Woman’s impending suicide not just a personal act

Categories: Guest Views

What I do affects others, and others’ lives affect me — and with that influence comes responsibility 

By now, you are familiar with the story of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard’s public declaration that she will end her own life on Nov. 1 — two days after her husband’s birthday and, ironically, the church’s celebration of all the saints.

Diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer, this young woman has arranged her life around her impending death. After several medical approaches failed, she and her husband moved to Oregon to establish residency so as to take advantage of that state’s legal physician-assisted suicide.

Her “courage” in choosing the day of her death is often praised on blogs. Yet, others have rightly said that this ignores and devalues the profound courage of so many others afflicted with cancer, as well as other illnesses and disabilities, who find meaning and value in their lives despite suffering. They choose to persevere to reveal the greatness of the human spirit, the love of those who care for them and the grace of God.

While death is the final movement in the symphony of each life, there is a profound difference in how those last notes are sounded.

A bigger picture

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Father Thomas Knoblach is the Diocese of St. Cloud’s consultant for health care ethics.

We pray for her and her family, asking the Lord and Giver of Life to renew her hope. I know many would find such a response cold, unfeeling, judgmental. Yet, Ms. Maynard herself has invited everyone into this very personal drama, desiring to influence public opinion and advocating for legalizing assisted suicide everywhere. It is this aspect that demands our prayers and the effort to put the pathos of her situation into a larger framework.

The disturbing outpouring of support for her death, especially on social media, highlights again a critical shift in our social fabric and underscores the truth so indelibly engraved on the heart of St. Paul: that we are one Body in Christ; the life and choices of each affect us all.

Noble traditions of every age, and the Catholic faith, too, acknowledge that our lives do not belong merely to ourselves, and that life here, even if brief, can be a beautiful and powerful statement about values that transcend our individual projects and plans.

What I do affects others, and others’ lives affect me — and with that influence comes responsibility

So many we honor as saints suffered death for their faith, even dying for others (like St. Maximilian Kolbe), heeding the words of their crucified Lord: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Yet, the logic of assisted suicide, regardless of its private motivations in anxiety and fearing loss of control, proclaims that the highest value is the individual’s choice.

Here is the pervasive thread behind so many of the church’s concerns in our common social life. Whether it be poverty, or greed, or manipulation of the sources of life, or redefining marriage and family, or immigration, or any of the host of issues that parade as isolated, solitary matters through the headlines, faith views them as facets of a complex whole we represent in the term, “the common good.”

Though explaining this concept gets abstract, we know it intuitively: what I do affects others, and others’ lives affect me. And with that influence comes responsibility. Cain’s timeless question from Genesis 4:9 echoes down the ages: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is yes, for we are interrelated as children of God — not to dominate, but to serve; not to control others’ actions, but to so demonstrate love that they are empowered freely to choose what is good.

The well-known words of English poet John Donne underline that we belong to something greater than ourselves — not merely part of human society which lives by its own lights and therefore often stumbles, but to God, who creates us as a human family: “No man is an island, entire of itself … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Never alone

Personal stories understandably pull at our heartstrings. But we also need to ask what kind of world we are creating by the accumulation of individual choices. A society where each simply chooses what is preferred, desired or advantageous ends in isolation and loneliness.

The communion of saints, on the other hand, assures us that we are never alone, that God’s grace supports us, and that there is a place for each of us. It is our task and our privilege to pray, to serve and to make that hope present by our care for one another, that despair and fear may never be the last word of any life.

Often, like Mary, our sufferings and fears lead us to ask of God: “But how can this be?” Yet, like her, we can also say with confident trust: “Let it be done according to your word.”

Father Thomas Knoblach is the Diocese of St. Cloud’s consultant for health care ethics.