[Content Note: Surgery, Religion, Nazis, Swearing]
Ana's Note: If you are related to me, do not read this post. I'm serious.
Two days before my surgery, a member of my family wrote me asking if I was "right with God".
Surgery is a funny thing. My husband and I had spent the day before receiving this email at the hospital, meeting the doctors, finalizing the surgical approach plan, receiving last minute instructions, and being generally cleared for a procedure so invasive that my husband anxiously called it "rebooting the human body". And in the days between that one and my surgery, I fell into a truly uncharacteristic lull.
I didn't write new blog posts, though I usually write one or more a day. I didn't read and review books. I didn't watch movies and analyze them for problematic issues. I didn't do much of anything except play Kairosoft games, watch "Dirty Jobs" on the Discovery Channel, and visit Half Price Books with Husband so I could stare at the rows of titles without actually reading them. I wasn't scared or frightened so much as I was just... passing the time. I felt like I was mentally on hold.
And it was in Half Price Books that this email came to me, written by a family member that I truly love and deeply respect, and my mind briefly surfaced from its cottony cocoon of shock long enough to screech with rage for a few sustained moments before settling back down to sleep again. (It sounded kind of like a really angry scavenger bird or possibly one of those guys from Dark Crystal, for the record.)
Husband didn't understand my rage. "They just care about you," he consoled me. "It's sweet."
It wasn't sweet.
Now I want to say this: I know in my heart that my beloved family member meant well. I know that they are genuinely concerned about me, and I believe they felt that they had to write this email in order to be at peace.
I also honestly believe that this email was written under a sort of spiritual duress. I receive 3+ emails from this family member a day (so I am intimately familiar with the way they write) and this email sounded completely different from their usual style, as though they were writing for the benefit of a third party. Even before I got to the "right with God" bit, I scrolled up to the top twice just to double-check that the email hadn't been CC'd to someone or sent by someone else. It just sounded totally wrong, like it was written by someone else, for someone else, and very possibly for a group of people instead of just a single one. It didn't sound like an email from hir to me.
So this isn't a post about how my family sucks, because I love my family in general and this person in particular more than most. And it's not a post about what an awful person they are, because I don't think they are an awful person and I don't think they would have written this email if they'd realized how deeply it would hurt me. But it is a post about why this particular thing is a really, really shitty thing to do to someone about to go into a surgery. Just for the record.
Because when you write someone prior to a surgery asking them if they're "right with God", you're communicating an awful lot to that person, including:
1. It has occurred to me that you're the sort of person who might go to hell. You don't mean it this way, I know. At best, you are trying to convey the concept that the particular brand of god you worship is such a malicious douchenozzle that zie would send Shirley Temple to hell if zie could find a loophole to do so. So you're not singling me out as an obvious Sinner McSinnerface so much as you're trying to remind me that if I don't say the magic words prior to keeling over dead, god will mischievously zip me right off to hell with no take-backsies because that's just what zie does.
But let's be honest here. You don't send "are you right with God by any chance?" emails to the family members who attend church weekly. You don't send those emails to them because it's largely redundant and faintly insulting. They already know they need to be "right with God" because their pastor tells them that on a fairly regular basis, so your reminding them of the same would seem to indicate that you don't think much of their listening skills. So with that data point we're back to the beginning, which is to say that because you sent me this email, you think that I kind of look like the kind of person who gets sent to hell. With, you know, Hitler and folks like that.
And that's exactly the sort of thing that is nice to hear from friends and family prior to invasive surgery: I look like Hitler.
2. It has occurred to me that you might die soon. You noticed that too, did you? Because I've been intimately aware of that for every day, week, month, and year since I was told I needed this surgery. I've spent several tearful weekends clutching on to Husband and reminding myself that my doctor hasn't lost a person to surgery yet and promising that I won't be the first one. We've drafted and signed wills, medical powers of attorney, and directives to physicians about what they may and may not do in order to keep us alive. Husband has clear and detailed instructions about what to do with my blog, my writings, my possessions, and my pets in the event of my death.
So believe me, I've been thinking about my impending possible death a lot. Nice to see that you have too.
But here's the thing: I don't like thinking about my impending possible death. Now that I've gotten the responsible adult stuff out of the way with wills and whatnot, I want to focus on spending a few final happy days with my family and friends. I want to eat at the restaurants I love, cuddle the cats that I adore, and play board games with Husband one-possibly-last time. And here you are telling me that I have to set all that aside and deal with something that you feel is important.
And I recognize that you think this is just one more responsible adult thing I need to do, but you need to recognize that isn't your call to make. It's not even your place to make the suggestion. Because my death, and how I die, is none of your business. It's as much your place to tell me which god I should be "right with" prior to my death as it is to tell me who should get my limited edition Dragonball Z figurines, which is to say it's not your place at all. And reminding me that I may die soon when I'm desperately trying to forget that and enjoy the last few days of health and life possibly remaining to me is a really jackwagony thing to do.
3. It has occurred to me that I know more than you do. Obviously, or you wouldn't be telling me which god I'm supposed to be "right with" prior to my surgery. Because implicit in that question -- Are you right with God? -- is a lot of assumptions about my beliefs, and about what they should be. Implicit in that question is a lot of assumptions about the nature of the universe, and our place in it. And implicit in that question is a huge baggage of You Know Better Than Me and how I need to gather up the pearls of wisdom that you are tossing in my direction.
Again, I recognize that you don't mean it this way. You're just sharing what you believe to be the good news about god and stuff. (Where "good news" is that if I fail to say the correct sequence of words, I'll be tortured for all eternity. Great!) It's just a belief, you're not making some kind of fact-based claim of absolute truth for god's sake and why is everyone so freaking sensitive about this? But the thing is that you are demonstrably causing harm (by causing me serious emotional distress in a time where stress is something that I cannot sustain more of) and potentially causing possible spiritual harm (because, honestly, what if you're wrong and you're converting me from the Right religion to the Wrong one?) in order to proselytize to me about something that you kind of think might be right?
That seems pretty irresponsible, doesn't it? To inflict known pain and possible spiritual damnation by witnessing to a sick person who may already have the right answer and you may be the mistaken one? I certainly think so. Incidentally, this is why I belong to a religion that doesn't proselytize and which holds the individual experience and choice as utterly sacred and not to be questioned or impinged upon. Which is kind of convenient for you, since it means that when you next go in for surgery, I won't be writing you lengthy emails asking if you've gotten yourself right with Cthulhu or whatever.
4. It has occurred to me that I don't value your feelings. This is really the worst one. I can dig that you look at me and see the sort of person who goes to hell because, hey, at least I'll apparently be in good company what with everyone else like me getting sent down there. And as I mentioned earlier, I realize that I may be dying soon, so while it's crass of you to shove that in my face again when I'm already struggling to cope with that idea, it's not like it's news. And, really, I can even deal with you believing you know more than I do, even down to the nitty-gritty of how to conduct my spiritual life because it's not like it's personal. You do that for everyone, I reckon.
But your email has also told me, loud and clear, that you don't value my feelings. And that hurts.
I'm sure you feel like it's a worthwhile sacrifice: my feelings for my eternal soul. And who am I to tell you where your convictions should lie? But I'll tell you something. I do care about your feelings. I cared about your feelings enough to write you back a non-committal reassuring email. (Everything is fine. You don't need to worry. I love you.) I cared enough about your feelings to turn to Husband, post-rage squawk, and tell him that "if I do die, tell hir that I was the appropriate brand of Christian. It'll make hir happy." I cared enough about your feelings to reassure you the next day that I loved you, that I wasn't mad at you, that everything was okay, that it was all good between us even though you sensed that I was feeling a little chill what with SURGERY and DEATH and ETERNAL DAMNATION and FAMILY CONFLICT on my mind thanks to your email.
I recognize that you're in a bind. You've been raised to believe in a god that doesn't give two shits about people's feelings. The god you were raised to believe in really would send me to hell and not give it a moment's thought to how much pain zie was causing you. I know about this god because I know you and I know the person who taught this god to you. And I know that no matter how many people disagree with hir version of god, I know it's the version you're stuck with. I love you anyway, and I don't blame you for any of this.
But you need to be aware of this, of how much your question hurts. If you really feel you must ask the question, you need to be aware of how thoroughly hurtful and abusive the question really is. Because you are saying (though I know you don't want to be saying) that I need to drop all my feelings about surgery and death and loss and pain and fear and everything else, and I need to put all that aside to come console you about your feelings about surgery and death and loss and pain and fear. Because ultimately that's what this is about: you're scared of losing me, so you're clinging to the one thing that will make you feel better. If Ana says the magic words, I'll see her again in heaven!
I get that. I do. But you're making my pain all about you, and you're doing it at the worst possible time and in the worst possible way. Because "I'm scared of losing you" is something I can proactively discuss with you: "I know, I'm scared too, we have to believe it will be okay." But "I'm scared you'll go to hell" is something that I can't deal with in any form whatsoever, and yet if I care about you, I feel that I have to. You're placing me in a position where I have to lie to you in order to comfort you.
And that's not cool.
I'm not writing this to you; I specifically told you way up at the top not to read this post and I know that you'll respect that. I love you so much that I don't want you to read this because I know it will cause you pain and I don't want that. But maybe someone else will read this and will come away with a lot of good reasons to not do this to someone they love.
Because, seriously, don't do this to someone you love.
Commenting Note: This is a Religion 202 post, which means that the comments will remain a safe space for atheists and members of non-proselytizing religions, including the blog-mistress. Comments that contain statements purporting to explain my family member's perspective for my benefit will be deleted right out; I know more about my family member and hir views of god than anyone else here and I don't need to repeatedly explain that. I can and will put this thread on moderated lock-down if I need to, so please post thoughtfully, respectfully, and with utmost care. Thank you.