observations and opinion
Life likes itself. Almost any person or beast alive will avoid death – it’s one of the instincts every living creature contains. It takes overwhelming agony, disability or mental discipline, to overcome that imperative.
I’ve sat beside the beds of people in their dying hours. As all parts of the mind and body fail, the visible attributes of humanity close off, like shutters over the windows in a hurricane. In the end what is left, is force – the lungs clutching for air, the whole person converted to a single muscle in spasm. Until it is too much. Then, the still silence.
As in all things, we define death by how we measure it. The outward signs of life are absent. The measurable activity inside the body and mind disappear. Soon after, the non-functioning body begins its slow, inexorable decay. Dust to dust.
Few if any of us, know what it’s like to be dead. The only people who say they know, are alive. I am in no position to judge if any such reports are accurate, skewed or just phony. Most of us cannot even pretend to know what death is like. It is very likely not like anything at all, given that all of a human’s capacity to absorb information and convert it into experience, are gone. As for the soul, who can really tell what her soul is doing while alive? Who can tell what it’s up to afterwards? Not us.
It is for this reason that one cannot really accept that anyone “wants to be dead.” No one can “want” something utterly unknown or unknowable. They can only desire what they imagine, in the same manner as I can visualize scoring the winning goal in the Stanley Cup Finals, hitting a home run at Fenway or dancing like Fred Astaire.
No, what the suicidal must be seeking – what they “want” – is not to be dead, but simply not to be living the way they are living. They want out of their current situation.
The law of the west has always abjured suicide. We attribute religious, moral and social reasons for a prohibition on taking one’s own life, but I think at the bottom of this aversion is the raw recognition that we know what life is and we generally like it – we hang onto it fiercely, surrendering it unwillingly. It is alien and offensive to the living, to those who struggle to stay alive and enjoy it, to see someone throw life away. The prohibition on murder is likely tied to the same foundational feeling: life is the basic state. It should not be torn from someone else, but for in extreme or necessary circumstances.
Not all human societies have operated on this principle. We have seen murder-suicide cultures flourish, for example in the lost Aztec civilization. Similarly in Nazi Germany and Cambodia, where mass murder became as common as sunsets. But as a general principle, we have constructed our societies to sustain human life, not to snuff it out. And we have resisted any efforts to turn killing or suicide into acceptable norms. No, we’re not perfect at this – it is an aspirational value.
Which brings us to “assisted suicide”, a practice which must frankly be recognized as a form of legalized killing. In Canada, we have been told by our Supreme Court that laws criminalizing killing are unconstitutional, if the person being killed is legally capable of choosing death over life, and if that person is severely and irremediably suffering. To force a person to commit suicide alone and violently (if capable) or to endure “severe and intolerable suffering” is, ironically, an impingement of her right to life. “A person facing this prospect has two options: she can take her own life prematurely, often by violent or dangerous means, or she can suffer until she dies from natural causes. The choice is cruel.”
We have all suffered, or seen suffering and a reasonable person cannot wish it upon anyone, not even his worst enemy. To inflict suffering on a person or animal is always recognized to be harsh and often, an illegal cruelty. Our Supreme Court has basically come to that conclusion about laws which forbid people to end their pain – such laws are so harsh and cruel, as to be unconstitutional.
That sounds sweetly reasonable – because it IS sweetly reasonable, but it is not simple. There is a lot of cultural material coagulating inside the idea that forcing someone to live in pain, is a violation of their right to life. The most prominent belief embedded there is that not only do we have a right to be alive, we also have a right to be alive without suffering.
If you examine western culture, honestly, you will see that we have become so averse to discomfort that “pain relief” is now possibly our highest value. We are not to be insulted. We are not to be mocked. We are not to be subjected to ideas and words which make us uncomfortable. We are not to endure headaches or toothaches without immediate resort to drugs. We are not to be dragged through the day without whatever recreational drug we desire. This is not only a cultural imperative, it is an economic engine: a significant portion of our best and brightest are perpetually engaged in dreaming up analgesics to ease our pain.
We are, in our modern moderately drugged state, entering a phase of human existence which is distinct from everything that has gone before: we are sliding (galloping, actually) towards the Analgesic Society. This is basically unnatural – we not only are accustomed to pain, we need it. Pain is a powerful signal of our interior and exterior reality, a flag, a message. The body actually craves pain to some degree. We learn from it. To deny its existence is not only to become numb, it is to become dumb too.
Pain has its uses. Pain tells us that we are in danger. Often it is right. But often it overstates the case very seriously. Our avoidance of pain can in fact injure us, by disabling our capacity both to endure and to do the things necessary to get better. A long time ago, an occupational therapist told me about a notion called “hurts, not harms.” This held that the body must by necessity suffer pain, in order to heal. We are losing that thread and with it, becoming more fragile.
The pain free existence, the Analgesic Society, does not feel like a good thing. It feels like an abdication of the responsibilities of living, and also the opportunities of being here. I do not look upon my own times of grief and pain fondly, but I recognize in them the moments when I became – often involuntarily – a better person. Feeling pain is like feeling joy, ecstasy, rage, ebullience: it is part of the POINT of being alive, not the problem with it.
Our interior belief in what life IS, also affects our judgment about how life should be experienced. Longstanding and global objections to the use of powerful recreational drugs may well stem from an inner compass pointing to true north: we have to feel and to be aware, to be alive. We have to experience, to learn and to use our judgment.We cannot be fully human, if our senses are dulled to the point of being useless. The things which diminish those capacities, diminish our humanity.
That said, of course, drugs often elevate our ability to live meaningfully, either by enhancing our capacities or reducing the pain or dysfunction which impede us. We aren’t taking prescription medicines to have reduced lives, after all. Drugs, even recreational ones, can allow us to have a better and more rich experience of this mortal coil – not just through pain relief, but through subtle alterations to our senses. Drugs can sometimes make what is right about us, better, as well as relieving the burden of what is wrong with us.
Of course, we cannot always overcome what is wrong. There sometimes comes a moment when the body and mind fail so cruelly, palpate with pain so constantly and become so immune to analgesics that the best human capacities – mobility, action, awareness, joy, fear, love, laughter, pleasure, incredulity, fascination, even bare satisfaction – become almost impossible. In short, pain can become so severe that a person cannot even really feel pain anymore. And that, I think, is probably the moment when legalized killing (I mean, “assisted suicide”) becomes a reasonable option.
These are dangerous times. People shun discomfort just as much as pain. They have blurred the distinction. So tender have we become, that even arguments we do not like, cause our guts to burn in agony. We seek “safe zones” everywhere. Such a hyper-sensitive society seems like the wrong place to make killing, or even killing oneself, easier.
We must become more tolerant of valuable discomfort, in order to experience lives of true worth. And if we are to license people to kill, we must restrict seriously who they may kill and when. Assisted suicide must , I think, be open only to those people for whom the agony of being alive has obliterated the ability to actually live.
That will not be an easy thing to ever know for certain, and so it cannot be a judgment which is hurried or formulaic. And killing, being so fundamentally offensive to so many of us, can never be something we may demand of our doctors, or of anyone else.