Meaning in Suffering
Written by Patrick Basista
Death with dignity advocate, Brittany Maynard, made headlines last year with her attitudes towards a human being’s decision to choose when and how they will die. Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer barely a half a year after she was newly wed to husband, Dan Diaz, she was obviously distraught. “Right when I was diagnosed, my husband and I were actively trying for a family, which is heartbreaking for us both,” she expressed in a CNN interview. “I’d say most of my sadness centers around how much I wanted a family. And it feels like for me that is how you leave your legacy – was through your children. And sort of inadvertently, through sharing my story, I’ve realized there’s a bit of a legacy I’m creating this way and I’m not ashamed of that. I am not ashamed to attach my name to what I think is a right that should belong to all terminally ill Americans.” In April of 2014 Brittany was told that she had little over six months to live. Consequently, her family tried relentlessly to find any miracle treatments that they could possibly find, but were ultimately unsuccessful. Soon after that, Brittany was beginning to feel some of the looming consequences of her form of cancer: splitting headaches, seizures, and random losses of memory. Upon realizing that the state of Oregon recognizes the right to die for mentally able patients, Brittany and her husband moved there as soon as possible.
The law is only in four states in the United States and the requirements are quite complex. In congruence with this article, only Oregon’s laws and regulations will be discussed. First, the applicant must be 18 years of age or older and must be a legal resident of the state of Oregon. They must be diagnosed with an illness that will give them six months or less to live and they must consult a physician twice with the second meeting being at least fifteen days after the first meeting. The physician then gives them a psychological screening to determine if they are of sound mind to make this decision. Once they meet certain criteria for mental health, they must receive documentation of all health procedures that could be enacted to aid suffering besides the ingesting of lethal medication. After all of that is said and done, then they can receive the prescription for the medication. Amid Brittany’s heartfelt videos and debates various sides have commented on it and coming to a logical conclusion has become muddled. Of course, this is an extremely complex issue and it is certainly necessary to proceed with an adequate amount of discussion that could last months – if not years – for states to reach a conclusion. With that being said, the most vocal opinion has been a voice of support, both of her action and movement. However, with any tough decision wouldn’t it also be wise to consider any counterarguments? The arguments against right to die are actually quite numerous and only a few will be discussed in the following sections, but they will involve taking an objectively skeptical view void of all inclusions of irrational emotional responses and logical fallacies.
First, let’s assess the vocabulary that will be dealt with so that all terms can be understood based on their objective definitions. Suicide as defined by Oxford online dictionary is “the action of killing oneself intentionally.” In addition, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention lists it as “death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with any intent to die as a result of the behavior.” Therefore, it makes sense that taking prescribed drugs that are intended to stop human life is labeled as suicide and more formally, assisted suicide. Furthermore, what must also be considered is the clause, “death with dignity.” In theory, this wording makes sense; the individual is able to eliminate the suffering that they are in by choosing what is called their “right to die.” One can also conclude that it is the undesired and ill-timed disease that they are currently afflicted with that has taken away their dignity because it is prohibiting them from being a fully functional human being. Brittany often mentioned the lack of control that she contained over her current life and how having the prescription allowed her maintain some autonomy. While that is most certainly a natural reaction for someone with terminal brain cancer to have, the mentally handicapped, disabled, and paralyzed should have their voices heard.
Brittany Maynard’s decision to me is best understood as “my quality of life is declining and since I see no possible improvement of my condition I should save myself and my family the pain of watching me suffer and end my life right now.” If that logic is carried over to someone who is handicapped in any way from birth, wouldn’t their life have been inherently worse than Brittany’s? These individuals would have never known what it is like to be a fully functioning human being, so to spare them the agony of living in a world that is always more able than them (both physically and/or mentally) would be an act of mercy, correct? An even more poignant example would be those who obtained their handicaps by accident, war, or any other unfortunate calamity. Wouldn’t they have the right to choose whether or not they want to live? While one could say that since they aren’t dying in most cases, wouldn’t living in a condition that according to society is less capable than before be more psychologically damaging than knowing you will eventually pass away soon?
With regards to those who are born with such misfortunes, the handicapped individual may not even realize that they are less capable than the rest of us. Initially, this seems logical, but by saying this one assumes that is not able to contribute to society because of their condition and/or that they are not capable of finding meaning in their life. Which in reality, is a very insulting thing to assume. Subsequently, the claim that this argument would considered a slippery slope fallacy (a statement that says “If we allow A to happen, then Z would happen somewhere down the line. Therefore, A should not be allowed.”) is not valid because the handicapped’s condition is far worse than Brittany’s. This is because their condition (in the exception of those without total functions of their limbs) is not causing a shorter life expectancy and is incurable. As a result, if Brittany Maynard’s plea for suicide is considered and allowed, the plight of the mentally handicapped, disabled, and paralyzed must be examined as well.
Besides the complementary situations that would arise with the acceptance of this clause, death with dignity is an oxymoron by nature of the fact that all human beings possess an incredible amount of dignity. We are the only species capable of free thought that does not concern the present moment. Our remarkable resilience combined with a fierce desire for knowledge and the ability to constantly improve places us above all inhabitants of the earth. No other species can comprehend time in its abstract form: past, present, and what is to come as well as recognize that they are alive and can change something about themselves or the world. Cancer is not the end of our civilization. We are gifted with a remarkable resilience and vigor for survival. This fact is well established by the seemingly insurmountable tragedies we have endured. Some notables include the black plague, two world-wide wars, the Holocaust, various other genocides past and present, drought, HPV, HAV, HBV viruses, Ebola, AIDS, and terrorist/hate group attacks. While some of these are a work in progress, we still have overcome a large amount of natural causes of death through science and hard work.
An extreme amount of human resilience is especially present in the biographies of Holocaust survivors. The bestselling book by concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor E. Frankl, entitled Man’s Search for Meaning, contains an insurmountable number of quotes for this particular debate. “When we are no longer able to change our situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Under his circumstances, Frankl certainly did not have a way out of being in a concentration camp. The torture he endured was beyond any of our wildest imaginations. There was a passage in the book where he described a single event that made his day. When Viktor was being rationed his stew for the day (I use the term “stew” lightly as it was basically broth) he noticed that his stew contained one solitary bean – and he rejoiced. This really puts our suffering into perspective. He is an excellent example of how someone endured trials and left behind that time in triumph with a gift for all humanity. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Another more recent example is present in current cancer patient, Maggie Karner. Maggie has been diagnosed with grade 4 glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor – the same brain tumor that Brittany possessed. She, on the other hand, carries with her a very different message. When asked about how she handled her diagnosis and any anxiety from what her condition might become in time, she responded:
“Well, yes. I mean, the minute you get the diagnosis, just the word glioblastoma just scares the heck out of you. And you think what I am a going to become? But the cool thing is in the process of this whole journey that I’ve been on, I’ve become something that I never imagined I would become. Not to my detriment, but I think – I’m hoping that I’m becoming a richer, deeper, more appreciative person with compassion for other people. And I’ve been soaking up the love of my family and friends around me. And so there’s lots to learn by tragedy and challenges. And my concern is that when we eliminate from our society all negativity and challenge, is that the best way as a society to help someone through a challenging time? Can’t we find them good, compassionate care? Good pain management that starts early in the cancer journey so it is not just an afterthought at the end? Can’t our policies reflect that in an already strained health care system?”
Maggie brings up a very intriguing point by saying that there can be good that comes from receiving a tragedy. She is not saying that she is grateful for her cancer and that she wishes the experience of cancer on any individual - that would not follow the compassionate and neutral approach that she is trying to demonstrate. What she says parallels Viktor Frankl’s idea that “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” I am sure when Viktor was sitting in the cold and dark barrack of his concentration camp it would have been very easy to either kill himself or to ask to be killed, but he did not in order to instill hope and communicate his love for the others in his midst. I believe that there is meaning in everything – it just might take some time and effort to find it; and that hope and meaning is found when we look beyond our suffering towards the millions dying and in pain some of us cannot even imagine. The most appropriate question is to say how does one “look beyond their suffering and at those around them?” Thankfully, besides Maggie, there are some recent examples that are currently changing their section of their world and life.
Lauren Hill was diagnosed with an inoperable brain cancer called DIPG or Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Giloma a couple days after her 18th birthday in 2013. She was given until December of 2014 to live. Previous to her diagnosis, Lauren received her dream of being accepted to play college basketball at Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati. Lauren got her wish this past November right around the time of Brittany Maynard’s death. The key difference between the two (Brittany and Lauren) is that Lauren turned her suffering outward and let the rest of us help her cause. With that being said, Brittany Maynard did accomplish a fair amount towards the end of her life by bringing assisted suicide and our fear of death into the mainstream discussion, but in my opinion, Brittany was slightly led astray. Lauren and Maggie’s example allows us to treat cancer more broadly. Instead of fighting for the well-being of a cancer patient when they are at the end of their life, why not directly improve their time from the moment they are diagnosed with better treatment both psychically and mentally? Another positive change is to bring the lack of funding of specific cancer treatments into global awareness, so not only would people be spared suffering, but also that this particular strain of cancer be erased from our humanity. Towards the end of 2014, Lauren Hill raised over one million dollars for brain cancer research and while her health is still failing, she is continuing to survive past her own diagnosed death while actively improving others’ lives by her example and fundraising.
The main problem with Brittany’s decision is not the fact that she didn’t want to suffer - we all don’t want to suffer (especially when death seems as the only conclusion to that suffering). However, what she didn’t realize is that her choice affects not only her life, but her family and friends - not to mention her newly-wed husband. These individuals loved her dearly and that is evident in their support of her, but one would have to believe that they would also want as much time with her as possible – even if that time was affected by her condition. In fact, Brittany relinquished herself of having her dear family and friends care for her and love her like when she was first born. Who knows what could have happened as a result of her family reuniting to care for their ill family member? We all have family issues, but when humans are united among a common goal, petty differences get pushed aside and love is finally able to shine through.
In relation to the tightened bond of a family during times of an illness, an example from lifenews.com (a Pro-Life website that has been in operation since 1992) comes to mind. Nadin Naumann wrote a response to Brittany Maynard’s decision in the Daily Signal entitled “My Mom as the Same Brain Cancer Diagnosis as Brittany Maynard, She’s Fighting to Live” that appeared on lifenews.com. Like Brittany Maynard, her mom was diagnosed with a grade 4 glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor. “Doctors said that my mom would have 15 months to live if she was lucky, it has now been 21 months since her diagnosis and she is still alive,” says Nadin. While her last almost two years have not been easy, she is constantly thankful that she still has her mother with her. “Sure, it has been hard for me to see someone I love so much go through this, but it would be significantly harder to not have her around at all.” This echoes in pure contrast to Brittany’s plea that ending her life would ease the suffering of all in her life including herself.
Also, isn’t suffering subjective? Who am I or anyone else to say what someone else is going through doesn’t allow them to commit suicide? While personal suffering is something only that particular person can understand in its depths, all human beings have suffered. It is by that suffering that we all understand each other’s suffering. Viktor Frankl states, “To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative.”
All things considered, we will never know exactly the magnitude of someone’s pain because we cannot adequately measure it between two individuals. Agony, like love, is something that cannot be measured but we know it exists because we feel it. In conclusion, because we all feel agony in some way shape or form and since it has a significant impact on our lives, the example of others whose suffering is exemplary and are still fighting should be enough to say that suicide should never be an option.
Besides all of these arguments, quite possibly the most troubling mindset was that Brittany was extraordinarily courageous. While she certainly did possess a great deal of bravery, this must not be understood to the detriment of those who choose life. If Brittany Maynard is courageous for committing her own death over cancer, what does that make those who are currently enduring cancer or worse conditions? I have even seen some comments on forums saying that these individuals are “suffering in ignorance.” This is a gravely disturbing mindset to aspire to because this is extremely ignorant of self-worth, and the character growth and development that is happening in cancer patients. In other words, if two people take radically different paths, both of them cannot be labeled completely courageous.
Regardless of how you feel about Brittany Maynard’s decision, one thing must be kept in mind: besides opening up the assisted suicide debate again, she challenged our views of death. As a whole community we fear death. Death is the ultimate thief that can take away our hopes and dreams instantaneously. But, death is not the end. Brittany recognized this herself by leaving a legacy of her own. “Death ends a life, but not a relationship,” said Mitch Albom in his novel, Tuesdays with Morrie. Brittany Maynard did make an impact in our world. She was the loving wife of her husband, Dan, and she did try to cherish her final days on earth as much as she could. I would hope that she made an example of love to her former students. However, what must be remembered after this terrible tragedy is that humans are not confined by our suffering. We have the power and capability to rise from the pain to better the entire human population.
In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.