by Sam Buntz
[Note: When I first started writing articles for this blog, I swore I would only write about literary, philosophical, cultural, and religious subjects and would completely avoid politics. Aside from one article about forms of socialism different from Marxism, I have more or less kept this vow. But now I’m going to break it—not to endorse any candidates or offer up any rant or cant about one political party or another. I’m writing on just one issue: assisted suicide. A “Right to Die” bill is on the ballot in Massachusetts, and I feel pressured to express my opposition to it (which I hold for no partisan reasons.)]
In America, people often live their entire lives not only without seeking to understand themselves—to understand the pattern of their lives and their relation to the universe—but without being allowed to understand themselves. That is to say, their surrounding environment never provided them with a hint as to what the fundamental grounding of their existence might be, could be, or should be. The press and rush and worry of American existence goads the harried soul on from one exasperated state to the next—the bright minute of enjoyment and the prolonged hour of dullness exchanging places continually. But when life is coming to an end, and pain and despair—the very things people cite to advocate assisted suicide—are at their most intense, the moment is ripe for the contemplation of these very questions and for the final settling of accounts. An example of noble dying might be found in the death of Henry David Thoreau, who, when asked on his death bed whether he had made his “peace with God,” said, “I don’t believe we ever quarreled.” Thoreau was a special case—and for most of us, death is the moment wherein we resolve our quarrel with the universe, or God, or Fate, or Time, or Nature, or whatever we consider the big, basic underlying reality to be. You could say that the quarrel is the individual life’s struggle with the greater flow of Life onwards, which eliminates the tiny mortal atoms that comprise it as it makes room for new ones.
Death is the moment when the individual’s life can reach an understanding with that greater Life—with Life Itself, in other words. But death is not just an occasion where this can happen—it is the occasion of occasions. Read Tolstoy’s short story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” to see how the despair of an average person facing death—which translates easily into our own despair in the face of our mortality—finally resolves itself beautifully. Ivan Ilyich is able to sign out with no small amount of grace. But he doesn’t figure himself out, doesn’t figure out the people around him and his relations to them—the ways in which he appreciated and failed to appreciate them, the ways in which they related to him in turn—until he needs to deal with the process of natural death, with the agony and final dissolution of his mortal self. But he does come to an understanding with Life—and the pain he suffers (representative of the pain we all suffer and will suffer) does not prove to be something that aught to be avoided or violently abridged—though certainly no one would object to massive doses of painkillers. I’m speaking of mental pain, of the conflict a mind has with itself when faced with the prospect of a great leap in the dark. This pain presses it toward self-contemplation—toward self-knowledge and, ultimately—what’s greater—toward God-knowledge (though I think if an atheist subs in “Life” for “God,” he or she can understand what I mean just as well—I want this to be accessible.)
A New York Times article recently demonstrated that it is not physical pain that drives most people to commit physician-assisted suicide, but mental pain (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/27/four-myths-about-doctor-assisted-suicide/). Most people who commit assisted suicide actually are suffering from depression, rather than from unbearable physical agony. And as the doctor who authored the article observed, most of those people are upper-middle-class or upper-class citizens, used to controlling all aspects of their lives. When faced with that bright blank called death—you shiver. It blots out everything you know, eating you up, making you its own child. And the impulse is then to run away from it, for the ego to assert its own pitiful “I am” one last time in the face of possible annihilation—and make an end itself. But this is to avoid the last opportunity to look the Beast straight in the eyes—to reach that full self-knowledge and Life-knowledge that few of us ever are lucky enough to attain. Now, I recognize that we can’t really judge the impulse that a dying person might have to voluntarily blot his or her self out of the ever-unfolding script of life. I think I actually understand that impulse – but the issue isn’t whether the person’s impulse is right (and I certainly don’t think it is right.) The issue is whether we as a society should approve that impulse, should say that this fear and this despair is ultimately the way to go – that death can only be utter misery, better experienced as caused by your own desperate, tiny fingers, picking up one last bitter pill.
By voting for assisted suicide, we would be saying that the way death all-too-often happens in America—confused and scared, full of dread and despair, and probably in a nursing home, and quite likely totally alone—is how it inevitably should happen. And your best alternative is just to cut it short. Taken in this sense, assisted suicide is not a liberal solution – it is a false solution forced on people who have no liberty in the first place, whose choices regarding death are bad because we’ve given them only bad choices. We have no concept of what used to be called “holy dying,” of the idea that death is the moment when our self-understanding can be at its most fiercely intense and graceful. I know that this positive mode of death isn’t a delusion – because I have been in rooms where it was happening, where something painful and terrible, yet necessary and meaningful was taking its course. I was there – this isn’t knowledge brought second-hand or from books.
The idea that life should be about the ego’s right to its own priorities, regardless of what those priorities are or how they interact with the wider ethical obligations of a society, is an absurd concoction of American and Western European derivation. In parts of India and Tibet (and, I’m sure, in many other places throughout the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim—and even Christian—world), there is still such a thing as “holy dying.” Death is not something to be so disdained as it is in America, where it is hidden away and left to devour aging and lonely people whose lives go out in ultimate despair. It is the last chance you really get to understand yourself – and some of the people around you, believe it or not, can actually help you do this. To vote for assisted suicide is not to cast a ballot for freedom, choice, and all the rest—it is to cast a vote for despair, and to affirm that society should sign off on the despair of its own citizens, provide them with poison, and flush them down to oblivion or worse. To suggest that the only solution to the problems of the aging elderly is to offer them the option of terminating their own mental anguish with the (false) promise of swift nothingness, is not to stand up for “freedom of choice”—it is to make an ugly assertion. It is to say that despair is inevitably the way it needs to end, and that the only remedy we can reasonably afford those suffering from that affliction is a quick and artificial death. Never having known themselves or the world around them—without having seen the richness of their own folly and grief and tenderness, of everything they brought to bear in life and everything they couldn’t bring to bear, brought into the light—the person who commits assisted suicide dies. They go “from the nothing of life to the nothing of death.” But neither life nor death should be “nothing.” And we have no right to sweetly license that “nothing,” with a typical orange plastic tube of pills, all loaded with death, ready at hand.
Now, this issue has nothing to do with the right to refuse medical care or to refuse potentially life-prolonging healthcare. I totally support that right, and have seen it exercised in my own family. It has nothing to do with the merits of this argument, which relates to one issue alone—prescribing someone poison, and effectively telling them that they should be in despair and should disintegrate their own souls as speedily as they might. Yes, it would be a shame to die a natural death alone, in fear, in pain and agony, scared and witless, never really knowing what’s going on. But it would be an even greater shame to die intentionally without having realized your birthright—without knowing who you are, without having “made your soul.” It would be the ultimate shame to consciously refuse that due completion. Assisted suicide is no part of soul-making, or human-making, or “holy dying” – it is oblivion prescribed as a cure-all. It is a society’s curse on its frailest members. It is the affirmation of a death in ignorance, hanging on to the ego’s understandable—but terribly misguided—attempt to control its situation. It is the mark of a society that has forgotten what death actually is—and, therefore, of a society that has forgotten what life is. It is to snatch away what is literally someone’s last chance.