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Suffering Lives Are Worth Living

This past week, the media, large and small, observed the lives of two individuals whose commonalities are strikingly obvious: both in their 20s, both dedicating their lives to serving others, and both living with terminal brain cancer—and the unavoidable prognosis of pain, suffering and a limited life expectancy.

But the contrasts between the two are even more striking.  Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old former teacher, who was recently diagnosed, had chosen to take her life, and did so [1] earlier last week.  In my most recent Brief, I offer that suffering, far from being something to be categorically avoided, is, rather, a necessary and even fecund aspect of the human condition.  After writing that, I then learned of another person with a similar condition, but with a wholly different story to tell….

Philip Johnson, a 30-year-old Catholic seminarian and ex-naval officer, having lived through six post-diagnosis years of constant turmoil, seizures and headaches, concluded that the traumatic sequelae of his disease (loss of control of bodily functions, demise of mental faculties, etc.) did not make him less of a person.  He clarifies [2]: “My illness has become a part of me….  [I]t has shaped who I am and who I will become.…  I have had the great opportunity to serve the infirm…who trust in God with their whole hearts to make sense of their suffering.  Through my interaction with these people, I received much more than I gave.  I learned that the suffering and heartache that is part of the human condition does not have to be wasted and cut short out of fear or seeking control in a seemingly uncontrollable situation.”

Quality Of Life

Standard arguments in favor of euthanasia include commentary about an individual’s right to self-determination because they are going to suffer a decreased Quality of Life [3], an issue that is at times narrowly defined by physical and mental health parameters, but can more broadly be understood in the context of what constitutes for many, a life worth living.   Philip Johnson’s choices following his diagnosis have afforded him what some might call an exceptional quality of life: serving others in the midst of seeking his own answers.  Still, others will argue that just because Philip Johnson has been lucky enough (he would say blessed) to beat the odds for now, thus allowing him to further his education and pursue his vocation to the priesthood, this doesn’t change the fact that he will eventually lose the battle and suffer a humiliating demise in functioning that, to many, seems pointless and dehumanizing—and a drain on his family, his friends and on society.  Yet, to call his past several years pointless would be to invalidate not only his experiences, but those of the lives he has touched along the way.

Of Miracles And Paying It Forward

In his open letter to Brittany, Philip refers to her mother’s mention of an immediate hope for a miracle.  He states “My response to my diagnosis was the same – I hoped for a miraculous recovery so that I would not have to deal with the suffering and pain that was likely to come.  However, I now realize that a ‘miracle’ does not necessarily mean an instant cure.”  It means, in part, being able to recognize a life worth living.

Brittany seems to express this same need to have meaning in her life through her farewell message:  “Goodbye world. Spread good energy. Pay it forward!” (Paying it forward [4] is the concept that involves doing something good for someone else, in response to a good deed done on your behalf.)  Seemingly then, she believes that her decision to control her own death was a good for which she hopes others will do positive deeds in return.  (The nonsensicalness of this is evident it seems even to her, as in her second video Maynard said she hoped her mother does not “break down [1]” or “suffer from any kind of depression.”  Good deeds should not yield such results.)  Thus, at some level, she realizes that her action has the potential for some pretty destructive consequences.  She, like many, may have feared that her family or friends would not be capable of providing her care and comfort, or perhaps she even doubted whether she was worthy of such love.  In either case, what is lost is the opportunity for family and friends to learn to give, to stretch themselves when and if necessary, and to lovingly care in way they may have never been so asked before, enhancing all of their lives in the process.

I would submit Philip’s choice allows exactly this.  His life, imbued with suffering and angst as it likely is, provides an opportunity to give and receive love to a degree which is not possible under easier circumstances.  Philip reflects in his letter:  “Sadly, Brittany will be missing out on the most intimate moments of her life – her loved ones comforting her through her suffering, her last and most personal moments with her family, and the great mystery of death – in exchange for a quicker and more “painless” option.…”

Quality of life is not an abstract notion of excellence or worth.  It is, rather, a concrete notion that requires, most of all, life to be lived.  Quality then becomes an aspect that can be realized in multiple ways, not merely by some standard of living that is knighted by western societies, but even more so by the relationships and communities which are touched by the gift of self and the goodwill of the life lived.

This past week, the media observed the lives of two individuals with striking similarities: both in their 20s, both dedicating their lives to serving others, and both living with terminal brain cancer. But, the contrasts between these two are even more striking.