Saturday, November 1, 2014

One Way

The news that Brittany Maynard has determined that she's feeling well enough that she doesn't fear missing her opportunity to avoid a painful and prolonged death has some religious conservatives openly wondering if she "may not be so anxious to end it all on Saturday, after all." This focus on her refusal to not wait "for God to take her home according to His timetable," has lead to the debate over the ethics and/or morality of her choice to assert control over the time and manner of her death to take on an aspect of judgement that threatens to poison the discourse around end-of-life issues.

If you are saying that it is dignified and brave for a cancer patient to kill themselves, what are you saying about cancer patients who don’t?
Matt Walsh, There Is Nothing Brave About Suicide
(Emphasis in original.) Personally, I'm not saying anything about the people who stick it out to the bitter end. For my part, if I'm going to call someone a coward, then I'll call them a coward directly, rather than imply it through referring to someone else as brave.

For Matt Walsh, "Brave" is a constant. If something is brave for one person, it must be brave for all people, and only those people who take the same path are worthy of the label. But the world that we live in does not work this way - we commonly (and perhaps too readily) refer to soldiers, police officers and firefighters as brave. But we don't then take that to mean that anyone who once considered joining the armed forces, walking a beat or rushing to the scene of a blaze but decided to pursue another calling must be a coward. According to Matt Walsh, anyone who labels Mrs. Maynard as brave cannot also respect the courage of "a woman who fights to the end, survives for as long as she can, and withers away slowly, in agony, until her very last breath escapes her lungs." I would argue that point with him.

For me, bravery is not a rote series of steps that one takes - it is an understanding that someone is facing up to something that they have a legitimate fear of.

Many people fear dying. I see that as a legitimate thing to be afraid of - after all, we put a remarkable amount of effort into postponing death, even when we know it's only for a relatively short period. Many people fear agonizing pain. I also see that as a legitimate thing to be afraid of. I also understand that not all people fear both of these, and there are some people who fear neither. (I envy the latter group - which I suspect may be part of the reason I have yet to join them.)

Which of these Brittany Maynard is most afraid of, and which one she is willing to trade for the other is for her to decide; not Matt Walsh, or anyone else. I understand the commonly-espoused Christian ideal that there is an obligation to trust that dying is not to be feared and enduring the fear and suffering brought by agony is rewarded. And I respect people who take it upon themselves to honor that obligation. But I am less approving of those who would tell us that we must honor them - and that we must do so by denigrating anyone who makes a different choice.

Unlike most of us, Brittany Maynard is faced with a real-life Sadistic Choice. Her death, at some point, is a given. If she hastens it too much, she misses out on part of a life she appears to love very much and spending time with her husband, her family and the other people she loves. If she does nothing, she may possibly "develop potentially morphine-resistant pain and suffer personality changes and verbal, cognitive and motor loss of virtually any kind." I can imagine few, if any, of us would willingly trade the life we currently have for either of those options.

So why not see actively making and owning that choice, regardless of which option is chosen, as courageous?

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