Sunday, November 2, 2014

Issues of Life and Death

The news is breaking this evening that Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old San Francisco native who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, ended her life today. She recently moved to Oregon, where doctor-assisted suicide is legal, and news of her decision brought the “right to die” issue back to the forefront after a good number of years since Dr. Jack Kevorkian stirred up the debate. Listening to talk radio in these recent weeks, it seems like the public at large has changed its tune quite a bit from those days to be much more welcoming of human euthanasia. Listening to callers defending “death with dignity,” one can’t help but see it as a reasonable, maybe even morally positive option for people in very grim situations. The argument largely centers on pain and suffering. If you can be relieved of tremendous pain and suffering, isn’t that a good thing?

A week or so later, I was listening to the same talk show, and the host, Chris Daniel (on Fresno’s KMJ 580 AM for those who are curious), made the connection between Brittany and Robin Williams. He argued that we as a society vastly underestimate the very real and unimaginable pain and suffering of the mentally ill, particularly the chronically depressed. Much like in the case of those with terminal physical conditions, those who are suffering severe depression are unable to live lives of dignity. Their existence is hell. While I’m not sure where he was going with that point, to me it is logical to conclude that if it is merciful to allow those who are physically suffering to die, it should also be seen as merciful for those who cannot be cured of their mental agonies. Pain is pain, and that’s what this argument has been framed to be about. If suicide is always committed to relieve unbearable pain, I then ask, is there ever a time when it is not justified? Can you see where this is going? We have defined quality of life as the absence of pain. The pro-life movement has even adopted this philosophy into their reasoning. There’s an ad currently running during these talk radio shows that gives the audio of the heartbeat of a child in the womb. It’s an effective ad, though it too adopts this approach in its argument against abortion, noting at what stage the child can feel pain. While I agree with the position, I fear we are losing the argument when we take this approach. The other side can (and does) just as easily argue that abortion is a merciful act, saving the child and the mother from a lifetime of financial and emotional suffering if that child should see the light of day. I can say with absolute certainty that they are mostly right. Both mother and child will experience much pain and suffering in this world. Any child born into this world will experience these things in form or another. Can you not then argue that the most merciful act the human race can commit is to abort itself? Shouldn’t we put an end to all the poverty and hunger and disease and depression by sterilizing all of us so this miserable existence justly meets its end?

I hope you see the absurdity of this argument. The truth is, pain and suffering of any kind is not a good excuse for ending human life. Pain and suffering is a part of life. Sure, it’s a much bigger part of life for someone who is dying in a hospital from a painful disease, but it’s still a part of life. We live and we eventually die. We experience much pain and suffering in that in-between time. In my life thus far, I’ve had very little physical pain, but I’ve had a great deal of emotional suffering. There are certain struggles with anxiety I’ve had for the great majority of my life, and I’m not sure that I will ever see relief this side of eternity. I’ve also lost the best friend and companion I ever had: not through death, but divorce. Sometimes I wonder why God would allow me to go through these things. Why must I feel such pain? Why am I left with this loneliness or frustration? But then I consider that maybe feeling these things is not such a bad thing. To feel pain and to suffer proves in a very real and tangible way that I am alive. How much worse would it be if I felt nothing? Yes, these things suck, but they are part of this experience that is living. With the bad, we also get a lot of good. It’s a package deal. We will have triumphs and failures, love and loss.

I recently had a random thought. What are the things that I experience today that the first humans also experienced? I began to list things in my mind; the beauty of light reflecting on water, the satisfaction of completing a task, the sound of wind rushing through trees, the stillness of night, the admiration of the uniqueness of animals, the cuteness of children, laughter, the comfort of a place to sleep, how good a meal can taste after a hard day’s work, the love and affection of another person. The list goes on and on. There is much beauty in life, even in the little things. Our lives are a gift from God. Let us be grateful for every moment, and never deprive ourselves of the gifts another day can bring.

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