Articles on genetic testing appear regularly in magazines nowadays. One recent article was entitled "The Doctor's Crystal Ball: Supersensitive Tests Can Tell Us What Diseases Lie in Our Future. Do We Really Want To Know?" The article describes the extraordinary pace of genetic research and the issues that arise from it. One woman mentioned in the article found she has a gene that causes colon cancer. Anyone who has the gene has a 100% chance of developing the cancer. She has passed the gene one to one of her children, not the other. She is agonizing about whether to inform her children of the test results.
Some people are choosing not to know their fate ahead of time, especially if there is no treatment for the ailment. Before the test for Huntington's chorea became available, a survey found that the majority of those at risk wanted to be tested. Once the opportunity arose, however, only 15% took advantage of it. The anxiety of not knowing was easier to take than the certainty of the horror, as they put it.
Yet another article tells about researchers who tracked down a gene that they think is responsible for half of the cases of inherited breast cancer in the United States. Scientists hoped that the genetic tests would bring relief to those who don't carry the mutation and forewarn those who do. It doesn't seem to be working out that way. Geneticists offered to test nearly 300 people, all of whom had a family member with the mutated gene. Only 121 individuals wanted to see their results.
And so it goes. In addition to the fear of certainty and not knowing how to deal with it, almost all of those who had no health insurance chose not to know. They wondered if they could ever get coverage if insurance companies knew they carried the mutated gene. The scientists doing the study concluded that we should prevent insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of genetic testing. An important issue for all of us to ponder.
Would you choose to know? And how would you live if you did know your time was limited? Hard questions to answer. It was with these sobering thoughts in mind that I turned to the gospel lesson appointed for this Palm Sunday: the account of Jesus' last week, a week spent under the shadow of impending death.
In the gospel lesson, we meet Jesus in the Garden at Gethsemane. Jesus knows that misery lies ahead, and the prospect fills him with dread and grief. He is distressed and agitated, Mark tells us. He throws himself on the ground and prays to God that this hour might pass from him; then he prays that this cup might be removed from him. This is no pious and formal prayer. Jesus is afraid of the pain and death which lie ahead. We can imagine he prays for a long anguished time before he melds his will into God's will and prays: "Thy will be done."
What moves me to the marrow of my bones every time I read this gospel account, is Jesus' very human struggle as he faces death. He is so deeply grieved, so scared, that he flings himself on the ground and prays to the only One who can help him. I can hear a friend of mine who had cancer years ago saying that she was driven to pray over and over and over again, day after day: "Please, please, please make me better." She felt that she had to pray. This child knows how to show love and care, how to contribute, through the worst of her times.
Thank of Christopher Reeves, Superman, after his accident. He could have retired into an affluent isolation, but no, he is out and about winning support for handicapped persons.
The choice is each person's to make, and it extends even to the moment of death. Bernie tells of a time he went to a home where the father was about to die. The family was present, milling about, but uncomfortable. They said they didn't know what to say at a moment like this. He replied, "Why don't you talk about your father's life?" The man had been a character, apparently, and so the kids began to tell anecdotes about his life. After a while the whole family started chuckling. They looked down, and lo and behold, Dad was laughing, too. He died and laughed in the same half hour.
That experience was a gift to the whole family ~ that their father could die with a smile on his face because of what he had contributed to them and what they gave back to him at that moment.
Even if we have one-half hour left, Jesus challenges us to focus not on how little time we have left but rather on what contributions we can make in that one-half hour.
Now, in conclusion, one last Bernie Siegel story. Bernie says, "One day I had to tell a patient: 'I'm sorry, but you have cancer.'' The man, who half expected the diagnosis, looked down at the floor for a while and then said "Well... I guess that means I have five or six thousand miles left." "What a wonderful answer," Bernie says. "I don't know what it means. But it does say: I will keep going as long as I can. We'll make a few repairs. We'll change my oil, put in new filters. And I'll go as long as I can."
Now, when somebody asks Bernie, "How am I doing?" he says, "You have five or six thousand miles left." Often the patient will smile at that, but no one has said to him: "What kind of doctor tells me I have five or six thousand miles left? I want to know the facts." No, they know the facts, that no one knows the future.
What we do know is that Jesus, in his last week in Jerusalem, challenges us to live fully, to contribute, to give of ourselves to the very end. And he assures us that we will never have to travel our five or six thousand miles alone.