I watched the film Temple Grandin with my wife over the weekend. My wife works with autistic children and their families, and had been looking forward to seeing this movie for some time. Grandin is a PhD and expert in animal husbandry, as well as autisitc.
Part of the story revolves around how she seeks to revolutionize the cattle industry by reorganizing slaughterhouses to make them more amenable to cows actually behave, making the whole process more humane as well as efficient. For example, rather than forcing cows into insecticidal dips with prods and slick chutes, which occasionally result in drowning, Grandin’s model uses curves to lead the animals to a stepped platform, where the animals simply walk into the dip, swim through, and back out. It’s all pretty amazing in how simple the design and process appears, yet how complex the behavior is that the process is built upon.
What else is interesting is her reason for doing so. Most of us would think that her affinity for cattle and the desire to limit their suffering would have led her to denounce the whole industry, but that wasn’t the case. She understands and respects the life that is present in each animal (in the film, after a cow is killed before her she asks “where did it go?”), but doesn’t have the deep emotional connection that we would expect due to her autism. The reason she sees for treating the animals humanely is simple but deep: “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.”
I thought about this in light of hospice care. This same thinking guides a lot of our care and judgment regarding care for those we care for. We see nature at it’s most cruel sometimes. I recently had a patient whom I was close to pass away. He had struggled with pulmonary fibrosis for several years, struggling to breathe continually and leashed to an oxygen tank. He gradually grew weaker and more dependent, to the point where he could only walk short distances. Then he had a serious stroke, taking most of whatever he had left. He could talk, though slurred, and could understand, but was otherwise unable to move. Even his head had to be propped up with a neck pillow. It was tremendously sad to see the cruelty of nature at work here, and our job was to make sure that cruelty was dealt with as best we could.
The physical pain was manageable, but the psychological and spiritual pain was tremendous. I spent time with him the day he died in his home, holding his hand and praying for him along with our staff and his wife and daughter. Some of his grief was directed at God, and I can’t say that I blame him. You can’t go through an illness like that, or accompany someone along that road, without wondering why.
There are plenty of answers out there for sure: the fallen world, suffering as part of life, the stripping of everything to increase our dependence on God, the work of the devil, the work of God, and so on. Yet I found Grandin’s insight to be one of the simplest and maybe truest at the moment. Nature is cruel in many ways, and we can’t overlook or overcome that cruelty. Sin and death are, at least for now, permanent fixtures in the world. However part of realizing the kingdom of God in the here-and-now is to see that while these can’t be overcome, we don’t have to fatalistically succomb to it. Jesus reminds us, over and over again, that he has “overcome the world”, and even though that cruelty is still there in the world, we can overcome it as well. Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.