‘Prophylactic’ Suicide

Aurora and Tithonus

Aurora and Tithonus

Many of us who are still in good health have decided . . . that at some point we will not wish to cope with the diminishment of our lives, the narrowing choices, the prospect of both physical and intellectual decay. When that point comes, we’ll go out. Deciding just when should be the choice of the individual. And the means to commit rational suicide should be available without the threat of legal or societal punishment.

from “‘Prophylactic’ Suicide’, New York Times, November 16, 2014

Reading these words over coffee with my Sunday paper, I thought of Tithonus, the Trojan youth who, in Greek mythology, asked Zeus to be immortal but forgot to ask for eternal youth. Tithonus never died, he simply grew older and older, more decrepit and anguished, until finally he begged for death to overtake him. (“When the gods seek to punish us they merely answer our prayers,”  said Oscar Wilde.)

Scientific advances have enables us to prolong human life, but in wishing for longer and longer life we forgot to ask for greater and greater wisdom. That is what would enable us to accept the “diminishment of our lives, the narrowing choices, the prospect of both physical and intellectual decay.” It’s simply the course of nature. The 35 year-old athlete has to admit he just doesn’t have the blinding speed he possessed ten years ago. Our bodies slip and our minds falter. Our prospects dim, compared to the brightness we once imagined. Accepting all these limitations is the natural course of human growth, because in them we find—in fact—deeper powers, a broader mind and a more spacious heart. As the essayist Joseph Joubert put it, “Old age deprives the intelligent person only of qualities useless to wisdom.”

There are those whose lives have become agony without meaning or purpose, and those who are being “kept alive” by extraordinary means when the life force is clearly gone. As a pastor I know well the sadness of a life whose natural end has been thwarted or delayed. But I sense in the heated debate over assisted suicide and now “prophylactic suicide,” a willfulness, a need to control life and death, and a palpable fear. I know because I worry about how I will die. I am like Woody Allen who quipped, “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

It is quite easy to expend enormous energy arguing about laws and “rights” and national policies on death and dying as a way of avoiding our mortality. Better to spend quiet time in the secret of our own souls, learning each day how—gradually—to let go of our need to manipulate our lives and fortunes so that we spend at least as much time seeking to live as we do orchestrating our death.

10 Responses to ‘Prophylactic’ Suicide
  1. Matt
    November 17, 2014 | 10:15 am

    John Lennon said something like “Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.” Maybe could take that one step further and say “life is what happens while we’re worrying about orchestrating our death.” A lot to think about, with my main takeaway being carpe diem.

  2. Mary
    November 17, 2014 | 10:24 am

    To me the most interesting piece is the way the debate has affected end-of-life care as a whole.
    In 2007, after the law was 10 yrs old in Oregon the Christian Science Monitor reported:
    “Relatively few people opt to end their own lives….Instead, palliative and hospice care have increased markedly here because the law helped raise awareness about caring for terminally ill patients.

  3. Barbara Miley
    November 17, 2014 | 12:33 pm

    Good thoughts here, David! Thanks! I hope I can allow God to do whatever He wishes with me when that time comes. I would hate to fall through the Pearly Gates upside down at an inopportune moment! But again, if He didn’t think I should be there at that time, He wouldn’t let Peter open the gates!! Would He?? ?? 🙂 Still lots to think about honestly and quietly. 🙂
    Peace to you and yours.

  4. Michael
    November 17, 2014 | 3:37 pm

    Thanks for raising this issue.

    It’s on my mind a lot as we have just dealt with the death of my wife’s mother and the agonizing pain she endured at the end. What’s even worse is my wife’s young nephew, for weeks now in what doctors are calling a persistent vegetative state. In the one case, great pain; in the other an absence even of the possibility of pain. In both cases, so difficult for those who stand by in what sometimes feels like helplessness. That, too, is pain.

    Your counsel not to debate the issues but rather wait in quiet–is what I’m finding most useful now.

    • David Anderson
      November 17, 2014 | 4:56 pm

      Yes, I thought of Kay’s nephew as I wrote this.

  5. GINNY
    November 18, 2014 | 9:48 pm

    Much to think about here. With my life, God will do what he wishes to do. I will try to be ready.


    • David Anderson
      November 18, 2014 | 9:50 pm

      Right–and the best way to be ready, Ginny my dear friend, is to give thanks for your life today. I’m giving thanks for you–for sure.

  6. Pam Anderson
    November 19, 2014 | 10:11 am

    I don’t want to deprive myself of wisdom that comes with end- of-life pain and challenge, but if I lose my mind and don’t recognize a single person on this earth–that’s when I really don’t get the point of sticking around.

    But who knows… as I continue to age and acquire a little more of that much needed wisdom, maybe I’ll feel differently.

    • David Anderson
      November 19, 2014 | 10:34 am

      Yes, we just don’t know, do we.

      It’s a very personal thing, which is why I think I feel about end of life issues the same as I feel about beginning of life issues (and making categorical statements about scientifically complex–and less and less human–forms of conception, and about abortion). What matters is the disposition of the heart in these decisions–Why am I so fraught about this? What is motivating me?

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