Over the last decade or so, I have had the chance to interact in one way or another with hundreds of men and women who are striving to be faithful to the traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality. For many of them, this has been a terrible burden, a source of grief, loneliness, and much else besides. Along the way, I have seen many give up on chastity, or give up on faith. I, too, have struggled many times with the question of whether it is worth it, or whether this is a misguided teaching that causes unnecessary suffering.
How should I try to make sense of this?
I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”
— Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue
One of the stories that has been particularly helpful to me in thinking about these struggles is Emma Thompson’s Wit. Thompson plays Dr. Vivian Bearing, a literature professor specializing in the poetry of John Donne, who is diagnosed with advanced metastatic ovarian cancer.
As the film unfolds, we watch Dr. Bearing’s health deteriorate, as she experiences the intense side-effects (pain, fever, chills, vomiting, immune system suppression) of the chemotherapy she is receiving.
At a certain point, Dr. Bearing’s ability to resist infection becomes so impaired by the cancer treatments that she has to be placed in an isolation unit.
I am not in isolation because I have cancer, because I have a tumor the size of a grapefruit. No. I am in isolation because I am being treated for cancer. My treatment imperils my health. Herein lies the paradox. John Donne would revel in it. I would revel in it if he wrote a poem about it. My students would flounder in it, because paradox is too difficult to understand.
Think of it as a puzzle, I would tell them, an intellectual game. Or I would have done, were it a game. Which it is not.
I rather wish John Donne had written that poem. If he had, I would quote it here, and no doubt the rest of this blog post would be easier to write, as a commentary on Donne’s words.
As it is, I am left to my own devices.
If I had spent the last few years as an oncologist, rather than as a philosopher who occasionally writes about gay issues, I also would have seen much suffering. Patients would come to me with cancer, and under my treatment, many of their lives would get worse. They would suffer because of the treatments they received. The treatment would hurt them in ways that the cancer would not. And many would not recover. For them, there would be no happy ending, at least as far as this world is concerned.
Yet the fact that cancer treatment imperils the patient’s health is not an argument against oncology; it is, as Dr. Bearing recognizes, a paradox.
Turning back to the struggles that many endure as they strive to be celibate, it is not surprising that many do not understand how it could be part of the will of a loving God to put someone through such struggles—people flounder because paradox is difficult.
Yet at least for me, to see the suffering as the side effects of treatment makes sense. I have persevered in faith long enough to know that spiritual growth is full of paradox. He who loses his life will save it. Even struggles with temptation and sin can lead, through repentance, to much deeper spiritual wisdom.
This is not to say that there are not unhealthy and destructive ways of pursuing celibacy.
The same is true in medicine: just because someone has cancer does not mean that just any treatment will automatically be good simply because it is painful. Leeches, for example, cause suffering but are not an effective treatment. (Snakebite would be even more painful than leaches, I assume, but that would not make the Black Mamba an effective treatment option.)
Those of us who preach celibacy have a very serious responsibility to test our practices, and adhere to the principle “first, do no harm.”
Still, Dr. Bearing’s soliloquy gave me a new perspective on the suffering that I’ve seen in others, and on my own struggles, as well.
If you haven’t seen Wit, do so. It is in some ways a terribly depressing film, one of the saddest I have ever seen. But it is also one of the most profoundly life-affirming.
Again, the paradox.