“What do you think of this?” was all my friend wrote me in a private Facebook message with an attachment of an article about a young woman, Brittany Maynard, who has stage 4 brain cancer. Brittany’s doctors gave her 6 months to live and she decided to beat the cancer by ending her own life with the help of prescribed medication.
After a quick response he then asked me what he always asks me about these sorts of things: “Will God be mad at her?” For some reason this friend has chosen me as the ‘go-to-answer-guy’ for all things religious. He tends to use discussion as way of working through his frustrations with God, or at least his ideas about God, and I always oblige since his questioning usually challenges me a great deal.
The question is really a basic one: does God condemn those who commit suicide?
I’ll say here what I said to him, “I don’t know.” I say that not because the Orthodox Church does not have a stance on the issue, but because the issue is multifaceted not lending itself to drive-by judgments. For those interested in the Orthodox treatment of suicide see this excellent article.
But, if I could stray a bit from my friend’s original question, I found something much more interesting in the story. What does it mean to “Die with Dignity?”
The young woman gives the impression that dying in pain and suffering is to die undignified. The article celebrates her for living a “fearless life,” as evidenced by running half marathons and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. No doubt these things required massive amounts of pain and suffering to accomplish. But when the attention is turned to dying, pain and suffering somehow become undignified.
Is this true?
I like Fr. Andrew Damick’s thoughts on the same article noting Nelson Mandela’s unjust imprisonment as something that spoke a “powerful message of human worth” due to the fact that he endured it with patience. He left prison with a dignity that could never be matched had he not endured what he did.
I also think of my hero in the field of psychology, Viktor Frankl, and his 3 years of experience in Nazi death camps. He taught the world that people often cannot change the predicaments they find ourselves in, but “what matters is the stand they take—a stand which allows for transmuting their predicament into achievement, triumph, and heroism” (The Will to Meaning). He famously taught that meaning is unconditional and “neither suffering nor dying can detract from it.”
I also think of the innumerable examples of heroism with which Christian saints and martyrs faced down their final moments under some of the most extreme suffering and tortures imaginable.
St. Ignatius of Antioch, imprisoned and in route to Rome where he was sentenced to die by wild beasts in the Colosseum wrote, “No power, visible or invisible, must grudge me my coming to Jesus Christ. Fire, cross, beast-fighting, hacking and quartering, splintering of bone and mangling of limb, even the pulverizing of my entire body – let every horrid and diabolical torment come upon me, provided only that I can win my way to Jesus Christ!”
Not only did he not attempt to avert his impending fate, he charged towards it with courage unspeakable. Writing to the Christians in Rome who were attempting to have him released he said, “I must implore you to do me no such untimely kindness; pray leave me to be a meal for the beasts, for it is they who can provide my way to God. I am His wheat, ground fine by the lions’ teeth to be made purest bread for Christ. Better still, incite the creatures to become a sepulchre for me; let them not leave the smallest scrap of my flesh, so that I need not be a burden to anyone after I fall asleep. When there is no trace of my body left for the world to see, then I shall truly be Jesus Christ’s disciple.”
Am I trying to equate stage 4 cancer with imprisonment or Christian martyrdom? No. I am attempting to show that pain and suffering in the dying process need not be equated with an undignified death. And I am not totally ignorant on the matter. I recently finished a counseling internship at a cancer treatment hospital where daily I witnessed stage 4 cancer patients and their families in very dire circumstances. I stood by their bedside as they fought the disease to their last breath. Many of them were terrified of the process and if given the choice that Brittney had some may have taken it. But many more faced down the suffering and impending death with saint-like resolve. Their memory haunts the deepest part of my affection and, without their knowing it, they continuously kindle in me courage to face my own mortality and frailty.
If I had the chance to counsel Brittany Maynard I would encourage her to find meaning in her fight with cancer; to find dignity not in her power to choose when and how to die, but in dying well—by accepting her fight with cancer as she accepted her fight with Mt. Kilimanjaro. Dying with ease is no more dignified then going up the mountain on a ski lift.
Just some thoughts. Thanks for reading.
(*This article can now be found on Relevant Magazine online)