Friday, July 20, 2007

At Death's Window


I know this might be a strange post on the back of me remembering my grandfather - then again I am strange. It's my article for the paper tomorrow, as usual blog land will have it first - helps me gauge the temperature...

It started with a sentence that might last a lifetime and has left me too tired for sleeping and too wounded to hurt. I reached page ninety-eight but can’t go on. Page ninety-nine will be a long time coming, and to top it all I am probably on a hiding to nothing writing this.

The day began like any other, with coffee as I boarded the train bound for Gatwick’s South Terminal, thanks to Apple, Louden Wainwright III, was singing into my ears, and I was enjoying the latest offering from one of my favourite writers, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith by Annie Lamott. That was until I got to Chapter eight.

The chapter begins with a confessional statement. ‘The man I killed did not want to die, but he no longer felt he had much of a choice.’ See, not your normal opening sentence in a book about faith is it? Annie then goes on to tell the story of a couple she calls Mel and Joanne. How a once articulate, strong, fit, comical man had become deficient, still functioning and resilient, but having to retreat to a place his mind and body had never inhabited before - like a wardrobe long empty of someone, gradually losing shape and purpose – had decided to cut short his stay on this earth.

Now, as I write this in an airport terminal, I have no clue as to whether assisted suicide is legal in California, but to cut a short chapter of her book even shorter – it has to be said, that (as Annie in a painfully beautiful way writes) Mel and Joanne agreed to Annie, through, ‘wily, underground ways’ coming up with a prescription that would cover enough pills (which included barbiturates) for a lethal dose - one evening a meal was prepared, goodbyes said and presents given before Mel called time and took a cocktail that put him to sleep, the kind from which he would never wake.

It seems assisted suicide laws around the world are clear in some nations but unclear – if they exist at all – in others. Just because a country has not defined its criminal code on this specific action does not mean all assisters will go free (am assuming Annie thought this through). It is a complicated state of affairs. A great many people instinctively feel that suicide and assisted suicide are such individual acts of freedom and free will that they assume there are no legal prohibitions. This fallacy has brought many people into trouble with the law. In America there have been - and are - retired doctors who will travel to different places to help dying people who are in great suffering to escape from their pain-wracked bodies.

It seems there is a growing opinion in most of the Western world that not having a choice is an abuse of civil rights. In the coming years I think we will find there will be a more welcome climate for law reform in the area of death and dying. The reason? It is fast becoming (for many) our ultimate civil liberty – the right to die in a manner of one’s own choosing.

Yet why is something deep within still feeling very uncomfortable and awkward about this subject? Well, I guess my theological response to it. For all my opinions, which sit left of centre, I can be pretty orthodox on some issues. I still believe that only God can make an end to human life since God alone is its creator. To live as human beings also means having the will to be healthy; to be man and woman as God has created us to be. The biblical witness does not describe any point at which a human life becomes deprived of sanctity because of disease or disability, nor does it suggest that the value of human life depends on an ability to perform behaviors deemed necessary for human relationships.

I recognize that this is an obscure, maybe disjointed piece of work – confused even; but then again I am if I am honest. I mean, what does it mean to be alive but not living? Is there a point where we keep people alive but deny them life? These are big questions to which I am not sure I have conclusive answers. Maybe the job of an artist is not to bring us to a point of conclusion or black and white answers; but rather a point of departure with questions. Maybe they are the invisible signposts and nourishment for the road ahead, maybe. So will I go back to the book? I think I will, Annie has done her job well – I am out of my comfort zone and I want to know where we go on the next part of the journey.

My final thought? Faced with the existence of human suffering, we are called to pattern ourselves after the ministry of Jesus Christ, to heal and to comfort. And that kind of compassion compels us to bring relief to those who suffer, but I think also believe we should pursue, not merely reject, the reasons they may give to justify a wish to die. Doing this we may uncover fears and witness the power of hope itself.

15 comments:

Awareness said...

a very stirring topic....one I have wrestled with for various reasons most of my adult life. And yet, I waffle.....it's never black and white.....and we need to delve into the grey.
There have been a couple of high profile cases in Canada which has brought this topic to the forefront time and again. Sue Rodriguez....if you Google her name, her case set a precedent. She was assisted by a Member of Parliament who had taken up her cause.

The latest in the news is about a couple who flew to Germany from Nova Scotia in order to legally perform an assisted suicide. The wife had been stricken by MS and her health has completely deteriorated. Her husband, a retired Anglican Minister granted her wish. He returned home to Canada, where he faced possible charges, which were recently dismissed.

It is a discomforting topic...and thought....like any subjects which include the discussion of death...it hits too close to home. As far as this topic is concerned, I guess I'm at a point where I believe I will never know how I would react in this circumstance. I guess you have to be there to get close to an answer.

Compassion and relief....and love.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

hey dana
i reckon the fall out tomorrow will be substantial from the more conservative wing of faith - i said what i said not because i think i can play god - but because i can't. we need to be stirred, i need to be stirred from blindly walking by issues without seriously letting them caress and collide with who i am and what my faith means.

my life - all life is a gift, hope i won't let it pass me by....

your last line is wise..... almost Heschelesque!

Mog said...

I'm struck by how, in the story you related, gifts were given before the cocktail was drunk. it seems poignant that even in ending moments, that the capacity for gift-giving is present. I have long felt that the giving of a gift is something that reminds us, and brings us, to our own best selves, our own humanity. I like that you wrote this Paul - it's good to open up such topics, and to sit uncomfortably with how we think and feel. See you at GB.

Kathryn said...

Another beautiful bit of writing (and a further encouragement to read Annie Lamott).It's so hard, isn't it. I've been privileged to be beside some amazing people as they've journeyed towards death, and have learned so much from that...and slopes can be slippery, however hard you work to prevent that. I guess I'm uneasy about the built-in arrogance of self-sufficiency that seems to be part of humanity's apparent coming of age. It's that which leads us to believe that we have the right to die on our terms...I'm not too sure we actually do have that sort of right, but then I am not suffering unbearable pain. I just know that God's in the suffering, as God is in the questions...and if ever there was an experience that appeared to be one of senseless futility, then surely that was the cross...

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

Padraig
as i write this its 4.42 and the beginning of a new day has dawned - its been a long night - again
'it seems poignant that even in ending moments, that the capacity for gift-giving is present. I have long felt that the giving of a gift is something that reminds us, and brings us, to our own best selves, our own humanity.'
i like this my friend, the giving of gifts to reveal our humanity - something incarnational about that!!
and thank you for your kind words regarding this piece - am not sure if it's helped gauge any temperature - it is i guess an uncomfortable subject, and i stili, in truth, don't know how i feel about it - i guess i will sit with it a while
ps, tiny tea and the organic beer tents beckon......

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

kathryn
i remember some time ago mike yac talking of the gift of freedom - that real freedom scared christians because it mean entirely that - that we are free to do anything. he went on to righly point out that not everything would end well if we took certain choices but that we were free to choose....
i too don't like the idea of taking life, it's too great a gift, but like you wisely say - we are not the ones whose bodies are failing us and who are wracked in acute pain and i agree the most barking futility was found on a hill with a man on a tree.....

Château-Gontierdailyphoto said...

Today on my daily photo Blog about the Town of Château-Gontier (France) my subject is about humanism.
It is high time that humanism is with dimensions in Wall Street and on the other stock exchange places in the world.
Come and visit my photo blog.
Make that our indifference does not make us to them next victims.
Relay this fight in your own blog.
In advance thank you for them.

mister tumnus said...

good post paul. as with so many other issues to which i used to know 'the answer' i now have no idea where to start. part of our attitude to this issue must also be bound up by what we think death is. perhaps it is those closest to death who have more clarity in that circumstance. it's a great mystery. thanks for raising it. i'm about to go and write something for the ikon service at greenbelt and this has been a good starting point i think.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

chateaux
thanks for dropping by - you have an interesting blog will drop by from time to time

mr t, 'perhaps it is those closest to death who have more clarity in that circumstance.'

i like this, i like it alot - i guess my thoughts since i penned this piece have revloved around at what point does medical progress devalue human life/dignity?

the bar was raised even higher yesterday when my best mate said he wanted me to do the same for him if he got to that state.....still reeling from that one!

mister tumnus said...

phew, yeh! the problem with us is that we are prone to changing. if only we could say what we wanted to happen and then stick to our initial thoughts and feelings! at the minute i'm reading 'the happiness hypothesis (finding modern truth in ancient wisdom)'by jonathan haidt. give it a look. (this is not an entirely random association but i'm not sure i can do the book justice via a short comment here!)

Karen said...

I love that you think outside the box , your articles have travelled the world. My Mum in Guernsey has cut out a few from the paper and sent them to me here in NZ. What's the weather like in Guernsey right now?

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

mr t - as always food for thought, i have ordered the book in question and will give it a look. Sorry your piece is taking ages to find its way to the GB site - lets just say there is concern for other matters right now, ie cheltenham under water....

karen, bless her - that makes me international! weather? its 5am and raining, again

i realise i never answered your last question, How do i find guernsey people spiritually? Wesley described them as stubborn to change but i think he was probably a little up himself as most people in most places are like that. i guess the best way i can describe spiritual life here is that very few are prepared to colour outside the lines.....

Niki said...

Darn, I read this in the Press and meant to write and congratulate you...sorry I'm late, it was a fab piece of writing. x

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

thanks niki, not eveeryone thought that, but hey

hope all is well with you

Rainbow dreams said...

I read this before I went away...thanks for posting it here - I'd have missed it otherwise.
Curiously it was a topic swimming round my head after a book I'd just finished reading.

It is a far from comfortable topic, one filled with conflicting thoughts and feelings, predominately tinged with fear, that I find can only be taken out and looked at for so long before I need to put it aside for a while as thinking about it puts myself in those two situations...and there is fear and panic in both...and questions which only generate more questions

I do wonder if a fear of being asked to do something more than listen would keep many from being with someone who had reached that point... and yet, as you say, perhaps to be with and to listen is the one thing we can positively do.

Medical progress....who knows? I think it ploughs forward - because it can - exploring more choices for people and perhaps making decicions even more complex and difficult to come to.
Yet ultimately I guess I seek reassurance from the fact there always has to be a human element entwined in any decision, involving the conscience and soul which maintains some semblance of boundaries.

Food for thought indeed...