reflections of mine others might find useful

Author: Mark Forstrom

Philosophizing about experimental vaccines.

 

In my last post, I made the point that those of us who are confident in having an eternal future in heaven ought not be overly concerned with self-preservation.  We, of all people, can afford to be risk-takers.

I have two friends who have made me think about this same concept as it relates to experimental vaccines.

My one friend, I’ll call him Jacque, said there is no way he would ever take a vaccine until it was proven safe, evidenced by long-term studies of side effects.  Over pizza, I asked how long those long-term studies would need to run before he would be comfortable taking a vaccine?  Thinking about it for a bit, he decided a large sample size would need to take the treatment over a lifetime to give him confidence that there would be no latent side effects.  Only then would he be willing to take a vaccine.  He was not willing to take any risk.

My other friend, let’s call him Pierre, had a completely opposite view.  Riding with him in a car almost a year ago, he mentioned his eagerness to participate in an experimental trial of a new vaccine, effectively signing himself up to be a human guinea pig.  His view was, “I’m a Christian and I know I’m heading for heaven, so who better than me to help scientists find a cure?  Why should those who only live for this world be putting their lives in jeopardy when I can do it with everything to gain and nothing to lose?”  This was a view I had not contemplated before, and I was inspired by his courage, faith, and selfless attitude.

These two friends represent polar opposites on the scale of risk vs. safety.  Who is right?  Was one prudent and one reckless?  Was one walking in faith and one walking in fear?  Was one putting God to the test and the other living wisely?   Where is the line at which reasonable risk is acceptable?  Sorry, I only have questions today, not answers.  You’ll have to decide on your own.

And just to be clear, this post is not at all about the Covid vaccine.  I have treasured friends on every side of that controversy and this post has nothing to do with whether or not a person should get a Covid shot.  (In fact, I’ll delete any comments about Covid because that’s not the discussion I want this post to generate–there are plenty of other places to debate that.)

And another clarification is important:  I’m isolating the risk vs. safety aspect of experimental medicine.  I’m not addressing any ethical, moral, or spiritual dilemmas or information gaps that may affect medical decision-making.  That is a separate topic that I’m not addressing here.  A Holy Spirit-guided conscience should guide one through such quandaries.

Here, I’m only speaking philosophically about whether Christians ought to consider taking medical risks.

If a vaccine or inoculation or new treatment is to be developed to eradicate a human disease, it makes sense that at some point, human guinea pigs would be needed.  Clinical trials would likely involve experimentation on humans to see if it works as expected and to discover unintended side effects.  It would likely involve a bit of trial and error and the treatment would be modified and improved with each round of testing.  I don’t know this for sure, but I would imagine this is the way scientists developed vaccines and inoculations for eradicating smallpox, polio, and other diseases that we thankfully no longer have to be concerned with.

Speaking of smallpox, I will end this post by telling the story of the demise of one of my heroes of the faith, Jonathan Edwards, who died when he took an experimental smallpox inoculation in 1758.  He was 54, three years younger than me.   He took a medical risk, guessed wrong, and died, but there are a couple of interesting takeaways from his story.

Who was Jonathan Edwards?   He was the third President of Princeton University at his death, but, prior to that, was highly regarded as one of America’s most brilliant philosophical theologians.  A prolific preacher and writer, he helped start the religious revival known as the “Great Awakening,” and inspired the Protestant missionary movement of the 19th century.

Smallpox was a highly contagious virus that killed hundreds of thousands of people each year.  According to one Edwards biographer,

“Smallpox was spreading through the colonies.  Inoculations against the disease had well-known risks and were controversial, but were also proven to improve chances of survival.  Edwards, who always kept abreast of the latest scientific developments, had the whole family inoculated in late February…he soon contracted a secondary infection that eventually made it impossible for him to eat.  He died on March 22, age 54.”

(A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards by George M. Marsden)

Edwards had certainly weighed the pros and cons of the experimental smallpox vaccine and decided the risk was worth it for himself and his family.  But then, too late, he discovered that he had guessed wrong; his choice had inadvertantly delivered to him a death sentence.   I wondered what he thought about his decision during those final three weeks.  Did he feel angry?  Misled?  Guilty?  Ashamed?  Was he wringing his hands with regret as he learned that his bad decision was about to kill him?   According to his doctor, he did none of those things.

“Edwards’s physician, William Shippen, described the pastor’s posture on his deathbed as “cheerful resignation and patient submission to the divine will through every stage of his disease”

(The Life of President Edwards by Dwight, Sereno Edwards).

Can you imagine that?  He welcomed his pending death cheerfully.  He obviously saw his death not as the end, but as his gateway to Heaven.  “To die is gain.”  He didn’t despair over the prospect of his pending death, right to the end.

Just as significantly, he also viewed his fateful inoculation decision not as a mistake to be mourned, but as God’s divine will–and he patiently submitted to that.  He had such a high view of God’s sovereignty that he even saw his apparent miscalculation as something God had orchestrated.

Do you know what Edwards’ final words were?  “Trust in God and ye need not fear.”    He summarized well the main points of these two posts:

  1. We Christians mustn’t concern ourselves too much with life extension.
  2. Christians can afford to take risks, even medical ones
  3. and even if we guess wrong we win.

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Someday, I’ll likely discover that… I killed myself.

 

My guess is that someday when I arrive in heaven, I’ll find out that I’m there because I killed myself.

 

  • Perhaps I will discover I died by my own poor judgment, not looking both ways before walking out into an intersection.
  • Or perhaps I’ll find that I should have paid attention to that noisy wheel bearing, which made my front wheel fall off, which made me lose control on the highway, which caused my fatal head-on collision with the semi.
  • Maybe I’ll learn my death was caused by the Roundup I sprayed upwind on that one blustery day, which entered my lungs and started the cancer that would kill me.
  • Perhaps I will have died from keeping my cell phone too close to my bed at night, slowly frying my brain cells.
  • Maybe my undoing will have been caused by the taurine (whatever that is) in my Rockstar energy drink.  Come to think of it, there are a lot of things I ingest without a clue about what they are–any one of them could have been my undoing.
  • Maybe it will have been due to the butter I used to eat, then the margarine I replaced it with, then the butter I went back to.
  • Perhaps the thing that will have killed me is some adventurous thing I ate overseas:  the silkworms, the cow udders, the goose intestines, the 1000-year-old egg.  None of those had nutrition labels, which I would have likely disregarded anyway.
  • Perhaps, in my obsession with fitness, I’ll learn that I ran a few too many miles per week, which actually weakened my heart instead of strengthening it.
  • Possibly I’ll learn my demise was caused by one of the many vaccines I took in my lifetime, not knowing much (or caring much, quite frankly) about any of their long-term effects.
  • Maybe I’ll find I died from a currently-unknown long-term side-effect of the Covid virus that I wasn’t careful to avoid contracting.
  • Perhaps it’ll be revealed that I died because I believed and followed the wrong medical advice from those who I thought seemed credible at the time.

Of course, it’s entirely possible I’ll end up in heaven due to no fault of my own: I was murdered by a robber, hit by a drunk driver, or killed by a tornado.  But if I had to bet, I’ll bet it’s more likely that I will have contributed to my own death.  And I’m actually ok with that.

Why am I reflecting on all of this?

Because many people today seem consumed with doing everything possible to not kill themselves.  They seem bent on eliminating all health risks, trying to live as long as humanly possible.  This would be an understandable and appropriate view for those who do not believe in the afterlife.  After all, if this life is all there is, then maximizing one’s number of days makes total sense.  Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.  Now there’s a consistent worldview!

But the Christian belief that we are currently living in The Shadowlands–as C.S. Lewis phrased it–and that paradise is our eternal destination means we mustn’t put an inordinate amount of focus on health, life preservation, and life extension.

Am I saying we should throw caution to the wind and live reckless lives?  Not necessarily.  But I am saying that those of us who hope in the afterlife should only take reasonable safety precautions–not absolute safety precautions.  We could spend our entire life fearfully consumed with avoiding every health risk, making safe choices, and joylessly striving to prolong our days, all the while potentially missing what we’re actually here for.  That would be an inconsistent worldview!

Christians like me who are convinced that heaven will be a far better place than earth should spend more energy dreaming of that life rather than holding-on-for-dear-life to this one.  The Apostle Paul said it well, “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far (Philippians 1:22-23).  Paul wasn’t suicidal, but he kept a proper perspective on life and death.  For the believer, death is a promotion, not the end.

This eternal perspective allows us to worry little about life extension.  In fact, it goes the other way and even enables us to become risk-takers since the self-preservation of our mortal bodies is no longer our ultimate goal.   I have history on my side here;  we see the Christians’ disregard for health and safety throughout church history.  Look at the physical sufferings of the apostles. Look at generations of martyrs who chose to surrender their bodies to death rather than recant their faith.  Do we accuse them of self-harm or commend them for their strong faith?  Faith.

Consider the physically reckless way the early church cared for those with communicable diseases.  This morning I was reading how the early Christians in Carthage responded to the great plague of 251 AD.  “Cyprian urged them to nurse sick people and touch them.  He reminded them that they could act in this mortally dangerous way because their faith in Christ, which gave them hope for everlasting life, had healed their fear of death.”  [The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, 2016, by Andrew Kreieder, p. 111].

Someday I may learn that I killed myself.  It will likely have been due to ignorance, inattentiveness, or personal failure.  Oops.  Nevertheless, what I really hope to discover on that day is that my brief earthly life was characterized more by “fruitful labor” than life extension.

For part 2 on this topic, click HERE

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These Life Skills might save your child’s life someday

Today, I got a frantic message from my daughter, Lexi, who now lives in China.  “Dad, is putting out a grease fire on your Life Skils list?  I must not have learned that one yet!”   Well, there’s an important life skill to add!   This incident reminded me that it would be good to update this post from four years ago.  It’s an important topic for parents.

doctor

I believe effective parenting involves giving our kids high levels of responsibility!

We want to prepare them to become adults who take care of themselves and pitch in to help others in their community.  Responsibility certainly involves them doing their share of chores, which I believe should be assigned from toddlerhood on.

And it certainly involves us teaching them life skills so that they will be fully prepared for life on their own.

The link at the end of this post contains a comprehensive list of life skills that other parents and I have collected over the years in my parenting classes.  I doubt you’ll find many we missed!

How to use the Life Skills List:

  • Use it as a checklist with each of your kids to see what skills may need to be taught year by year until they’re ready for college.
  • Use it as a list of fun things to do on a daddy date or during time with mom.
  • When they master a skill reward them for learning it and celebrate together this new step towards their independence!

Three quick stories before you click the link:

First. When our kids were in elementary school and we would go on airplane trips, we would put them in charge of finding the gate, baggage claim, ground transportation, etc. It was like a scavenger hunt for them, and it taught them to recognize signage, read an airport map, pay attention, navigate confidently in the world of adults, notice when they took a wrong turn (yes, we let them!), redirect themselves, be a leader, etc.   (I met a grown woman this week who never flies because she dreads getting lost in airports.  In contrast, my girls could fly anywhere in the English-speaking world with confidence!)

Second.  Mastering these life skills could actually save their lives. When our oldest was working at a summer camp in upstate New York she posted this on my wall:

“Dad, remember that list of life skills you gave us?…um…prolly should have practiced ‘changing a flat tire’”. 

  • My heart sank!  She got a flat on a deserted road and she had absolutely no clue what to do.  My lack of teaching her this essential life skill might have put her life in jeopardy!  She was vulnerable and therefore at the mercy of whomever might drive along that road.  Fortunately, a nice elderly man came by and installed her spare tire, but this was a wake up call to me about the importance of properly preparing our kids before sending them off into the world!

Third.  I was glad to receive this text from our youngest, when she attended college in another city.

“Dad, Isn’t “driving on ice” on your life skils list?  Because that skill just saved me from driving into a creek!  It was kind of fun LOL”

Here’s the Life Skills List!   http://tinyurl.com/LifeSkillsForKids

If you see any we missed, be sure to let me know!

Finally, here’s a great Youtube channel I just heard about called, Dad, how do I? produced by a dad who didn’t have a dad to teach him such skills.

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I’m Confronting You About Confronting

In my counseling practice, I often deal with relational conflicts, where one or both people have a grievance against the other.   They’ve been confronting each other about what the other person needs to change, but unfortunately, that usually doesn’t end well–which is why they’re in my office!

So I’d like to share some thoughts about confronting and then propose an alternative.

When I confront someone who ticks me off, I’m pointing out what they are doing wrong;  I’m spotlighting the ways I’ve been mistreated or how disappointed I am.   I’m taking someone to the proverbial woodshed.  For example, I might say…

You never listen to me and you don’t care about my feelings.

You’re never home to help with the kids.

Stop trying to fix things all the time!

You always leave the house a mess and expect me to clean up after you.

You drink too much.  You need to stop.

Notice all of the “you” statements I’m using as well as the exaggerated terms “always” and “never”.   And the use of direct commands.   In confronting this way, my focus is clearly on the other person’s deficiencies.  If that person was to put on one of those adhesive nametags that says “Hello my name is…:, I’d be taking a Sharpie and writing the words “MY PROBLEM” on it.  That’s what my opponent is to me…a problem.

The response from such a confrontation is predictable.  It will likely be denial (I’m not that way), defensiveness and deflection (yea, but you treat me this other way), distancing (I can’t stand being around your constant criticism–I’m outta here), or despair (I give up: I will never be able to please you.)

Rarely, does someone who has been confronted this way respond with, “Oh, that was so insightful.  I’m a changed person because of your confrontation!”

Can you see why some people avoid confrontation at all costs?  It’s precarious for both people and it usually doesn’t end well.  For them, it seems best to stuff their feelings and live at a distance–relationally and emotionally.

I’m suggesting an alternative to that kind of interaction.  Let’s stop Confronting and start Educating.

What if I look at the person who is displeasing me, not as my antagonist, but as my friend who simply needs to learn how to care for me better.  What if the nametag I stick on that person is “Unaware Learner” rather than “My Problem.”  Do you see the difference this would make?  What if we took the person to the classroom instead of the woodshed.   That’s far less risky!

To educate simply means helping my friend learn how to care for me better by letting that person understand me more.  It includes positive reinforcement just as much as disclosing the things that bother me.  Here are some examples:

It meant a lot to me when you asked how my day went.

Thanks for letting me vent just now.  That made me feel not alone.  It makes me feel closer to you.

I sometimes find myself feeling like I’m getting your leftovers when you work so late so often.  I don’t want to feel this way.  I love you and I appreciate it so much whenever you make me feel more important than work.

Lately, I’ve been overwhelmed in caring for the kids and I find myself feeling angry sometimes when I see you on your phone so much.  I’m not saying this to beat you up, but to let you know how this affects me.  I don’t want to feel that way about you. Whenever you remember to set down your phone and help with the kids please know that I will be so grateful to you.

We both know that a tidy house is obviously more imporant to me than it is to you!  I know you don’t share this value, but this is something that is very imortant to me. I suppose I feel like the condition of my house is a reflection of my success as a woman.  I realize that it doesn’t come natural for you, but I want you to know how much it means to me when  you do remember to pick things up for me.

I get nervous when I see you drinking so much.  Sometimes I can’t even sleep because of it.  I worry about ways that alcohol might harm our family like I’ve seen it do to others.  If you were able to cut down on your drinking that would be such a blessing to me.

I find myself getting defensive when I feel criticized and I don’t like that about myself.  I want to share something with you that I think will help:  it would help me to grow and change if you could educate me rather than confront me.  I think this might draw us closer and I’d appreciate it so much if you could give it a try.

Each of these statements will likely lead to increased heart connection, understanding, and improved behaviors.

Notice the prevalence of “I” statements, the avoidance of commands, and a complete lack of blame and shame.   Educating like this is not soft-peddling or minimizing issues; it simply involves discussing the same issues with a different tone and a different goal.  The focus is on strengthening the relationship, not on controlling another person.  It involves kindness, honesty, straightforwardness, polite requests, patience, and hope.

So whenever we remember to, let’s replace Confronting with Educating!   In fact, let’s change the title of this blog post as well!

 

[Disclaimer, in this post I’m speaking of confronting as it pertains to personal conflicts in the everyday frictions of life.  Certainly, there are times when outright confronting is necessary, such as with addiction treatment interventions, poor performance reviews, or to stop harm from being done to others.]

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