history is another great hack. We learn about how people are and how they think, what they contributed and what they never quite overcame. Then we judge ourselves in a new light.
“The hope the gospel brings for healing and change” is another way to say “idealism.” If this life is a place to test and learn, part of what we’re testing is our ideas of what ought to work (idealism) vs. what does work. It requires hard experience. I don’t see any other way around it.
Tom and LDSAussi, thanks for linking this with mental illness and Aspergers. I hope we’ve turned a corner in starting to recognise mental problems more broadly as a physical, like any other malady. I think the next step is recognising that, even when problems are NOT physical, they can be just as chronic. There are things God wants us to work through rather than wash away.
Greedy Reader, I think we judge others harshly, but many of us treat ourselves so cruelly and maliciously that we would be considered severely emotionally abusive if it were anyone else. Great ideas for hacking. The new kinds of counseling that focus on cognitive therapy are very much in the hacking spirit. Sometimes all we need is a shortcut to keep ourselves moving through problems rather than constantly stalled by them.
I think in the LDS Church there is a certain view of what constitutes a spiritually healthy individual: someone who has a testimony of the restored gospel, lives the commandments, attends their meetings, does their home or visiting teaching, magnifies their calling, attends the temple, regularly reads their scriptures and prays, is a member missionary, etc. There is a recognition that there must also be an internal spiritual faith, and that some people may go through the outward motions without being truly converted, but we focus a lot on the outward actions and statements, which serve as “fruits” of a spiritually healthy life.
So when we say the church is like a hospital, the goal is to help the individual align him or herself with those markers of spiritual health. And someone who is not attending church regularly, or turning down callings, or does not have a strong testimony, is considered spiritually sick. It is “perfecting the Saints.” You see this approach in bishops and stake presidents who focus on helping members become worthy of a temple recommend. It’s about developing the testimony and keeping the commandments to become temple worthy, i.e., spiritually healthy.
What would a more hospice-care approach look like? I think it would be less outcome driven. Rather than trying to get members to a certain place, it would be about ministering to people where they are. If you don’t have a testimony, or you don’t obey the Word of Wisdom, you can still actively participate in the church. It’s more about community and spending time together and serving each other rather than working hard to encourage each other and ourselves to follow the checklists of spiritual health.
I try not to judge anyone. We all have spiritual weaknesses or weaknesses that could be seen as spiritual. For instance is anger a spiritual weakness or is it human nature? What about patience?
I, like your father have a temper, however these days if it appears at all it is sharp and short lived, but that as not always been the case. The reasons are many, but many of them are to do with life experiences, which have shown me what matters most and being angry or staying angry is a waste of energy and time. I think as a church we are expected to overcome all our weaknesses, but a just God realizes that there are some weaknesses we will never overcome in this life or without his help.
No matter what I know about Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ and life after death, I think one of my greatest weaknesses is lack of faith and it is not the ‘eternal things’ that i lack faith in, but in every day living, surviving, believing that God knows me and know what i need. Because of my, now, physical and mental disabilities I often read my patriarchal blessing and it doesn’t make sense and then i wonder did i miss something, was i supposed to have done such and such before my disability hit? or did i make a mistake so big that i am being punished for it? yet, i know that God doesn’t create illnesses or disabilities as punishments – i have accepted that my disability cannot be overcome in this life at least, but that creates so many unanswered questions, which no one can answer, not even God.
Like our physical or mental ailments i don’t think we can heal all our spiritual ailments either, i don’t think we are supposed to.They would be no need for a Saviour is we could do it all ourselves.
Some 30 years ago, i worked in a hospice and for most people when they arrive they have accepted that they are dying and they will not be going home again, but then there are others who fight till the end. Yet, death is part of life’s journey, but death is no more easier than living. However, if i needed a specific place to die then i would choose an hospice.
This is such a great perspective, Nate. Especially watching my own grandfather begin long-term hospice care (death panels!!) and me attempting to manage my own chronic disease (lupus). This is something I want to think about for a while, so I guess I’ll just say thanks for writing it.
I keep coming back to Elder Holland’s conference talk “Like a Broken Vessel,” October 2013.
Here is a brief excerpt:
Elder George Albert Smith, the latter being one of the most gentle and Christlike men of our dispensation, who battled recurring depression for some years before later becoming the universally beloved eighth prophet and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Elder Holland focused on depression in his talk. But I think we are all broken vessels in one way or another.
I like the metaphor Nate.
This last nine months both my father-in-law and father died in hospices.