Shooting Arrows at Heaven: Why is There Debate About Battle Imagery in Health?

In her last book before she died, UK author Jennifer Diski wrote, “Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. … [I] will have nothing whatever to do with any notion of desert, punishment, fairness or unfairness, or any kind of moral causality.”

Battle imagery is in the news in Canada because Sick Kids Hospital (Toronto) shows children “fighting” disease. The responses, once again, are that disease is a journey, even a dance, something we live with.

Maybe the real issue is why it is necessary for an insightful writer like Diski, known for “zestful experimenting”, to tell us cancer is not a moral event.

We consider ourselves scientific. The truth is that we are all in the path of an oncoming train, just as in Alex Colville’s famous painting. If cancer withdraws its threat, annihilation is still heading my way.

In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Settembrini, the sunny liberal optimist, despises “the tie that binds [us] … to disease and death”. Yet Settembrini is dying. Praising science, while denying his own condition, he’s like “ancient Gauls who shot their arrows against Heaven”.

Part of Mann’s point to post-war Europe was that human beings are subject to laws of nature, like everything else inhumanismbabbit the universe. The liberal slogan, and it is a slogan, is that individuals have power to seize our destiny. Settembrini couldn’t seize his. More significant, he didn’t know it.

Smart, sensitive thinkers say the art of dying and the art of living are the same. The reason is simple: All life, including human life, involves decay. Every moment involves change, which is loss. We live better, with less fear, if we see things as they are. Illusions create false expectations, which fail, causing misery.

We don’t teach such thinkers. They are usually Asian, Indigenous, African or Latin American. Philosophy departments across Canada teach only the wisdom of white, mostly English-speaking philosophers of North Atlantic descent and/or education.

Like Settembrini, we want no truck with nature’s “evil, irrational power”. We shore up the battle imagery.

German playwright, Bertoldt Brecht, found in ancient Chinese theatre his lifelong strategy for hard times: the best resistance is no resistance. It doesn’t mean to cave. It means to go along with open eyes, finding unexpected opportunity. Brecht contrasted this idea with one common in European theatre: the individual “standing tall” against the storm, beating the wind, declaring it shouldn’t happen.

The problem with the “cancer battle”, as some have said, is that it obscures another struggle: that to come to terms with essential vulnerability and the ultimate unpredictability of existence, despite science. Such vulnerability is shared by all, cancer or no cancer.

Knowing existential insecurity is empowering. It is connection, for example, between rich white southern Ontarians and the First Nations people of Attawapiskat (in northern Ontario). Following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, settler Canadians are urged to know our personal stake in the well-being of the country’s first inhabitants. It is hard to do in self-satisfied ignorance of mutual dependence.

I don’t blame medical practitioners. I blame Humanities scholars paid to provide society’s conceptual tools. They may be shooting arrows at the Heavens, seduced by liberalism’s false freedoms. We need a conception of health that looks squarely at the lights down the tracks.

Ancient cultures (and some more recent) have not so arrogantly seen death as injustice, as if it might and should not happen. Universities should teach such traditions as philosophy (not just as religion, literature or ethnography). It could be a step toward more genuine respect for science.

An earlier version of this article appeared at Global Research.

Susan Babbitt is author of Humanism and Embodiment (Bloomsbury 2014).