What is life?

During my time in hospital ministry I came to realise that I needed to develop a "Theology of Life" to help people, including myself, come to grips with the many hard questions that we face in this kind of institution.

The first thing I've come to realise is that hospitals are supposed to be about Life. They are not about Death — that's called a funeral home. Yes, there may be dying people in a hospital, but that simply emphasizes the point even more, because it presents a conundrum: why is there Death in a house of Life? But the fact that the presence of Death in itself creates a conundrum, rather than simply being part of the norm, only highlights the point that hospitals are meant to be about Life.

A second point: we cannot give Life. If we could, we could cure Death, and we can't. Indeed, we can't really cure anything, strictly speaking. It is the body itself that has the final responsibility to keep itself alive, and all we can do is help it along by creating conditions that favour the body in its struggle for Life. So we offer medications to kill germs, we set broken bones in casts, we cut out tumours, and we place people on respirators — but we do so, finally, in cooperation with the body, which still has to be the one that maintains the overall balance.

Finally, I've come to see more clearly is that a person is either alive or dead, and there is a world of difference between the two. There is no such thing as someone who is "half-dead", and we should never speak this way. The body is an amazing thing, fundamentally oriented towards life, struggling for it in each moment. I know it is a circular definition, but one of the defining features of Life (it seems to me) is that it seeks to go on living. And this struggle is with us every day — the sick simply happen to be more acutely aware of the struggle, as it is tougher for them. Life, then, really is a miracle of sorts. We live an extremely hostile environment, when you think about it: germs fill every breath of air we breathe, and get inside our bodies when we eat, drink, kiss, make love, prick our finger, whatever. A significant part of what we eat is indigestible, and the air we breathe in, once used, becomes a poison we must breathe out. Accidents happen, and we get cuts and break bones actually fairly frequently. And yet, the body not only has a capacity to take in what it needs to live, and to eliminate the rest, it also has an amazing capacity to heal itself and to fight off invaders that seek to destroy it. In what is often a hostile world, the fact that Life is able to surge upward in us is truly amazing. And so the sick are never "half-dead". Even if we know it will lose the battle in the end, as long as the body continues the struggle it deserves to be honoured with the adjective "alive". To say otherwise dehumanizes the sick and the dying, as causes us to live in the illusion that we ourselves somehow are no engaged in the same struggle. We are, and the sick are actually our brother and sisters in Life, from whom we can learn a great deal.