Last Monday I was in Oxford and I was suddenly seized by the insane idea of trying my hand at rowing. Before I knew it, I was sitting in a rented boat and I had no idea how to operate the oars. I felt a bit panicky and I would have gladly backed out but I simply couldn’t return the boat before the rental time had expired.
In the end, I spent a wonderful hour, and I must have lengthened a lot of people’s life expectancy: my extraordinary goofiness at the oars must have provoked hearty laughs throughout England and laughter is very beneficial for your health.
I remember, too, that I once imprudently said that I’d love to try paragliding. For my birthday, my brother gave me a voucher for a paragliding lesson. I was taken aback – I hadn’t been serious! But I couldn’t offend him.
I would have given anything to back out. But the instructor was prepared and people were looking at me. I couldn’t say, “sorry, I have changed my mind”. So we ran and we flew and that half-hour was possibly the most beautiful of my entire life. I felt as close to pure happiness as I ever have been.
And last January, when I was in Finland, we had to go on a snowmobile tour. But surely somebody else would be driving! When I was told that I would, I panicked and lamely moaned: “Can somebody help me, please?”.
“You try,” I was told by a very stern-looking Finnish man who probably drove snowmobiles before he could walk. “If you can’t, I come”. That was probably the second best time of my life. A snowmobile in the freezing wind, fairy-tale landscapes all covered in icy snow, and an enchanted, warm sunlight which transmuted the snow into gold … It was so beautiful that I couldn’t help singing aloud.
In all of these cases, social expectations “forced” me to do what I didn’t want to do; or rather, they made me progress along a path I had chosen, but would have been reluctant to pursue to the end.
My joy in all three cases was probably due to the satisfaction of overcoming my fears, for having done something impossible. And then there was the beauty of nature in the quiet flow of the river, the amazing view from the sky, the wonderful snowy ride… These experiences made me feel how beautiful can our world be.
Now, fast forward to a completely different scenario.
Imagine a person with suicidal thoughts because of a serious illness, or depression, or unbearable difficulties. Normally she would seek out a dark and secluded place. Nobody would attempt suicide in broad daylight unless she wanted to be rescued.
Rescued both in the short and in the long term.
A person jumping from bridge at noon will be hoping, at least unconsciously, that some Good Samaritan will dive in to save her. And at the same time, she will be hoping that somebody will start caring for her and help her find a way out of her sufferings.
Now imagine a person who contemplates suicide very seriously, but at the very last minute realizes that her life is worth living, that her problems can be overcome, that friends and family will support her, that suicide is not the solution.
If she were contemplating suicide in a locked room, she might spit out the poison or step down from the window sill.
But what if she had been speaking constantly about assisted suicide? Her heartbroken family would believe that they would be selfish brutes if they urged her to live. So an assisted-dying provider is sought, a farewell-party is arranged (a thing which gives me goosebumps), and after drinking some champagne the needle is inserted.
What if this person suddenly realizes at that moment that her life is worth living? What then? Can she step back?
Though I am no expert, common sense suggests that stepping back from suicide in these two cases is very different. (And I won’t make my case stronger by adding other “social expectations”, such as the wish “not to be a burden”.) Even worse, consider a person who has been championing the case for assisted suicide and becomes a torchbearer for the movement. She may be legally free to renounce euthanasia until the end, but she will feel morally or socially bound to be consistent with her own public stance. So I wonder whether Brittany Maynard felt she could say “no” at the last movement, or if it was practically impossible for her to withdraw her consent.
One of the paradoxes of our society is that if we saw someone jump from a bridge into a river, most of us would try to rescue her. Fortunately, most of us still believe that a person is better off alive than dead. We feel that it is better to face problems and fight them rather than to surrender and die; that we should prevent suicides and try to eliminate their causes.
But this reasoning seems not to apply to euthanasia and assisted suicide, regardless of the fact that they are seldom invoked because of “unbearable” (and incurable) pain, but rather because of a sense of helplessness, loneliness, and despair which can and should be addressed by a loving community and a caring society.
By facilitating suicide, we are agreeing with the suicidal person that her life is not worth living. Our expectations are her doom.
While positive expectations help us to strive, thrive and excel, negative expectations which foster depression are devastating. They not only create a “macro” slippery slope which pushes society into accepting euthanasia for an increasing number of conditions, but they also create many “micro” slippery slopes which reinforce occasional suicidal thoughts until they lead to an irreversible tragedy.
Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician, a musicologist and a theologian writing from Italy. She is particularly interested in the relationships between music and the Christian faith, and has written several books on this subject. Her new book, Reforming Music: Music and the Religious Reformations of the Sixteenth Century, was published this month by De Gruyter. Visit her website.