Death… and Life (about meaning)

A friend asked me to write about assisted suicide, so I thought I’d give out a shot.  But the more I thought about it, the more I ended up thinking about life — a life with meaning and what it’s all about.  So, here’s my thoughts on death, life, and quality of life for the living … and the sort of living.

First, about assisted suicide: I guess there’s a lot of discussion about it in England these days. Apparently, they have some version of Dr. Kevorkian over there now and he’s causing quite a stir.  But it’s not the public spectacle of assisted suicide that I can picture.  It’s the quiet and agonizing decision of a man whose wife has had Alzheimer’s for 8 years.  When I served a parish in Bridgeport, CT there was a man in the church whose wife died after 8 years of being in some sort of an Alzheimer’s-induced coma.  When she died, he was relieved, rather than sad. He said of her, “She died a long time ago. Her body finally caught on”.

There is no way I can make any sense of the God of Life allowing apparent death. It simply makes no sense. None… unless there’s something to learn from it.  Are people in that kind of shape still conscious in some way that we don’t know or don’t understand?  And, if so, what could that mean for them?  What could it mean for us?  OK, it still doesn’t make any sense. There’s some science fiction or horror story in there somewhere.  Are we disembodied spirits before or after this life?  Not that I know of. So, with what I know now, it’s just a tragedy.  In cases like that, I can’t imagine anything but ending the suffering or a woman like this is the right thing to do.  There is literally NO quality-of-life that I can find there with my limited knowledge of the universe.

But, even there, I can’t imagine actively ending her life.  Passively ending her life — not feeding her, for instance, is the closest I can imagine to taking a life that’s not mine. If God wants to end her life, let God end her life. Let her “naturally” die.  God gave her life and made her life valuable. I can accept that God might take her back — at least intellectually. It’s got to be (pardon the phrase) God-awful to watch it happen or even let it happen… I would hope it’s a choice I never have to make. People’s lives are too valuable and mysterious to end. I remember when my daughter was born saying to my wife, “It’s so weird. At one point, that person wasn’t in the universe.  At some point, long after I’m dead, they won’t again. Where do they come from? Where do they go to?”  I still think that way. Life itself is awesome and deeply meaningful in itself. I can’t imagine it’s my place to take it away. Anything I can do to make it more full for people is a good thing and so I try, every day, to do that.

Even if I could see assisted suicide as compassionate (and I can, just don’t ask me to do the actual act) there is the legal and moral problem of who decides. It will be impossible to determine if someone wanted to be assisted in their suicide. People will challenge it, people will support it, but it’s impossible to know if the person changed their mind at the last minute, let alone if the simply sick wanted to be dead right now.  I just can’t imagine there’s any way to actually do it without all kinds of moral, legal, or practical problems. All-in-all, assisted suicide is a topic and action best left alone.

Now, about life. When I die, I want to have a lot of people at my funeral. I think, in some ways, that that’s how you measure life: by the number of people whose lives you have touched while you were here.  Do not misunderstand: I don’t want lots of people at my funeral because I was famous. That’s not how I want to touch people.  I don’t want Michael Jackson’s or Lady Diana’s funeral. There’s no reason to have people lined up around the block for me or on television with “special coverage”.

What I want is people who actually knew me and were changed by something I did. The more of those people there are, the more I will think my life had meaning.

What amazes me is the number of people who don’t even try to have that be true about them.  There are people that chase wealth for its own sake, fame for its own sake, beauty as though our looks mattered in some way, a career, a car, a home, a poodle or whatever and never seem to care about meaning something to other people. They marry, but don’t care about their spouse. They have children, and expect them to be mirrors of them. They own companies, but could care less about the people they employ — seeing them as employees first and full-fledged people with dreams, goals, etc, of their own not even a distant second.

They spend their entire lives chasing the things that don’t matter and can’t imagine why their lives feel empty. A very good friend of mine has been chasing his dream job for years, and now it’s turned on him. The company has cut his salary, I think, and his bonuses. Now, at approximately my age, he wonders what it was all for.  He looked at me and said, “My life is a waste, but yours — no matter how poor you are — or stupid you’ve been with various choices in life — you seem happy.”

That is because, as I tried to explain to him, I find meaning in my life’s work.  There is not a day that goes by that I’m not exhausted lately when the day ends.  But I never drive home without thinking I’ve made some sort of difference in the world by making a difference in somebody’s life.  Of course, I have one of those jobs called a “helping profession”, so I expect to do so if I expect to live and eat and the like.  But even if I didn’t, I’d still want to see my kids.  I’d still want to spend quiet time with my wife. I’d still want to give money to the guy on the traffic island asking for money with his “homeless” sign. I’d still care about the person who’s sad that day in the cubicle next to mine.  Why? Because it adds meaning to my life. It adds depth to my soul. I feel good about myself and the world is a little (tiny) bit better.

When things like Haiti’s earthquake or Bangladesh’s tsunami happen, people around the world give money or — better yet — time to help people.  Do they feel better after it, even if it means some loss to themselves? You bet they do.  They feel better about themselves, they feel more alive in their spirit, they can look at themselves in the mirror in the morning and be happy with what they see.

The UCC’s Statement of Faith talked about Jesus saving us from “aimlessness and sin”. By aimless, I think they mean “meaning-less”.  And a life without meaning is no life at all.

None if us know if we’re going to get hit by a bus, go to work at the World Trade Center, or have a heart attack tomorrow. None of us knows if a loved one will be taken from us in a heartbeat today. All we know is we have this. The idea of having family that you don’t see or acknowledge, colleagues that you don’t have coffee with, or friends you don’t have over for a summer barbecue simply doesn’t make sense to me. Relationships with real, honest-to-goodness human beings is all that counts in this life.  Well, that and saving the planet before it freezes over or connecting to animals in some way or creating art that your soul longs to create — in short, meaning.  As long as I have some of that in my day, I know I’m going to be OK.

Peace,

John

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