Monday, July 26, 2010

The quality of life is a shared responsibility

Sometime last week, an article in the paper highlighted the very sad story of a man in England who suffered a stroke 20 years ago while in Athens. Doctors there managed to save his life, but for the past 20 years, this man had been ‘trapped’ in a body that was left mostly paralyzed. He can only blink and nod in response to questions, and cannot even talk. He is cared for 24-hours a day for basic things like bathing and even his most personal needs. What the article highlighted was his appeal to the Court of Law in England to lift the ban on assisted suicide because he wants his wife to help him to die and to end his life which “has no quality”. He wanted to make sure that his wife would not land herself on the wrong side of the law for assisting him to die.

Cases like his abound, and each one centers around a person who is in a very dark place in life. Often, the circumstances are dire, and one would need to have the sensitivity of a rag doll to not have a smidgen of empathy when encountering such stories and plights. What this person wants is basically a “right” to end his life. This is something that the Church (which is the voice of God and reason) has great reason to denounce as morally wrong, and will never condone.

Is the church harsh, perhaps too harsh with people like this man and his wife? Can the Church not see that it is frustrating and perhaps even ‘meaningless’ to live this way – to be so highly dependent on others and thus placing emotional, financial and even physical strain on loved ones and care-givers?

At the heart of the matter is not so much the right to end life, but rather, the question of “who is the giver of life?” What must be upheld is that the ultimate giver of life is God, and that it is only God who can have the right to end it. He gave life to us out of love (and that is why life should only come out from a love-making situation, and not in a separated clinical way, where husband and wife are in a non-unitive state, and are assisted by clinicians and Petri-dishes in laboratories).

God’s love is at the heart of our life, and the mystery of God’s generosity is played out throughout our earth-bound years. It is clear that our human love is shown to our loved ones in various ways. Well, so too is God’s love for us. Our love for our children often is not readily perceived as “love”. We have only to think about the ways we discipline them, when we don’t give them everything they want whenever they want, and especially when we have to stomach the very heart-wrenching phrase every parent dreads to hear (“I HATE you”) as we show them love to see that our loving actions and choices towards them is often unperceived as love.

What more with God’s love? The problem with us is that we have wired ourselves to only see “love” with blinkers on, and in very limited ways – and usually only when it suits us, when it feels good, and often, only when there is immediacy in returns. And when we hardwire ourselves this way, we often end up insulating ourselves from other non-obvious ways of love, which can often include a suffering – not just in ourselves, but from the community around us.

Not many of us appreciate being dependent on others, even on loved ones. It takes a lot of humility to accept to being cared for by others. Since the beginning of man’s creation, that stretching out of the hand of Eve to grab of the proverbial fruit from the knowledge of good and evil showed our innate unwillingness to be led, to be patient, and to wait for an unfolding. We have vestiges of this inability and unwillingness whenever in our lives we want the answers here and now, and in ways that are crystal clear. And when it doesn’t seem to make sense to our limited minds, when we need to sit with our logical mind, when we are, as in Richard Rohr’s words, ‘dualistic’, we will want out. Many have lost their faith in the process of waiting, and perhaps like that man in England, seem to have come to the end of their tethers.

It would be too simplistic to say that the wrong lies only in the choice of the paralysed Englishman alone. Could it also be the shared fault of the community surrounding the man as well? Perhaps it has not done all it could to reach out to him. Proverbially, Eve reached out to take the forbidden fruit. Perhaps it would have been much better that she reached out instead to take Adam’s hand, and asked him to stay with her in her inability to stay in the mystery of unknowing? When the community of not just that Englishman, but all of us, who are ‘paralyzed’ in small and large ways refuse to reach out, or refrain for whatever reasons to reach out, we make it easy for many to reach the end of their tethers too.

Would it then not be unthinkable that the kind of life the Englishman has is defined as having no ‘quality’? In the true Christian sense of the word, quality is as much in the giving as it is in the receiving – of care, of charity, of patience, and of love. It would not be just the wife of the man who would be the one killing – the community actually started killing slowly many years ago.

We only need to look Luke 5:17-26 to see that it was really the faith of the community that saved the paralytic in that pericope. I believe that must be our call as well.


  1. Hi Father Luke,

    Thank you for your post! Euthanasia is already happening legally in many parts of the world. This is what our late Father Pope John Paul said previously, that the world is condoning a "culture of death" instead of a culture of life".

    So many others face similar fates as the paralysed British in the ST article, living immobile and bed ridden in hospitals, aged homes and hospices, some with only strangers to take care of their basic needs, abandoned by their relatives and loved ones.

    Quality of Life is a definition and individually everyone makes his choice. God gives us all freedom to choose. Quality of life depends on our desire to be contented too.

    Contentment and humble dependence on divine providence are lacking in our Modern world because of pride and a failure to acknowledge the existene of an Almighty God.

    I remember Steven Hawking, the great Physicist. Although he is agnostic, he has a different view about his life...

    Have a great day Father, God Bless You!

  2. When I came across this article in the newspapers, I marvelled at the courage and perseverance of the man and his wife/caregiver - for their two decades- life's journey together must have been not only physically exhausting but mentally & emotionally draining as well. What intrigued me was why the talk about the 'quality of life' now - for his immobility was a condition right from the start of his accident.

    Could it be that 'this quality of life' is more about his concern for his wife's/ caregiver's quality of life rather than that of his own ? Nailed to his bed these last 20 years, he must have pondered & confronted issues....among others....

    - guilt & remorse, for yoking his wife to a daily grind of care-giving without the ability to lessen her work-load ?
    - as the years roll by, fear that should he out-live his caregiver, he faces an ignominious fate of being shuttled from familial/loving surroundings to an unfamiliar room of a hospice...attended by efficient but impersonal hands of salaried workers?
    -the feeling of aloneness/forsakeness of one such as he ?
    -the need to see meaning in Life....especially that of his own ?

    Whatever it is, it must have caused such dark anguish that he sought to end it all by means of abetted suicide through the process of the Law Courts.

    The silence of the community on this issue is more frightening than the stated request - for it speaks eloquently of its complicity. It seems to be muted approval that incapacitated humans, like injured horses, should remove or be removed from Life's stage.

    Could the community explore new avenues that are life-giving and thus alleviate this final spiral into despair? - I believe so but as you've said, this is "the community's shared responsibility"
    We will need a genuine love (of life & for life) that comes from a deep awareness of the Source of life & sanctity if we are going to do that. God bless. tessa