A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.—Andrew Coyne
Physician-assisted suicide, also known as death with dignity, is familiar to most of us since Brittany Maynard’s choice to die before brain cancer killed her. I don’t write as one facing unwanted, imminent death, but I’ve battled through seasons of pain seasons when I wanted to die.
From my many days in psych wards, a season I seriously considered suicide (though never attempted), and sharing space with other survivors I intimately understand the mindset behind suicide. Whether committed with a gunshot or the help of a doctor, I see common reasoning. When we are considering or planning suicide it is usually because we believe (1) Our pain is senseless and unbearable. (2) We shouldn’t have to endure it, so we won’t. We’ll choose our time to exit.
In situations like Brittany’s pain and death are imminent, but anyone considering suicide usually believes pain is unavoidable. The motivation is the same: there’s no hope for relief except through death. I understand Brittany’s decision. Part of me remembers my own despairing nights and could agree she has the right to die on her own terms—if one’s rights were the bottom line. If one can categorize suicide as acceptable and unacceptable based on circumstances. Death with dignity’s mindset can be distilled to the same mindset behind any suicide:
1. I have the right to decide when I will die.
2. I have the right to take any possible steps to avoid anything which causes me or my loved ones pain.
But do we have these rights? Honestly, sometimes I wish we did. More than once, in the heat of pain pushing me into irrational thinking, I decided ending things was best for everyone. And I really wish it was. It’s a selfish wish, but understandable because staying alive is often torture. How could we not have the right to use any and all measures available to end pain?
But what if the focus moves from our so-called rights to what bravery would do? I believe courage says even if I know the day I will die and that it will be immensely painful, I won’t shorten my life by one breath. Granted, sometimes courage isn’t appetizing enough to motivate that level of sacrifice. Sometimes the pain twists and fogs my thinking. But I believe there are at least two reasons to always reject suicide.
1. Bravery requires it.
Behold the irony: I’ve longed to commit suicide, but when a man broke into my apartment and held a gun to my head I longed to live. Am I right that we don’t usually want death; we want a life free from unbearable, senseless pain?
Unfortunately, that wish isn’t based in reality. Our part in pain isn’t ending it, but pushing through it with whatever shreds of courage we have or others can share. No matter how much we long for relief and how angry we are that our loved ones suffer with us, the moment we entertain suicide as an option, we lose. This torment, this mind-rotting, senseless torture is where our souls are shaped. No matter how much we want to cry foul, here we stand.
2. I’ll never know what I lose by cutting life short.
My youngest brother and his wife chose not to end their unborn daughter’s life when they learned she had anencephaly—even though it meant exponentially more grief and pain for the family. Because life is priceless and should never be cut short, they now watch their daughter grow through ultrasounds, feel her kick my sister-in-law’s stomach, and prepare for both her birth and burial.
I can’t imagine what my sister-in-law feels, but I respect her for the courage to cherish life. Because she and my brother chose life at great personal cost, I’ve had the joy of feeling my niece’s tiny kicks, hearing her heartbeat, and seeing her ultrasound pictures. She is as much a part of our family as her older brother and his cousins. My son and I pray every day she knows how much she is loved.
Many say we have the right to decide how long we’ll live—or how long others will. But to end life to escape pain? It’s tempting. What beauty could possibly justify the pain of a life destined to end in premature death? Why prolong purposeless agony?
Perhaps our focus shouldn’t be on what we have rights to do (end our life, end our suffering) but on what we were meant to do. We were created already filled with the desire to fight for life. Our instinct is to preserve it, and choosing death can only lead to pain more profound than the suffering we try to escape—either for us or for those left to pick up the pieces.
Sometimes the most courageous act of living is just staying alive.