The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall 2018)

Body on the Altar

Sarah Ruden

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 3)

Before dawn one day a little over a decade ago, my brother called to tell me our father had died. Just a week before, he had collapsed from a “digestive trouble,” and my mother had summoned an ambulance, but none of us thought at the time that he was in any serious danger. He was only seventy-six, and had gone along on a bird-watching expedition a couple of weeks before.

My father had never made his own welfare or mortality an issue—and his devotion to this arrangement discouraged the rest of us from disputing it. As he aged, it was also of course convenient for us grown children to have a tireless, faithful, though bad-tempered servant in the background of our adventures. Even now, in fact, though this essay is supposed to be about my father, it’s hard for me not to bring the attention straight back to me and my generation. In my defense, that is how he wanted things to be; he was stubborn in his efforts to prevent anyone from knowing what his suffering was actually like. Writing about him now is therefore an act of impiety I’d rather avoid.

But I think the story is too informative for that. My father was an extreme example of America’s freakish ideology, in which the body has been deemed not so much the honorable container of the soul but something detachable from it and combustible as fuel. Americans manifest two kinds of heroism in connection to health. On the one side is the brilliant surgeon or drug developer, implacably devoting himself to the salvation of hopeless cases. On the other side are the patients like my father who resist the system at all costs, with their loved ones and the community in mind, even if that means hiding a fatal illness for months or years and dying relatively young to avoid a high-pressure diagnosis and high-tech treatment. Either way, our ideal is to trade one life for many, whether by genius or by suffering. The question of why American health care isn’t informed by common-sense moderation and geared toward a preponderance of happy lives and dignified deaths has, among many plausible answers, one that’s rather simple: That dispensation doesn’t result from the soaring “moral leadership” we expect in this most fraught domain of social welfare. We would rather see stunts than be more or less content to be reasonably healthy and long-lived on average. We dream of the all-out sacrifice that changes everything forever.

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Sarah Ruden is the author of The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible. She has recently published translations of Aeschylus’s Oresteia and Saint Augustine’s Confessions in the Modern Library, and she is currently at work on a new translation of the Gospels.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.3 (Fall 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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