PHYSICIAN JEROME GROOPMAN, IN THE MEASURE OF Our Days, tells how Kirk Bains, a highly successful stock speculator, was stricken with cancer and told by top specialists that nothing could be done for him. Mr. Bains pleaded that Dr. Groopman treat him with an experimental procedure: "Cook up some new magic. Make me a guinea pig. I take risks all the time. That's my business. I won't sue you."
Dr. Groopman writes that he always tries "to learn the scope of religious feeling, the ties of the patient and his family to faith. God, whether positive, negative, or null, is an essential factor in the equation of dying." Mr. Bains replied to such prodding, "I'm not a long-term investor. I like quick returns. I don't believe in working for dividends paid in heaven." But the night before the radical surgery, Mr. Bains was troubled, telling Dr. Groopman, "I know this is my last chance and I'll probably die, and after death ... it's just nothingness.... I don't ask for heaven. I'd take hell. Just to be."
The surgery was successful and the cancer went into remission-but only for four months. When it came back and Mr. Bains had an initial radiation treatment, Dr. Groopman visited him and said, "I'm sorry the magic didn't work longer." Mr. Bains replied, "You shouldn't feel sorry. There was no reason to live anyway.... You read newspapers?... I don't read newspapers anymore. I don't know how to. Or why I should."
Mr. Bains explained further: "Newspapers used to be a gold mine for me. They're filled with what to you looks like disconnected bits of information. A blizzard in the Midwest, the immigration debate in California ... information for deals and commodity trading.... And when I went into remission I couldn't read the papers because my deals and trades seemed pointless. Pointless because I was a short-term investor. I had no patience for the long term. I had no interest in creating something, not a product in business or a partnership with a person. And now I have no equity. No dividends coming in. Nothing to show in my portfolio."
Kirk Bains concluded, "How do you like my great epiphany? No voice of God or holy star but a newspaper left unread in its wrapper.... The remission meant nothing because it was too late to relive my life. I once asked for hell. Maybe God made this miracle to have me know what it will feel like." Dr. Groopman writes that he felt "the crushing weight of Kirk's burden," because "there is no more awful death than to die with regret, feeling that you have lived a wasted life-death delivering this shattering final sentence on your empty soul."
It's a sad story, in part because Kirk Bains came to an unnecessary conclusion. He did not have to relive his life; what's done was done. He still had, though, the future, whether that meant for him a few more days in this world or a few years. And the wonder of Christianity is this: Any one of us, no matter how close we are to physical death, can cross over to spiritual life.
Mr. Bains thought he had to relive his life because he saw Christianity as just one more exchange religion: You give to a god, he gives to you. Roman pagans 2,000 years ago, like Mr. Bains recently, understood liberalitas: Give to please a recipient who will at some point please you. The smart set in ancient Rome thought it was better to give than to receive, because by clever giving to wealthy friends they could receive even more later on. Christians, though, practiced caritas, help to the economically poor without expectation of anything in return. They did that to imitate Christ, who was unjustly abandoned, tortured, and killed for the sake of all who believe in Him.
Christmas is about God's caritas. We view Christ in the manger as a happy picture, but the incarnation for God was an enormous comedown, like being born as a dog would be for us. (No, worse: a cockroach or beyond, a different realm of being.) And yet, Christ showed caritas right to the last, by telling one of the thieves dying alongside Him, "Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise." Kirk Bains apparently did not seize his opportunity to cross over, and become in whatever moments he had left a monument to God's caritas. But it's glorious that many do come to Christ and receive, through God's grace, a very merry Christmas.