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Medical Torture and Why We Do It

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I’ve been thinking about a biblical story these days. Not a very Buddhist way to start a piece (for Buddhistdoor), but bear with me.

It is the story of biblical beginnings. After god separates Heaven from Earth, sweeps colossal bodies of water into position, and creates the natural world, he builds two humans and places them in a garden. He shows them the world, tells them to be good guardians, and commands them to be “fruitful and multiply” (although he never quite explains how they might go about either of these job requirements).

Just before he leaves, god tells them one last thing: “There are two trees in this garden—one is the Tree of Knowledge and the other the Tree of Life. You may eat from the Tree of Life, but the Tree of Knowledge is forbidden to you.” He then sails off into the sunset, leaving the two humans to figure things out on their own.

What happens next is not surprising. As any practiced parent knows, if you give your child access to everything in the room except for this one thing, the child will immediately gravitate to that one thing. Nothing else will be remotely as interesting. God takes his leave, a slithery serpent enters, and the rest is biblical history. They eat the forbidden fruit and break the only command they had been directed to obey.

But here is the interesting part: moments after taking their first bites, Adam and Eve realize their nakedness and scramble to find leaves to cover themselves. The knowledge they gained is an awareness of their bodies that they did not have before. The consequence is immediate eviction from the land of immortality.

Most people read this story as a fear-mongering tale: obey your authority figures or you will be punished (forever). I can appreciate the interpretation, but I see something more interesting. The story tells us that if you eat from the Tree of Life, you cannot also eat from the Tree of Knowledge. It’s one or the other, but you can’t have both. If you choose knowledge, you lose access to eternal life.

Although the story reads like a warning, I don’t think it is. It’s an origin tale, telling us why we crave knowledge, why we are capable of pursuing it, and why we crave immortality at the same time (but never get it). It is a description of reality, despite the fact that it wags its finger at the same time. We will always crave immortality, because we once had it and now it is gone. And we will always pursue knowledge, because we ate from the tree and are forever changed as a result. We are intelligent creatures built with an expiration date attached. That’s who we are, and the biblical story is just telling us how we got this way.

The best indicator of this paradox, of this inner turmoil to which we are bound, is in our relationship to medicine. We pursue medical advancement with desperation. We want to live forever, we want to alleviate our own suffering, and we push as hard as we can to make it happen. Challenging “god’s decision” with every breath we take, trying to extend our limited warranty.

But in the process, in this devoted quest to get more out of life, we eventually find ourselves faced with the reality that we are suffering all the same. And sometimes, we are suffering even more.

I don’t mean to be idealistic. Or hypocritical. I don’t deny the wonders of medicine or the fact that I would readily use them if required. I don’t deny my gratitude each time a member of my family makes use of these to live a little longer. Or with a bit more ease. I also don’t deny the fact of my privilege, of living in a time and place where these medical advances are available. I don’t mean to spit in the face of the gifts I receive each time I receive a vaccine.

But I also recognize a tug-of-war when I see one. The medical industry prolongs life that in other contexts would have ended ages ago, easing pain that would have otherwise been unbearable. But the medical industry is an industry, not a wisdom tradition. It is a product of capitalism, of the more factor—the endless and unrelenting desire for more of everything—and it does not know when to stop. It grabs the Tree of Knowledge with one hand while reaching for the Tree of Life with the other, and that—so the biblical story tells us—is bound to end badly.

The elders of my family are getting older. They are getting hit with more “incidents”—of one kind or another. I am watching the people I have loved all my life become more diminished with each intervention. And they hate it. They feel their independence being stripped away, one medical decision at a time, but there is no path to elsewhere left to follow. The more factor is taking more than it is giving, but no one in the system is equipped with the ability to make it stop. Because, even though human beings are messy and self-interested, we are also hopeful. We are optimistic creatures, perpetually convinced that the next dose will work. The next answer will be the right one. That if we just fix this issue, all the others will follow suit.

But, more often than not, we are wrong. And we wind up medically torturing ourselves in the process. We don’t mean to. We don’t want to. But the Tree of Life is right there . . . so close I can feel it . . .

The biblical story was telling a story about suffering. It is how the biblical story begins. It is the story Buddhism has been trying to get across forever too. Life is suffering. There is just no alternative for us but to make peace with that basic truth.

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