The Meaning of Life

One of my favorite humorous books is Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  It is part of the world’s first, and likely only, five-book trilogy.  That gives you a bit of an idea of the kind of humor (British) that pervades the book.  One of the sub-plots in the series is the search for the meaning of life.  Adams’ hypothesizes the answer, and lets just say it isn’t quite as illuminating as one might hope.

But the meaning of life is all the rage these days.  Brittany Maynard is dead, having followed through on her plan to kill herself with the means of her choosing on the day of her choosing, rather than deal with the repercussions of a debilitating, terminal disease.  She has garnered more than media attention, she has galvanized and personalized the right-to-die argument, providing it with the attractive and sympathetic face that Dr. Jack Kevorkian never could.

Inevitably I get asked about this.  Wasn’t her decision noble?  Isn’t compassionate death something we should be supportive of?  The confusion is real and deep because it touches on notes of fear that many if not all of us share deep inside.  The older we get, the less invulnerable we feel, the greater the yearning to sidestep the unpleasantness of growing older and feebler that we start to be aware of.  I don’t want to suffer.  I presume that most people in their right minds don’t want to suffer.  Isn’t an option to eliminate suffering ultimately good?

It struck me yesterday that this issue has created sort of a split personality in our culture and society.  Most people would agree that suicide is a terrible thing.  Robin Williams’ well-publicized suicide a few short months ago is a reminder of how deeply ingrained it is that killing oneself is a horrible thing to do.  Horrible for the person now dead, and horrible for all the people around them who have to live on with the idea that they weren’t enough, they weren’t there for that person when they were most needed.  They never knew, they never understood, they failed somehow.  While we certainly wish to be sympathetic to the struggle of people who end up taking their own life, we also maintain that such a decision is not rational and is not healthy.  It is not beautiful, but rather tragic.

Unless you’re physically ill.  Terminally, physically ill.  Then it’s OK.  Then it’s noble.  Then it’s beautiful.

In attempting to maintain these two stances, we force ourselves to redefine life in a very narrow scope.  Life is not life with all its ups and downs and eventual death.  Life is only to be good.  Life is only to be health.  Life is only to be vigor and energy and sexiness and youth and joy and possibilities. There is nothing to be gained or learned in dealing with illness and disease, nothing to be received or shared.  When we have arbitrarily decided that our life is no longer worth living, we should be free to end it.

So long as there is a terminal illness involved.

Evidence from Europe and those countries that have legalized assisted suicide shows that the last sentence of that paragraph doesn’t stand very long once assisted suicide is legalized.  What happens instead is that a very slippery slope leads quickly to softening the standard for who is eligible for assisted suicide, and even who makes the decision about assisted suicide.  Suddenly non-terminal conditions are considered eligible for assisted-suicide.  Suddenly depression or physical/mental developmental issues become grounds for euthanasia.  Suddenly spouses are arguing (and receiving) the right to assisted-suicide because they don’t want to live on after their spouse has died or been euthanized.

The scope of what constitutes a life worth defending and protecting at all costs shrinks and shrinks and shrinks.  Who am I, after all, to say that the psychological or spiritual suffering of someone is less brutal than the physical suffering of someone else?  Who am I to say that the existential angst of living with a terminal disease for years and years is less severe than someone who expects to be dead in a very short time from an aggressive cancer?  I can’t.  So by opening the door to glorify death in one situation, I must open the door to glorify death in all of these various situations.

As near as I can tell, nobody ever promised us life would be a rose garden.  Pretty much universally, humanity has understood this to be the case.  There will be good things in life and bad.  Easy and hard things.  Health as well as sickness and disease.  Youth and old age.

I will likely be criticized for making statements on something that doesn’t directly affect me.  To the best of my knowledge I have no terminal disease.  Nor am I faced with caring for a spouse who has a terminal disease.  Who am I to stand in judgment of another person’s decision of what they can or can’t face?

Except that’s not true.  I am suffering from a terminal disease.  So are you.  So is my wife.  So are my children.  So is every single person in this world.  That terminal disease is death itself.  And as optimistic or hopeful or desperate as some scientists may be to undo the threat of death, it is a certainty that every single one of us lives under.  We gradually grow more conscious of our eventual demise as we get older.  It becomes realer and less of a hypothetical issue.  And some people face death much sooner than others, at an age that we arbitrarily decry as too young.  We have expectations and hopes of living to old age – expectations and hopes that have been dramatically buoyed by very recent developments in medicine and hygiene and are limited to a fraction of the world’s population.

So Brittany Maynard’s argument that she wants control over her death falls a little flat.  None of us really have control over that.  We’re all going to die, the only uncertainties are when and how.  Those are big uncertainties, granted, but they are also more or less universal.  The fact that a young woman dies sooner than someone else doesn’t necessitate that her suffering is the greater, or that she somehow deserves to end her life on her terms.  In fact, Brittany and others with a terminal disease have a clarity of vision that most of the rest of us don’t have.  Knowing how time short is likely to be provides an opportunity for really focusing on the things that matter.  We can’t all live our lives as though we will be dead or incapacitated in the near future, but there is a great deal to be gained by keeping the reality of death alive and well in the back of our minds.

Something our culture has patently walked away from.  Our glorification of youth requires a denial and hiding away of death, of aging, of suffering.  Why are we shocked when people suddenly choose death as a means of avoiding these things?

I know very well that I’m going to die one day.  I have ample examples in my life of the various forms that death might take.  I no longer live under the illusion that I did not so long ago that I will simply continue on the way I always have, with a few more wrinkles and a little less energy, until I just don’t wake up one morning.  There’s a reason we consider that a blessed and fortunate death.  It isn’t the typical death by a long shot.

So I pray here and now for grace to live in the light of my death.  Whether that comes unexpectedly in a stroke that reduces my physical or mental capabilities, whether it comes in a diagnosis of cancer or a terminal disease, or whether it happens rather out of the blue one night as I sleep, or as I sit working at my desk.  I pray not simply to avoid death or suffering, but more specifically for the faith and grace to bear up under it,.  To live with dignity in the midst of suffering, knowing that my dignity is not limited to my self-perception or the perception others have of me.  And I ought to pray for those around me who may need to care for me in those eventualities.  Or who I may need to care for if they encounter them before or instead of me.

And I pray that in the midst of these sufferings, God would be glorified – the God who has promised in the resurrection of his Son that suffering and death are not the final words in my life.  The God who has declared that one day sickness and disease and infirmity will themselves die, and I will be free of them.  Just as you can be.  My hope ultimately is not to avoid these things, but to triumph over them through God the Father who created me, God the Son who saved me, and God the Holy Spirit who lives within me.

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4 Responses to “The Meaning of Life”

  1. Lois Says:

    42

  2. Lois Says:

    Well, yeah, I guess after a person sees that, there’s no need to read the five books (in my opinion, not much reason to read #5 in any case).

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