Assisted Suffering

Assisted Suffering November 8, 2016

So, I voted.

Remember how I said my ballot would be a fractal of civic helplessness? That’s especially true because of the current DC political issue that isn’t being put to referendum: Assisted suicide will almost certainly become law here early next year, due to support in the city council and likely from the mayor. Only two councilmembers (Yvette Alexander and Brianne Nadeau, both Democrats) voted against legalizing assisted suicide here.

The arguments on our side that I’ve heard here in the District have mostly centered on class issues. Assisted suicide allows insurance companies to pressure the poor to die: We’ll cover your suicide drugs but not your treatment, basically. Moreover, if you’re poor or have less-generous insurance you’re probably a lot less likely to get good care, and more likely to experience the kind of suffering that makes people want to die. Added to that is the concern that where assisted suicide is legal, it spreads–it becomes a normalized “treatment” for people with mental illnesses, and amplifies those voices of depression that say, You are a burden on others. You would be better off dead. This will never change.

That’s all true and important, and God bless everyone who raised those concerns here. (Seriously, read that Post op-ed.) But I want to approach from a slightly different angle, and ask why there is a constituency for assisted suicide at all.

That may seem like an obvious question. Suffering, especially though not exclusively suffering near the end of natural life, makes people want to die. And I have virtually no lived experience to speak from here. I have neither experienced terminal illness and shattering pain, nor have I been a caretaker for someone who did. I discount my own opinions here pretty heavily because of that.

But I think there is a constituency for assisted suicide not solely because of universal features of human experience (we have never liked terror or anguish). Theoretical arguments for or against suicide are often framed in terms of autonomy: I own my body; or, conversely, your life and your body are not your own, you were purchased for a price, you belong to God and have no right to dispose of yourself against His will. But I wonder if it is more honest to frame contemporary debates about assisted suicide in terms of isolation and uselessness.

What if there is a constituency for assisted suicide, in part, because we don’t have enough vowed religious?

What I mean is this: Ross Douthat did this piece looking at right-wing movements in the West as part of a “post-familial” politics. I don’t know how good his analysis is; but as someone with no children, I am part of the “post-familial” trend. One extremely quick-and-dirty summary of the social changes of the Reformation is that the family became the universal vocation: no celibate priests, no nuns, no monks. No vows or pledges of friendship which make friends and godparents–and their children–your own kin.

Where celibate life and nonfamilial vocations are marginalized (which includes some majority or historically-Catholic areas as well, obviously), the family is the sole haven for caretaking. Just as marginalizing nonmarital vocations leaves married couples isolated and overburdened, trying to bear the whole weight of their marriage alone-together, so marginalizing nonfamilial vocations leaves family caretakers overworked and hopeless. The state can take over some of the support for caretaking, but lots of people are still left isolated and in desperate need of community.

The fewer people you can rely on to devote themselves to your care, the more selfish it feels to ask them to do their duty–this is how Amour starts, you know, with the husband assuring his children that they don’t need to help him care for his helpless wife.

One good way to ensure that you personally are not alone as you age and die is to have more kids and treat them well. But in order to ensure that your community cares for the aging and dying, you really do need vocations of love (like friendship and monastic life) for those who won’t have children, and you need institutions other than the family and the state which dedicate themselves to care.

So that’s the isolation faced today not only by the suffering but by their caretakers. The other huge change is that most people nowadays, I think even most American Christians, deeply believe their suffering to be useless.

Like I think most people here and now, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about their longing to kill themselves. One thing that keeps a lot of people going is knowing that they are needed by someone: It would devastate my mother. I’m staying alive for my cat right now. People who believe themselves inextricably embedded in a community–even a tiny, half-feline community–which needs them can often endure what’s unendurable without that community and its attendant duties.

Here too the monasteries can play their role as refuges. In the monasteries loss is honored. Losing the normal joys and comforts of the world is the path marked out for you toward God. And in your loss, if you’re a monk or nun, you bring great gain to those in the world.

If you believe in the imitation of Christ; if you believe that our prayers and our suffering can both be offered for others; if you believe that suffering unites us with Jesus and thereby with His Body the Church, and with all those who suffer in this life or in Purgatory; if you have relied on the prayers of saints who died from painful illness, like Aelred or Therese–then I’m not saying you won’t ever want to die, or you won’t go through with it. But I do think you will have more protection from the temptation of suicide. And fewer people today have this protection.

Finally, if I can turn the wheel hard here–physical pain, illness, and the frightening loss of one’s faculties aren’t the only things that can push people to want to die. Repeated and colossal failure of self-control will also make you want to die. I don’t really know how to talk about the things I thought in the worst passages of my active alcoholism–repetitive and hopeless and compartmentalized and dishonest. But one thing that comforted me was that image of Sebastian at the monastery in Brideshead. Unrescued, unsuccessful, I bet you anything those monks felt awful that they were doing such a bad job of helping him, and yet he was able to persevere now and then (it’s hard to persevere consistently; the thing you do it with never seems to last) and you could be grateful that it was life. A life offered whenever possible to God.

That kind of suffering, too, I think is not useless. The humiliation of our own self-image, the reckoning with our own lack of self-control, I think also can serve others and help us to imitate Christ. I’ve returned to this thought in various later abjections and it has actually helped a little, so I offer it to you.

If it doesn’t help… maybe ask your cat what she thinks?

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