One of the most heartbreaking questions anyone has ever asked me came from a father whose 14-year-old daughter was on life support.
The girl had done an almost complete job of hanging herself, but her father was clinging to hope. His daughter was brain dead and doctors told him it was time to disconnect the machines and plan the funeral.
As he and I stood outside the ICU lamenting the decision that no father should ever be asked to make, he asked me something like: “Can’t the doctors take my brain and give it to her?”
He must have noticed my eyes widen in surprise. Nothing could have prepared me for that question.
“Can’t they do a brain transplant?” he asked with some insistence.
I shook my head, wanting to launch into the technical aspects that made his suggestion science fiction, but his tears told me he knew the answer.
The most off-putting question I was ever asked came from a woman whose father was dying.
She thrust some religious medals toward me that she’d bought in the hospital gift shop and asked, “Could you bless these?”
While most clergy from liturgical traditions will do such a blessing, I’m from an Evangelical tradition where I tend to bless only things I can eat. And while these objects may have contained some iron, they weren’t health food.
“Can you tell me about what’s going on?” I asked, stalling for understanding.
She sighed as she explained a process she’d likely seen on a late-night movie where the priest blesses an inanimate object and places it on the patient’s body to affect a cure.
Unfortunately, this man filled his life with what medical staffs describe as “risk-related behavior.” He wasn’t getting better.
Both questions demonstrate the phenomena called Magical Thinking. It’s called “magical” because it’s a way we convince ourselves we have the power to prevent something bad from happening, even though the bad result is virtually certain.
Scientifically speaking, some researchers think this is how the brain reacts to hopeless situations. Spiritually, it may be how we wrest the wheel back from a God we perceive to be asleep.
Both patients I visited had set their lives in an irreversible direction, and no amount of magical thinking by family was going to reverse that course. The patients had taken the wheel, determined to surrender it to no one.
What can we do as family and loved ones in these cases? As hard as it is, it becomes up to us to do the surrendering. Surrender is a spiritual process in which we acknowledge that reversing our course has nothing to do with our steering ability. It has everything to do with God.
Ancient scripture describes surrender when it says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Being still isn’t my favorite notion. Ask anyone who sits beside me in church.
Fortunately, the admonition has nothing to do with kinetic motion. It’s a spiritual motion whereby we bring ourselves to a conscious stopping place in our journey because we have lost our way. It’s the same principle taught by survival experts. If you’re lost, stop. Stay put. Surrender yourself to the expertise of those who will look for you.
God looks for us. Be assured he never gives up. As to the questions of when and how the “rescue” comes, those may be the most difficult questions of all.