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.