Monday, June 5, 2017

Tarot, the Human Genome, and Relishing Life

I'd forgotten all about this piece, originally posted in 2014, but a recent comment brought it to my attention again. It seems to me just as valid now as then, perhaps even more so in these times when we seem increasingly fearful of everything from terrorists down to speaking incorrectly in a crowd.

We can't predict the future, we can't play it safe, and we can't control our fates. But we can live with joy and hope.

By Ernest F (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Doctors expect soon to begin sequencing the genomes of healthy newborn babies as part of a government-funded research program that could have wide implications for genetic research.
Scientists Will Study Genome Sequencing of Newborns,
Dec. 30, 2014, Wall Street Journal
"Wide implications," I thought, "and not just for research I bet."

I read on. "... a genetic blueprint to carry through life ... integrated into their care ... help save a child's life ... "
Doctors also face ethical dilemmas: Should parents be informed if reveal an infant has mutations that doctors aren't sure will ever cause disease?
That's the big question, isn't it?  And the reason for my uneasiness.

I know two people who had their breasts removed just because they found they had a gene for cancer. I shudder to imagine what might become "routine" for parents wanting to shield their babies from possible future health problems.

After all, we already have plenty of abortions caused by prenatal testing for genetic variations like Down's Syndrome. And we have plenty of perfectly normal babies born without that variation whose parents were advised to abort because of a test's prediction. I know just such a family.

I have also met families who found that after their sorrow when a less-than-perfect child was born, there were compensations beyond anything they could have dreamed. (Read here for one such example.)

That human genome project would be a real temptation for anxious parents to project their baby's future and possibly take immediate action.

My thoughts turned to a recent conversation about Tarot cards and Thomas L. McDonald's series about  their use as a game. (This is the last post of the series but this link shows the other posts in the series. Don't follow the built in links to other articles as they take you to a website which no longer has the articles.)

The series was about understanding Tarot in context but since they are often used for telling the future, he necessarily had to include a hefty warning about divination, which is gravely evil and strictly forbidden by the Catholic Church. This brought my thoughts on the WSJ article into a new focus.

I realized that the idea about mapping newborns' genomes, at least as it was presented in that article, is a new face for an old temptation. Divination. Let's tell the future so we know what to avoid.

The one thing we can never seem to foresee is the ultimate cost of acting on inexact predictions. We won't know the real price until long after the fact. And the fortune tellers won't be the ones who pay the price. They will be long gone.

Don't get me wrong. I am not against science. Science is my friend. I am thankful to be able to take aspirin when I have a headache.

But science is a tool. Like any tool it can be misused. Gathering information for general study is one thing. Specific application of "what might happen" to someone's life is completely different. It is hard to imagine that people won't use this science to try to improve the course of someone's life, despite the flimsy basis.

It's interesting to read what the Catechism says about divination and realize how well it applies in this situation.
2115 God can reveal the future to his prophets or to other saints. Still, a sound Christian attitude consists in putting oneself confidently into the hands of Providence for whatever concerns the future, and giving up all unhealthy curiosity about it. Improvidence, however, can constitute a lack of responsibility.

2116 All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to “unveil” the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

2117 All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others – even if this were for the sake of restoring their health – are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another’s credulity.
Scientific fortunetelling is inexact at best, even in cases where we're on well-trodden ground. We learned that last year when my husband had his gall bladder out. Unpredictable things happened which even his very experienced doctors could not foretell.

I realize these "what if" musings may sound alarmist or paranoid. Yet it isn't a bad thing to have in the back of our minds as we watch society sort out practical applications of our ability to map the human genome. It is an imperfect science and one which should be approached with caution before applying it to people's lives.

Over and above all, this project speaks to our innate human desire to control our fate. And that we cannot do no matter what tools we use. We do the best we can to plan for the future but the unexpected always leaps up and startles us, whether for good or ill.

For me the answer to all of the above is articulated superbly by two unlikely sources.
The human story does not always unfold like a mathematical calculation on the principle that two and two make four. Sometimes in life they make five or minus three; and sometimes the blackboard topples down in the middle of the sum and leaves the class in disorder and the pedagogue with a black eye. The element of the unexpected and the unforeseeable is what gives some of its relish to life, and saves us from falling into the mechanic thralldom of the logicians.
Winston Churchill
When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.
Willie Nelson
If we approach the unknown with a sense of adventure and remember that even the darkest times may contain blessings we can't predict, then we have the key to relishing life.


  1. "If we approach the unknown with a sense of adventure and remember that even the darkest times may contain blessings we can't predict, then we have the key to relishing life."

    This one is going into my own quote notebook. Bravo!

  2. Wow, well said. Bookmarking this post!

  3. What a great article! Thanks for your reflections/thoughts. :)