How do you tell what's good for you?

My philosophy teacher in college thought this was simple matter in that he believed all people were basically "good" when left to their own devices. Pish posh was his view on religion, we don't need external rules to tell us how to act. Except, I sort of stymied him when I raised my hand and asked him what about people who smoke cigarettes? This was 25 years ago, long before legislation was enacted regarding second hand smoke. There was some discussion in the class over whether people really DID know it was bad for them, despite everyday labeling and warnings. The question bothered him for most of the rest of the semester. He had to compromise in his mind, on agreeing that the short term "good" of how relaxing a cigarette feels was overpowering the long term known bad side effects.

The Christian and Catholic and Jewish religions have no problem telling you what's "good" for you. In Christianity, fundamentalist style, saying "Jesus Christ is my savior" at least once in your physical life is "good" for you. After that, what's good for you, is good for you. Stealing if you are hungry may be good for you. Lying if it achieves your purpose may be good for you. Abandoning your kid may be good for you, especially if you can no longer afford to feed or shelter the child. At any rate, since all fall short of the glory of God, most fundamentalists believe that responsibly behavior has less bearing on "good" than saying "Jesus Christ is my savior." Catholics and Jews beg to differ. Both feel a strong alliance to ethical behavior. While the rules in Leviticus may same difficult and no longer timely, they were written with an eye toward making life better in community. Stealing is bad for a community that values ownership. So "good" for the community starts to trump "good" for you. Likewise, no functioning community can validate indiscriminate murder because such behavior would tear apart the community.

What about Islam? What's good for them? Think about World War II, most of the fighting nations were nominally Christian. After the dust settled and treaties were made, Israel was re-created by these Christian nations. If the countries involved had been primarily Buddhist, Islamic or Hindu – would Israel even have come to be? Would anyone have cared that Hitler was exterminating the Jehovah's witnesses, the homosexuals, or the Jews? Probably Israel is NOT good for the surrounding Islamic nations, probably Israel would not have been created if the fighting nations had been operating on a different definition of "good." Different perspectives are fine when it's all just armchair discussion, but what about when it's your neighbor?

What if your neighbor is from a foreign culture that believes in female genital mutilation.... She is lamenting to you how hard it is to find a gynecologist who will remove her daughter's clitoris. You are surprised? Horrified? Ready to call social services? And yet this woman insists her daughter stands no chance of getting married or having a normal life without this operation. Is this really "good" for her daughter?

I remember in college in the same philosophy class the teacher asking us about blood transfusions. What if the patient will die without one, and has requested none be done in accordance with their religious beliefs. Only two of us felt it was wrong to go forward with the blood transfusion. I still have feelings about that. Since none of us really know what the afterlife holds, isn't it evil to ruin someone else's chances of getting into heaven? I mean who are we to decide that a religious belief is silly or superstitious? I am not comfortable with the arrogance associated with infantile mysticism. And anyway who decided death was so bad? If the only possible downside to avoiding the blood transfusion is death, who are we to decide who lives and who dies? Given that everyone is going to die some day, shouldn't the patient have some say over the span of their lifetime?

Of course it's not always the death that bothers people. More often it's the pain that goes along with it. On the cover of the New York Times was an article on a doctor who had once specialized in helping people with cancer accept their inevitable death. While others were devoting all their energy toward possible cure, this doctor gently aided people in getting their affairs in order. My friend Teri had reached a point where she was fed up with her life revolving around cancer. She didn't like the idea of being checked out every six months. She didn't like the invasive manner cancer permeated the fabric of her life. She was too busy needing to DO life, to connect with people, to sing, to ride, to work with her beloved horses.

Even so, I think when the end came, so painfully, so shockingly fast, the abrupt halt made even Teri do a double take. For about two weeks she fought valiantly. Eating food to gift her body with strength became a full time endeavor. Her pain made the food choices limited. The hospital staff encouraged her to eat whatever she could, if friends were willing to pick up stuff from the grocery stores or restaurants in addition to anything the cancer center had to offer. For two weeks or three she managed to get out of bed and force her self to walk. She had a very physical job up until two months before her death. It was scary to see her shrink, her muscles weaken. It was her prior physical fitness that even enabled her to live as long as she did. I am convinced a lesser woman would have been gone in two days.

What finally became clear was that she was tired of fighting. As she rolled over into tired acceptance, what was good for Teri became pain management. She was lucky enough to pass away at home, surrounded by loved ones. She was well loved, and she loved well. Would that we all could so clearly see what's good for us.