Medicine's Eschatological Narrative and the Challenge of Elder Suffering


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This dissertation uses texts and methods of the medical humanities to interrogate the troubled relationship between modern American medicine and the mystery of human suffering. Methods used include conceptual analysis, close reading and comparison of historical texts, and narrative interpretation. These methods connect seemingly discrete lines of inquiry to reveal hidden cultural assumptions that influence the biomedical enterprise, particularly with respect to the expectations that practitioners and patients have about medicine's functions, abilities, and goals. I argue that medicine's inability to respond to patient suffering is a feature of a broader myopia within the culture of medicine—namely, how medicine functions in religious ways. My focus led me to pay greatest attention to one particular religious feature—medicine's adoption of an eschatological narrative. This narrative works within medicine in such a way as to obfuscate the interpretive means available to practitioners. The hope encapsulated by the eschatological narrative is manifested through its promises of ever more sophisticated ways of controlling the body via technological advancement. The experience of suffering has little place within this exciting narrative; suffering is marginalized or silenced within the practitioner-patient encounter. Elders, whose bodies' natural decline most starkly challenges the narrative's promises, are also those whose suffering is often neglected. Elder suffering helps simultaneously teach about the challenge of suffering and the eschatological narrative's limits. After chronicling the narrative's historical development, I demonstrate how the humanist project is particularly suited for developing ways of engaging with elder suffering. The medical humanities give means for cultivating habits of being that resist the eschatological narrative's limiting nature. Studying and practicing the humanities can equip the practitioner with creative ways of engaging the breadth of humanity, its multiple sources of suffering, and the particular ways that aging can be experienced.



Medical Humanities, Geriatrics, Gerontology, Suffering, Religion and Medicine, Literature and Medicine, History of Medicine