In much of the debate over doctor-prescribed suicide centers on personal autonomy and a desire not to “waste away.” But this story from Dr. E. Wesley Ely, a doctor in Nashville’s VA Medical Center, shows us that physical weakness and the approach of death is part of living a full life.
He relates the story of Bennie, an elderly man in the ICU whose body was failing by stages, whose last request was to be baptized. And not with some sprinkles of water, but immersed in the way Jesus was dunked in the Jordan. The unusual request was fulfilled with the help of an inflatable kiddie pool and Bennie’s son’s strong arms.
When he died a week later, Laura implored me to tell other people about her Dad, hoping his experience would show them that “we can all become strong through our weakness.” In fact, I have seen scores of patients and families use profound “outer wasting” as a catalyst for deep inner renewal. The two most important “frames” of our life are birth and death. We typically associate baptism with the former, yet Jesus spoke of his death as a baptism to indicate the formative next step that dying represents for our journey.
The ICU team’s bold yet careful response to Bennie’s unusual request taught me an enduring lesson regarding sympathy versus empathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone; empathy is feeling “with” someone. In all the surrounding insanity of the hospital that day, diving deeply into Bennie’s life through his baptism on the breathing machine allowed all of us to be reborn, too. Being “with” him in that pool, and rising with him out of it, we walked into others’ lives better prepared to serve.