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Dying with Dignity: A Closer Look

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Oct. 28, 2014

Brittany Maynard and I agree on this; we’d both like to die with dignity. Where we disagree on is what dying with dignity means. To Maynard, it means getting to choose when your life ends.

For anyone who has not heard of Brittany Maynard, her story recently went viral online. She is a 29 year old, dying from brain cancer. She moved to Oregon, a state which allows for patients to end their lives by taking a lethal dose of medicine, under the guidance of physicians. She is planning on ending her life on November 1st.

To some, choosing to end your life may seem not only a person’s right, but the most humane thing for them to do when they are terminally ill as Maynard is. “Dying with dignity” in this context means that a person chooses physician-assisted suicide over the suffering and debilitation that come with terminal illnesses.

Maynard’s story raises a critical question: does dying with dignity mean enduring the suffering? Or is suffering as meaningless as it would appear? Physician assisted suicide suggests to society that suffering is neither meaningful nor redemptive, and should be ended as quickly as possible.

But there are times in our lives when we will even willingly endure suffering. A woman will bear the pain that comes with giving birth to a child. Athletes often accept the pain that comes with practicing their sport and preparing their bodies for competition. Even a little child will tolerate the sting of rubbing alcohol on a cut, because they know that the wound will heal faster if it’s clean.

These scenarios share a common factor: the pain is seen as temporary, and for a purpose. The mother will see her child, and will forget about the pain. The athlete will return to tip-top shape and will pull ahead of his competitors. The child will heal faster.

But what about the pain that is chronic, that carries on for years, and may only end with death? This kind of suffering doesn’t seem to have an end, and I think this is where people begin to justify ending life to end the pain. After all, many argue, it is the person’s body. Why should laws prevent a person from being in control of their life?

This argument is familiar, but it disregards a larger part of reality, the reality that involves the pain, but is not merely the pain itself.  That even chronic pain has a purpose, though the purpose may be hidden from the sufferer. When suffering is seen as something to eliminate from our lives, to escape from, we lose the chance to suffer well, to accept something that is hard, to accept something that may even be redemptive.

Writing during the horrors of the Blitz in London, author Caryll Houselander penned these words: “there is no such thing as useless suffering…Suffering does something to the man who suffers, not merely something for him…It is quite impossible to suffer anything, no matter what it is, and not be affected by it” (Guilt 113-114). Houselander had endured not only the fear and paranoia that came with air raids and watching for bombs during the night, but also the effects that followed the war: the numerous physical and mental sufferings people experienced as a result. That suffering changes the person is an important point.

If you speak to a person who has experienced or is experiencing something like cancer, their view on the world and what matters is often very different from that of a person who has never experienced it. The sufferer often sees life in a way that is appreciative of the little things, and the people in their life. They have been stripped of so many things; not only their health, but also the assurance that they will live another year, that they will carry out the plans they had made for their life.

The battle for their life changes their priorities and changes them. Houselander says that suffering is meaningful because it changes us. And from this change comes a responsibility:  “the character given to a man by suffering will affect everyone with whom he comes into contact” (113-114).

When I think about the idea that how we suffer affects those around us, I think of people like Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture. Though terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, he, as the billboards said, “Wrote a book on living while dying.” He spoke to people, encouraging them to live life to its fullest. I think of people like Morrie Schwartz, whom Mitch Albom introduces us to in his book, Tuesdays with Morrie. Morrie, suffering from ALS, welcomes Albom back into his life at the end of his life, and teaches Albom about living life with love and freedom. I think of people like Blessed Chiara Luce Badano, who died at eighteen from bone cancer, but who throughout her illness greeted people with a smile, and as her family said, ended up comforting the people who came to the hospital to comfort her. Each of these examples shows that suffering has value and can be redemptive.

Each of these examples shows that suffering has value and can be redemptive.

Suffering is not only the school in which we learn how to live life more fully. However, it is one in which we can  teach others methods for carrying our pain, to not letting fear or grief or the pain itself consume us—for believing beyond our feelings that the life we live can touch lives around us for the better.

When we are well, we often argue that our lives are our own, but anyone who has loved another might recognize that our lives are truly never our own. 

Suffering can lead to an inner strength of heart, and make us better lovers. When we are well, we often argue that our lives are our own, but anyone who has loved another might recognize that our lives are truly never our own. If we have friends, we give our heart to our friends; if we have family, we give our heart to our family. Our life is not lived in a vacuum. It is shared among many people. I think that’s what makes life worth living, that we live not only for ourselves, but beyond ourselves. And this is where suffering can take us—outside of ourselves, and more deeply into the lives of those around us.

In no way do I wish to diminish Maynard’s own feelings about her pain, but wish to note that all she is going through is valuable. As Houselander says, through suffering, a person can “[see] in it a means of closer communion with other men…” (108).

Maynard’s life is a gift, one that I hope she is inspired to keep on living, despite the popular philosophy that values elimination of suffering over its endurance. “Dying with dignity” should not be used to define escape from pain; a person’s inherent dignity remains intact when s/he chooses to bear suffering. While current laws seem to offer freedom from pain, the reality is that true freedom accepts the pain, the suffering, and also the joy of life. In our lives we will undoubtedly suffer, but this suffering teaches us that we can live and even flourish in moments of hardship, and that our suffering matters.

It changes us, and it changes our world.