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Perfect Love Casts Out Fear

“[A] perfect sense of death is free from fear” – St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Assent

Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian begins the second chapter of his book, Life’s Living Toward Dying, with an extended excerpt from St. John Climacus’s The Ladder of Divine Assent, and as I clicked my way through story after story covering Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her life, this phrase kept resounding in the background of my thoughts. Like church bells that have become just one of the thousands of sounds we hear, St. John’s words may be dismissed as just one man’s opinion; yet if we are attentive, his insight, like the church bell tower, draws us into beauty and truth.

In recent weeks we have all become well acquainted with Brittany Maynard. The story of the young California native has already blazed its way across the internet, capturing the American imagination and re-igniting the well-worn debate over the right to die. Hailed as fearless, Maynard has refused hospice care, moving instead with her family to Oregon, one of five states in which assisted suicide is legal. In a mere three weeks, she has become the face of a newly invigorated ‘death with dignity’ campaign. To date, the attractive, articulate young woman has twice appeared on the cover of People Magazine; the October 27 issue features a photograph of Maynard standing next to her bed, where she plans die after ingesting a lethal dose of barbiturates on November 1. Along with People, dozens of other news outlets including CNN, the New Republic, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Atlantic have all picked up the devastating story of this young, talented woman who has embraced death in the face of suffering. Maynard, whom Brian Williams described on NBC Nightly News as being “in the prime of her life,” was diagnosed nearly 11 months ago with terminal brain cancer. This is perhaps what makes her particular case so compelling for many Americans. Maynard’s narrative awakens our own slumbering fear of death’s arbitrary cruelness, as well as the suffering that can precede it.

The grammar of fear is suffused throughout this story. Yet I have come across relatively little in the media’s coverage of Brittany Maynard that even hints at the acute anxiety that bubbles to the surface each time she speaks of her disease. In fact, the October 6 edition of People hails Maynard as fearless: “For the past 29 years,” writes columnist Nicole Weisensee Egan, “Brittany Maynard has lived a fearless life – running half marathons, traveling through Southeast Asia for a year and even climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. So, it’s no surprise she is facing her death the same way.”

Despite a few notable exceptions, the popular news media has barely even entertained the possibility that Maynard’s anxiety about suffering and death is wholly consistent with modernity’s simultaneous preoccupation with and aversion to suffering and death. No matter how stridently we undertake practices that push death to the margins of our lived experience, we remain anxiously fixated on it. How eager we are to consume her story; nothing speaks more plainly to this anxiety than People’s most recent coverage of Maynard’s story in the magazine’s October 27 edition. Sandwiched between an article on actress Emma Stone’s Oscar hopes and the sexual abuse scandal involving 7th Heaven star Stephen Collins, we read the Maynards’ tragic story. With the loss of a transcendent eschatological imagination, death become the final frontier of mystery, and the modern disposition, writes Guroian, “seeks to turn all mystery—including the final mystery of death—into a spectacle or solution” (xxiv). In Maynard’s case it has become both.

Maynard poignantly defends her painful decision to end her life, describing her cancer as a “terrible, terrible way to die.” She is right. Patients who, like Maynard, suffer from stage four glioblastoma daily face the reality that their living is a dying. Total deterioration of mind and body occurs in a matter of mere months. In less than half a year, one can expect to lose one’s ability to walk and speak and to control one’s urinary and bowel movements. One’s alertness will diminish in conjunction with cognitive impairment. The devastation is complete. The woman whose face is currently splashed across the internet and print media for the past several weeks would be nearly unrecognizable 6 months from now. Should she choose not to end her life, this bright, attractive, vivacious young woman will die hundreds of painful deaths as she moves toward death. She will become totally dependent on the loving care of others. If ever a compelling case for assisted suicide were to be made, it seems surely it is in a situation like Maynard’s.

There is something compelling about her proposal to forestall coming months of a brutal, messy death and instead grasp what little control seems to remain in a terminal diagnosis. “I’m dying, but I’m choosing to suffer less,” she says in explanation of her decision, “to put myself through less physical and emotional pain and my family as well.” Indeed, People reports, “Maynard says it’s easier to bear the pain now that she knows she is in control […] That’s left her space to make the most of her remaining days.”

Such assertions are shot through with contradiction. For all our planning, any one of us could die suddenly and tragically at any moment. But what I find more puzzling is the author’s assertion that an absolute sense of control over diminishment, suffering, and death gives meaning to one’s life and capacitates one for joy. Statements like the one found in People belie the insidious logic that Guroian observes in Life’s Living Toward Dying. “Secular moderns,” he writes, “cling to the belief that they can celebrate life at the same time they embrace a culture of death. Some argue that they can best embrace life by putting an end to the lives they no longer value” (17). To kill oneself is to say, at least implicitly, “I am better off dead because my life no longer has value.”

Maynard wants her death to be on her terms, as painless and as uncomplicated as possible; she wants to die comfortably in her own bed, surrounded by her family and friends, in control of her body and mind. We all want a death like this; indeed, Catholics petition for this kind of death every night in Compline when they pray, “Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” This certainly includes a death without suffering, but it does not foreclose the possibility that a peaceful death may be a painful one. We need only look to the witness of the martyrs to see such a logic unfold. With the advance of medical technology and utilitarian idealism, however, it seems this may become for many the only kind of acceptable death. Unhinged from a scriptural and ecclesial imagination, the idea of a peaceful death has been reduced merely to the absence of pain, and a painless death has begun to chip away the value of a life with suffering. Likewise, death has begun to chip away at the value of life, and in this configuration death is easily commodified. If we can’t master death, at least we can control it, make it more efficient and convenient, and make it involve less suffering, less anguish. And yet …

Death, Dignity, and Fear

As I have sifted through over a week’s worth of media coverage of Maynard’s tragic story, I have been struck that a decision lauded by many as courageous is motivated at its core by fear—fear of suffering, fear of diminishing, of losing one’s capacities, fear of being an emotional burden to others. Indeed, Maynard’s own words betray the depth of her anguish and anxiety—of our anguish and anxiety over death. Describing the effects of cancer as “scary” and “very frightening,” she explains that being “able to die with my family with me, to have control of my own mind, which I would stand to lose—to go with dignity is less terrifying.” In this context “dignity” is reduced to an exercise of autonomy and control; “to go with dignity” means to die without the suffering and unseemliness of diminishment. While the logic of dignity based on choice goes entirely unexamined (see, for example, Maynard’s comment in the October 6 edition of People: “I believe this choice is ethical, and what makes it ethical is it is a choice.”), the logic that emerges from self-gift is all but rejected out of hand. There is also a subtext in such understanding of dignity, which implies, as Ross Douthat noted, that the person who cannot “make sense of suffering that’s bound to lead to death, […or who] does not have a mountain-climbing, op-ed writing recovery” somehow dies a less dignified death.

In his unapologetically theological work, Guroian observes, “Death either sends us back to the faith that reveals the true Source of life which overcomes death or it robs us of all hope and any reasons to go on living” (25). Whatever else it has done, the Maynard case has made plain the depth of our collective fear of suffering unto death. Our experience of death revolts against any attempts to minimize its gravity by making it just one more marker on the continuum of life. Death disrupts communion. It separates us from those we love, and though many would resist the vocabulary of evil, death still remains an evil in our experience of it. Yet modernity lacks the resources to see beyond the horizon of suffering and death. This lack of vision is correlative to our inability to see our abilities, indeed our very lives regardless of state of physical imperfection, as gift.

An early death forecloses possibilities of a more profound experience of love in midst of suffering. Indeed, Maynard, like many of us, would eventually be stripped of her abilities, perhaps even her mind. She would be unproductive, unattractive, and uncomfortable. She would just be. She would just be accompanied by her husband, her mother, her step-father, her friends. She would just be cared for by hospice nurses and doctors. She would just be valued because she is present in a web of relationships. She just would be washed, dressed, cried over, kissed, held. She would just be loved.

 

Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Charles Russell

    This article is stunningly elegant, brilliantly human, and deeply compassionate. Absolutely superb. I want everyone I know to read it.

  • Tanzanite

    Beautiful

  • Mary Ann

    My sister has struggled with MS since she was 28. She is now 55. Thirteen months ago, due to the MS drugs she took, she came down with PML. The odds were 1%. Basically, PML activates a virus in your brain which 98% of all people carry. In a few short months, the virus left my sister completely paralyzed on her right side, she is legally blind, she has no control over bodily functions and she has aphasia. She can understand what you say but has only three replies, all the way north, all the way south and all the way. Communications is always a challenge and frustrating. Her care is 24-7 and it is hard on her family. I’m amazed each day by my sisters courage and the compassion and care of her family. PML has no cure. The damage is permanent. While I respect Ms Mynards decision I don’t consider her choice courageous. While she feels she is saving her family the strain of caring for her she is also denying them a chance to give of themselves even when it is not easy. There is value in suffering but most fail to see that value. Christ suffering lead to our salvation. Though He didn’t want to suffer He willing did so for our sake. Maybe Ms Maynard should consider that her suffering may not be only for her sake but is also meant for the sake of her family.

    • Randy McDonald

      “While she feels she is saving her family the strain of caring for her
      she is also denying them a chance to give of themselves even when it is
      not easy.”

      You don’t find it appalling to demand that other people suffer agony for your moral edification?

      Audiences at gladiatorial games were merciful, in contrast. At least the games were over quickly.

  • Phillip Flores

    Great article. Some people who choose to die willingly e.g. assisted suicide use the argument of not putting their family through pain and suffering among other things. Recently, my brother-in-law passed away due to cancer, four months after finding out. It was difficult for our entire family to see him suffer and struggle but in hindsight I am grateful for being able to help him any way whatsoever. Because of his suffering he has given me an opportunity to think of others and not myself, for me to put myself at his service, to be able to exercise the corporal works of mercy. God has drawn something good from what can be seen humanly as a tragic situation and that good is an increase in virtue for everyone looking after him, moved us to pray for his health and in the process got closer to God. These are some things that people who choose to die on their own terms deny to their family and close friends.

  • Elisabeth

    This was beautiful. Thank you for a much-needed contribution to this conversation.

  • ljr.

    What I think is particularly tragic here is that the public has yet again been offered a ringside seat to a situation that is profoundly personal and private. Shame on her for selling her story and shame on us for buying it.

  • This was an excellent article. I really enjoyed the quote from Guroian. “Death either sends us back to the faith that reveals the true source of life which overcomes death, or it robs us of all hope and any reasons to go on living.”

  • It is natural and good to want to live forever but not here. I have been told as a priest that I should avoid controversial issues which is contrary to why Jesus was born — to suffer, die and rise from the dead for a life we were originally destined, lost by our first parents and won back by Jesus. Not very often do we hear or consider what some call the “hard sayings” of Jesus as “unless you hate your life in this world you will not preserve it for heaven.” Loving our life and the lives of others more than the world should bring us to this conclusion, one’s life in this world is a “breathe” or a “passing shadow” as the Psalmist said or as the Apostle Paul wrote, “death where is your sting?” and “Christ is life and death is gain”. This defines the life of a fearless follower of Christ. Such love for ourselves and others binds our will to God’s.

  • Laura Y.

    This young woman has spend her life accomplishing, pushing hard and living on her own terms. She desires to do the same now, but what she and so many of us fail to remember is that not a one of us put ourselves here. We are created and therefore belong to someone else. Our lives our not our own….Miss Keating is spot-on in pointing out the underlying fear and anxiety that is at the heart of this tragic decision. Yet, there is more. Mrs. Maynard has faced some fearful situations, it seems. Her life has been one of adventure and challenges. Yet, she chose each of these challenges, faced them on her own terms and was in control. She planned, did her homework, prepared and was in control of herself – young, vibrant and healthy. Now facing terminal cancer, she is in the kind of situation unfamiliar to her. This is NOT something she wanted, planned for or could stop. Interestingly, this is the biggest challenge she will ever face and the single most important time in her life! And she is facing it in much the same way that she has approached other things, by all accounts. Even though she is forcing death’s hand, welcoming it before its time, she is going to do it her way, on her terms, when she says it should happen. She doesn’t want it to be messy, she doesn’t want to be a burden, she doesn’t want to be remembered as weak and dependent, she doesn’t want to lose what she values in herself. She may say that she wants to die with dignity and not burden her family, but that is false. This is not an act of courage nor of benevolence, but of sheer fear and pride. (This reminds me so much of the movie “Million Dollar Baby.”) As a sad consequence, Mrs. Maynard is garnering a lot of attention for her “courage” and will die a celebrity which is only feeding her pride. I may sound cold, but my concern is not that she will lose her eyesight or her beauty or her ability to be continent. My concern is that this woman, just days before her planned death, may be on the precipice of losing her soul… My prayer is that, as the day of her planned death draws near, her heart will be opened and she will come to her senses, allowing for Creator to call her home in His Time and while she is waiting, to allow herself to be loved and cared for when she needs it most.

  • Life is not a commodity, and even suffering is a gift.

  • AP

    Contrary to what the media glorifies as courageous, it really appears like Maynard’s decision is cowardly and extraordinarily selfish. Although there is an element of truth to people who would say, that is a judgmental statement because we could never know exactly how she feels, the reality exists. She’s given into despair to the greatest depths. God only knows her heart, but from the outside, that sure as heck looks like blasphemy of the Holy Spirit-the only unforgivable offense in the Christian tradition. Giving up does not solely effect the individual, its reverberations can potentially effect everyone in the future of the world. What if, in the story of David and Goliath, David thought he was too weak and, instead of trusting in the Lord, cowered away into his shepherd job and became a nameless nobody rather than the great patriarch in the lineage of Jesus Christ. What if Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Wright brothers etc. just gave up their dreams because the failures seemed insurmountable? How different the world would be. Some may take offense at those examples and say they don’t relate to the physical agony and extreme anguish and “supposed” loss of human dignity with the deterioration of her faculties. What about Karol Wojtyla better known as St. John Paul II, who in the last years of his life succumbed to the physical atrocities of Parkinson’s disease? What an extraordinary model of authentic courage and dignity! His physical maladies although noticeably taxing, did not stop him from preaching and living courageous and exquisite love for God, the Church and his neighbor. How God changed the world through him! Maybe it is unfair to compare her to the shining stars in the history of man… Or maybe it is doing her a great justice as every single person has the potential to be great and to capitalize on their God given genius. May God have mercy on her soul. What if the end of life laws do become more lax because of her? What kind of legacy is that? Is making it easier to legally take one’s own life really the way someone wants to be remembered? Before this whole end of life decision going viral, she lived in relative anonymity. After she dies, she’ll be just as anonymous…why? Because her “courageous” was the media’s “courageous” -it changes with feeling and whim. There is no real substance, there is no hope and worst of all, there is certainly no love because if she did love (as the title indicates) fear would dissipate. Although people will swear to it with their lips, no one will really, deep in their heart, consider her courageous. No one actually respects the kind of person who gives everything up on the foundation of pride so that she can look pretty and put together at the moment of death. When God is all but removed from everyday life in our culture, the sovereignty of the subjective becomes king and morality is anyone’s choice-no uniformity. If she does choose to take her life, whenever that is- requiescat en pace Domini. All this said, let us pray for her and her family. There is no doubt that this a terribly difficult time.

    • Randy McDonald

      “Although people will swear to it with their lips, no one will really, deep in their heart, consider her courageous.”

      I do. I certainly find her more courageous–more morally compelling, at least–than the people who would have her suffer for the hypothetical benefit of others. People are not fleshpuppets, not objects to be made to serve our amusement.

  • Waufle Gunn

    It’s appalling that anyone would consider what she did selfish. So the people that she was close to could gain closure? It concerns me that people have this thought process at all. She did not kill herself from depression or any of the many other reasons people do every day. If I was given her diagnosis, I would do the exact same thing. Any people that can make such critical judgments are not Christian in any sense of the word.

    • It is my understanding that it is unChristian to commit suicide, directly or indirectly, and to assist it, directly of indirectly, or to condone it, directly or indirectly. In my opinion, a person who does any of these things, assuming they are of sound mind and have free will, is disagreeing with God’s Plan and trying to play “God” – i.e., violating the First Commandment. And, in my understanding for me to not say so would be to fail in love, to fail in mercy, and to fail in duty.