Death in the Family

This past week was a tough one in our house. We had to euthanize our 9 1/2 year old German Shepherd Dog after discovering he had an advanced case of lymphoma. Yes, the full name of the the breed is “German Shepherd Dog”; no I don’t know why. Weird, huh? The Wikipedia article on the breed, and some other sources I have seen, put the upper weight limit of males at 88 pounds. Our big boy was 105. That is, before he got sick. In just two weeks he lost over twenty pounds and began to look emaciated. That’s what caused me to take him in to see the vet. After an x-ray we were counseled that the chances of a positive outcome from an intervention were very low. Especially since the x-ray showed he also had advanced arthritis in his spine.

Considering his age and the low chance of extending his life appreciably we decided to spare him as much pain as possible. After we made the decision to euthanize him I planned on a date a week away in order to give us a little more time with him. Perhaps this was a little selfish of me, but I thought he might get some enjoyment out of his last week and we’d get a little more time to get used to the idea of not having him around any more. Due to the location of his tumor (deep in his intestines) though, he wasn’t able to eat. This meant his rate of deterioration was accelerating. Sadly, after one more day of watching him drag around with none of the pep that was his hallmark his whole life, I decided to take him in that evening.

It’s an extremely difficult thing to decide when to end the life of a loved one. I agonized over the decision for days knowing that there would be no way to know if I had made the right choice in the end. I feel terrible about not trying a surgical intervention first, but looking at that x-ray even I could see that it didn’t look good. In the end we did what we thought best for him, and in a way, that’s all that matters.

Going through this experience caused me to ponder on the ethical issue of euthanasia. I find it very interesting that it is a widely accepted practice when it comes to our animal friends but is considered unethical by many when applied to humans. I can’t think of any rational justification for it to be ethical in one case but not in the other. Any defense of the status quo on this issue in our society must be predicated on some fundamental difference between humans and other species. I don’t think there is a fundamental difference though. I don’t believe in souls, or that we were created in some god’s image, or that some supernatural boogie-man gave us “dominion” over the other species on this planet. I think we should move this debate in our society beyond a blanket prohibition on euthanizing humans and start discussing in what situations it’s appropriate. The word “euthanasia” comes from the Greek roots eu- (good) and thanatos (death) and I, for one, would prefer a good death to a long lingering painful one. Death is sad no matter what, but for us biological types it is inevitable. Euthanasia can allow people who choose it a way to face that inevitability with dignity and on their own terms. Think about it.

Goodbye Loki. We loved you dearly, and will miss you terribly. You made us laugh and made our home safer. You protected my family whenever I was away from home. A truer heart I’ve never known… nor likely ever will. I hope we were able to repay a fraction of your loyalty and friendship by giving you a good death. Voran!

Calamity strengthens faith

One of the strangest phenomena of human behavior that I know of is the way in which experiencing a catastrophe causes people to become more superstitious. CNN is currently running an article regarding how the recent earthquake has caused many Haitians to become more religious that caused me to ponder on it.

“A lot of people who never prayed or believed – now they believe.”
“People don’t blame Jesus for all these things. They have faith. They believe that Jesus saved them and are thankful for that.”
Christina Bailey, a 24 year-old clerk.

“Thank you, God, because he saved my life. If I lose my feet, I always had my life.”
11 year-old Anaika Saint Louis, who later died from injuries to her legs

I find these quotes intriguing because of what it indicates about the way the catastrophe is interpreted as regards to faith. From an unbiased viewpoint an observer could just as easily (if not more easily) conclude that the devastating earthquake was evidence for the absence of an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent supernatural being. But these people who have just experienced this horrible calamity instead interpret their continued existence as evidence that Yahweh saved them. I believe this is purely due to myopia and confirmation bias. I say myopia because certainly the people who were killed by the earthquake could not claim to have been saved by Jesus, and it is the inability of the survivors to see the situation from the perspective of the deceased that allows them to see their own survival as a positive act of a benevolent deity. The confirmation bias part comes in with the identification of the deity responsible for their salvation. Clearly Vishnu or Chtulu wouldn’t be responsible for saving Christian/Voodoo hybrids. On second thought, it’s myopia that enables this confirmation bias anyway because it is the inability to view one’s own religion from the perspective of an adherent of any other religion that allows believers to be certain about their own beliefs at all.

The article does make a good point towards the bottom regarding the correlation between poverty/hopelessness and faith. This is clearly a strong aspect of faith in such an impoverished place as Haiti. There is no easy answer to the hypothetical question posed at the end of the story, “They leave everything in the hands of God. When you have so little, what else can you turn to?” Aside from turning to your fellow humans for support and empathy, you have to do it all yourself. This is just the nature of the human condition. Turning to imaginary super-friends never actually solved anything, but it may make a believer feel a little better about a situation and allow them to carry on when they might otherwise crack. It’s like an elaborate form of denial. Of course, while I’d like to see the diminution of blind religious faith world-wide, right now the Haitians need to use whatever techniques enable them to get through the day with a scrap of sanity intact, even if it includes praying to their imaginary super-friend. My heart weeps for the survivors… and the dead. More so for the survivors when I contemplate what their existence is likely to be for the foreseeable future. And yes, I did donate to relief efforts. Another godless donor.

Things I believe #1

When I think about what I’d like to teach my children about this existence I often return to the thought, “What do I believe, and which of my beliefs is most important?” I haven’t come up with a solid answer to the second question because as with many things the relative importance of beliefs are a matter of perspective and context. Perhaps I should state that as my first belief. Continue reading