The idea came from the ancient Hebrew myth that the punishment of Adam and Eve was not just that they were thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Adam was told that only in the sweat of his brow would he get bread. So "work", in this context, is not the virtue that our Puritan forebears would have called it but is actually a punishment. It was not intended to be fun or enjoyable, but simply done.
Out of this came the Mission to Leisure which led the Dunedin Mission to make considerable investment in the holiday camp site at Kawarau Falls. We instituted some special programmes to help people make the most of such leisure as they had.
Lately I have been taking the Garden of Eden story a little further. Not only is Adam told that he is going to be punished by having to work; but Eve hears that only in pain will she bring forth life. Pain, severe pain, I suggest, is also presented in this ancient context, as a punishment. I didn't think much about that in the 1970s.
But, my word, in later days I have become very conscious of the amount of pain that is experienced in the world of the descendants of Adam and Eve... The sheer scale of deprivation, dislocation and every kind of pain and suffering experienced by millions of our brothers and sisters in other lands beggars description. Even with the most modern technology to bring the problem right into our living rooms, we cannot get our minds around the sheer dimensions of the problem.
And in the last couple of years in this residential community of older people, I've become quickly aware that old age is not always so much fun, either. We may have all we need of shelter and food and affection but the maladies of age that we joke about among ourselves are sometimes more than some can bear. Several people in one of our cities have died in Council or State flats over the last year or so, with no one to miss them until the stench disturbs their neighbours. It could conceivably happen here, too, in this community of 350, even with emergency call-bells in all directions.
Singing out to small groups of "over 60s", our Barbershop quartet has seen groups that were, actually, over 80 or more, many of them transported in vehicles or using walking aids of one kind and another. Some of them said the simple hot meal provided afterwards would be the best meal they would have all week. Old age, for many of them, was not much fun - even with our entertainment!
I have wondered if the God of the Garden of Eden story might not have gone a bit further and said to both Adam and Eve "And, by the way, when you get old, don't count on that being a Garden of Eden, either... there'll be more pain that is all part of the punishment... You aren't expected to enjoy it, just endure it."
A few modern critics would suggest, as the Puritans once did about work, that pain and suffering are really good for you. But they are wrong. It is that bit of thinking that encourages me in my modest campaign for the right of Choice at the End of Life. I just don't believe that suffering and pain and misery have any virtue in themselves at all. At the end of a life of working and bearing trials of one kind and another, there is no justice, never mind compassion, in a demand that we must continue to suffer long after our bodies and minds have decided to give up. Some Right to Life is fundamental, but so is some Right to a Good Death.
Of course, we don't base all our thinking and acting in these days on an ancient myth and its very simplistic views of right and wrong and good and evil. But those ancient thinkers seem to have sensed something that rings bells for me. The sweat of labour and the pain of life's beginnings and its endings, are not part of some great scheme of things. They are just reminders that in some way, we may be less than we can be And we must do the best we can with them. And there may be no lack of virtue in merely putting up with the one and choosing the avoid the worst of the other.