The Battle to Conquer Suffering: The Inadequacy of War Metaphors
Nancy G. Romer, MD, PhD(c) University of Dayton
In July 2017, Sen. John McCain reported that he had a brain tumor and President Barack Obama quickly tweeted: “John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I've ever known. Cancer doesn't know what it's up against. Give it hell, John.” Vice-President Pence tweeted a similar message: “Karen & I are praying for @SenJohnMcCain. Cancer picked on the wrong guy. John McCain is a fighter & he'll win this fight too. God bless!” (1) In a September of 2017 CBS’s 60 Minutes aired an interview by Leslie Stahl with Senator McCain which was titled “The Fighter.” (2)
Metaphor is the way we make sense and attempt to understand the world, especially in spaces that are abstract, confusing and mysterious. Illness and suffering are such spaces and are frequently mysterious and difficult to comprehend. The use of metaphor helps us to negotiate these mysterious spaces and give meaning to our suffering thus we frequently find metaphors used in the space of illness and suffering. The use of war metaphors to describe our encounters with evil have scriptural roots that are based in cooperation with God’s plan. It is my contention however, that while the use of metaphors may be an attempt to make sense of the complex space of illness and suffering, the specific metaphor of war is ultimately counterproductive. In contemporary America it is rooted in a confidence in human agency and power that has no regard for God’s work in the world. This belief in human agency produces a sense of power over suffering and death that we ultimately do not have. We are thus left with a feeling of failure because we failed in our mission to defeat the enemy that is illness suffering and ultimately death. Thus illness, suffering, and death become a consequence of our lack of will, strength, or technological expertise and not part of the human condition. We do not suffer and die because we are human but because we have failed to win the war.
This paper looks at the role that metaphors play in human understanding, the scriptural roots of war metaphors in the encounter with evil, and the specific ways that war metaphors in breast cancer culture channel human agency instead of God’s mercy. It is this use of war metaphors which ultimately fails to help us understand and cope with suffering. Religion and spirituality have a unique opportunity to alter this understanding of illness and suffering so that the sick do not feel abandoned by a system that ultimately cannot defeat suffering and death. Instead, religion calls us to care for the sick and suffering when we are unable to cure, and provides us with theological hope for relief from suffering found in God’s mercy.
1 As reported in Dayton Daily News. http://www.daytondailynews.com/news/gen-politics/colleagues-react-senator- mccain-cancer-diagnosis-give-hell-john/K0oLm8z1DDadoilMfztLoM/ Accessed October, 14, 2017.
2 http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/arizona/2017/09/24/sen-john-mccain-doctors-gave-me-poor- prognosis-brain-cancer-fight-60-minutes/698677001/