Culture At Large

What we lose by choosing death with dignity

Karen Swallow Prior

First of November. This is the day a 29-year-old, terminally ill woman named Brittany Maynard has chosen to end her own life under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. Diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer and given sixth months to live, Maynard explains that as her disease progresses,

…even with palliative medication, I could develop potentially morphine-resistant pain and suffer personality changes and verbal, cognitive and motor loss of virtually any kind. Because the rest of my body is young and healthy, I am likely to physically hang on for a long time even though cancer is eating my mind. I probably would have suffered in hospice care for weeks or even months. And my family would have had to watch that.

The kind of suffering Maynard’s cancer is expected to bring is incomprehensible to most. Even for Christians who believe in the sanctity of life, this case, in which both death and great suffering appear imminent, challenges deeply held convictions. Law, logic, medicine and even theology seem inadequate to address all the questions. None of us desire to suffer or to watch loved ones suffer. After all, we take aspirin to avoid the annoyance of a headache and undergo invasive procedures to alleviate more serious forms of physical ailments, don’t we? Yet, such actions are intended to extend and enhance life, not end it. Inherent in being embodied spirits is the instinct for life, even though, paradoxically, we are all tumbling toward death from the very beginning of our existence.

Tenth of December. This is the title of a short story (and collection) by George Saunders. It is the date that a character, also terminally ill, has chosen to end his life. Like Brittany Maynard, Don Eber does not want to subject his family to his suffering and imagines his choice to be the heroic one. But his suicide is interrupted by the chance to be truly heroic (spoiler alert) by saving the life of a young boy. After doing so, Eber returns home. He has an epiphany which reveals the meaning in letting himself be cared for in his dying:

Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many - many drops of goodness, is how it came him - many drops of happy - of good fellowship - ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not - had never been - his to [withhold].

Those drops of fellowship: they are not ours to withhold. Our lives are not our own - they are each other’s. I know because my family lost a terminally ill member to suicide. Even more than not seeing a loved one suffering, we need them to live. Or to die trying. This is nowhere better reflected than in Dylan Thomas’ famous poem, in which a son begs his father to cling to life despite the odds:

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

There are few, if any, arguments that can answer the questions raised by Brittany Maynard’s decision. But perhaps literature, in embodying the paradoxes of human existence in the same way that human beings embody the paradox of decaying life, can go where law, logic and theology fear to tread. Literature shines light upon the mysteries of our humanity, and in so doing, shows how much more mystery lurks.

One great mystery is that even when death is inevitable (or seems so, for not even the most credentialed physician knows for certain), the desire to live is natural. While this life instinct can be explained by Christian theology - God as the author of life made us in His image, and we therefore reflect Him in our nature - it also transcends creed and culture in being common to all human (and even animal) life. More than being unnatural, the impulse against life and toward suicide - even when undertaken to ease suffering - robs us of the greatest gift we can offer another: ourselves - our always-decaying, ever-dying, suffering-yet-glorious selves.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, Social Trends, North America