Brittany Maynard's Suffering

by Michael Sean Winters

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Brittany Maynard’s death is the very stuff of tragedy. A young woman afflicted by an inoperable cancer. A law that offers a “remedy” in the form of physician-assisted suicide. A culture that deludes us into thinking we can, and therefore should, “die on our own terms,” when, obviously, if the terms were ours, we would avoid death altogether. And, the most basic tragedy: a young woman, loved and loving, is no more, the tragedy of death in all its abysmal loneliness.

Tragedy is a word of many meanings. I remember some calling the clergy sex abuse crisis a tragedy, when it was actually a crime. The same goes for 9/11. Shakespeare’s tragedies involve a fatal character flaw coming to fruition to bring down the central protagonist. But, the most acute expression of tragedy is on like Brittany Maynard’s. Her cancer was not a punishment for any crime. It was not a character flaw. Cancer, especially in a young person, unrelated to any behavioral choices she made, is a form of ontic evil. In the face of ontic evil, whether it is cancer or a devastating earthquake, there is no weighing of responsibility, no “what-ifs.” We are confronted only with human suffering.

Christians must reclaim the ability to embrace suffering. By this, I do not mean to advocate a masochistic delight in hair shirts or self-flagellation. Of course, we are called to alleviate human suffering whenever we can, especially those varieties of suffering in which we are complicit. (Even here, we recoil from the fact of suffering, as seen in the way we label the civilian victims of was as “collateral damage” and the way that we now say a person “passed” when, in fact, they “died.” ) The desire to alleviate suffering, especially for those of us who range ourselves on the more progressive side of social and cultural issues, is especially strong, and especially dangerous. Yes, we should combat suffering as best we can, but in the face of some experiences of suffering, we must never lose sight of the need to embrace it. If we were ever truly able to eliminate human suffering, we would first have to eliminate love. They are two sides of the same coin. Only those who experience love experience suffering. The superficial man, who keeps the deepest longings of his own heart at bay, his sufferings are few because his loves are few.  

I read in this morning’s Washington Post, an obituary of my friend Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete in which they quote him writing about his experience of hearing confessions. “Confession is not therapy, nor is it moral accounting,” Lorenzo wrote. “At its best, it is the affirmation that the ultimate truth of our interior life is our absolute poverty, our radical dependence, our unquenchable thirst, our desperate need to be loved.” It is these experiences – poverty, dependence, thirst, our desperate need to be loved – that our protean culture undervalues, and not just undervalues; it fails to even comprehend. The Church must always discern in these experiences the way of the Cross and, just so, the way of the Christian.    

The word “experience” is key here. I read that Brittany Maynard went to the Grand Canyon in the days before she ended her life. It was the last item on her “bucket list.” I suppose we all have a “bucket list” of things we would like to do or see, but I am suspicious of the phenomenon. The Grand Canyon is not an item on a list and seeing it that way seems not only anthropomorphic, but somehow belittling, both to the canyon and to the person. I fear that seeing the canyon, or any item on the bucket list, as an item on “my list” actually diminished our ability to experience the canyon in all its grandeur. The created world becomes an object not of my love and involvement, but a vicarious point of pleasure. This thought first came to me once while watching a crowd of people desperately trying to eke out enough room to photograph Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” They were so busy trying to capture the portrait on film, no one had any time to really appreciate the painting’s beauty. If you are only interested in getting it on film, why bother seeing it in person? You can see someone else’s picture of it and have the same experience. I am sure that the jostling crowd was only trying to get a picture they could share with others, or to preserve “the moment,” but they were not allowing themselves to actually experience the moment. The experience had become vicarious.

Something similar has occurred in the way we acculturate children to the experience of suffering. For millennia, in the course of maturation, a child would have an experience of loss and suffering. It might be a beloved uncle who has died. It might be the loss of a beloved pet. But, now, a child’s first experience of suffering is watching someone on television dramatize suffering. Again, the experience is vicarious – and unreal. I wonder if Ms. Maynard might have made a different choice if her first experiences of suffering had been real and not vicarious.

Morality can get in the way of our capacity to experience suffering as well. A priest friend sent me a link to this news account about the reaction of a Vatican official to Brittany Maynard’s death. “’This woman (took her own life) thinking she would die with dignity, but this is the error,’ Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, told the Italian news agency Ansa. ‘Suicide is not a good thing. It is a bad thing because it is saying no to life and to everything it means with respect to our mission in the world and towards those around us,’ the head of the Vatican think tank on life issues said in a report on the Ansa website.” He called here suicide “an absurdity.” Msgr. Carrasco de Paula’s lack of human compassion is what strikes me as absurd. My priest friend wrote in his note attached to the link, “Another tin ear; another lost opportunity. Imagine if he had offered a word of compassionate understanding for her suffering and the suffering of those who love her and then explained the Lord Jesus offers another way to experience suffering, not simply as an evil that must be endured but a path to redemption through love stronger than death, a love that affirms the value of life even in the midst of great suffering. But no.” I hope when I am on my deathbed, my priest friend is close at hand.

Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon issued a statement that was closer to that of my priest friend than to that of the Vatican moralist. “Don’t give up hope,” Sample said. Here is the crux of the matter. We believe in miracles, and I wish Ms. Maynard had never stopped praying for a miracle that would cure her of her cancer. But, the hope of which Archbishop Sample speaks is rooted in the miracle that already happened, the miracle of the Resurrection. The hope of which he speaks, the hope that no one was able to effectively impart to Ms. Maynard, was the hope that is stronger than death, the hope that is undiminished by the experience of death, indeed, which finds its confirmation in the experience of death. No person filled with love can simply cease to exist. This is what we believe if we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is why our hope in the resurrection is a sure hope.

Too often, we in the Church get bogged down in morality or we become uncomfortable about proclaiming the truths at the heart of our faith. As long as people experience death, there will be fertile ground for evangelization. The Church, and only the Church, has something meaningful, or even pertinent, to say at a funeral. If Pope Francis is trying to tell the Church anything, it is this: We must sweep away all the impediments, all the moralism and judgmentalism, all the ideologies, all the clericalism, all the doubt, sweep away everything that impedes the encounter with the Risen Lord. Only in that encounter is there a real answer to the anxieties that drove Brittany Maynard to take her life.

I finish with another quote from Monsignor Albacete, from his book “God at the Ritz.” It shows the connection between experience, desire and faith in the face of death more clearly than anything I could fashion. I wish Brittany Maynard had read Lorenzo’s book or met him. I wish she had read this:

"A woman once asked me if 'resurrection of the body' was a metaphor. That explanation satisfies many people. As a result, Easter doesn't embarrass them. Understanding the resurrection of the body as a metaphor seems a civilized, moderate, reasonable position that heads off some unseemly conflicts with Christians holding other interpretations... My immediate reaction to the question was to think about -- and to notice and feel my own body... "My experience of the body is not the experience of a metaphor." I mean, this was Southern California, where you see many bodies that make you think of the resurrection as a worthwhile thing, as a metaphor for their beauty and attraction. Alas, farther away from Hollywood, this is not always the case. What I would like it to mean, what my heart wants, is the real possibility of having a body like those who at that very moment could be seen around the pool during the shooting of an episode of some television series. I have no idea what my risen body might be like, but if such a thing does exist, I want it to be closer to the bodies at the pool than to a metaphor." 



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