The stories of two impending deaths has recently come before our society’s attention, and justly so. Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old who recently transplanted herself from San Francisco to Oregon, explained why she is planning to commit physician’s-assisted suicide. Her account was elegantly and movingly countered by that of Kara Tippetts, who has documented her own ongoing struggle with cancer in a forthcoming book.
It is nearly impossible to speak well of such matters: there are few aspects of our lives that are as intimate or personal as the manner of our death. Whatever theological claim we might make about it, even if none at all, many of us are gripped by an inescapable instinct that death poses a challenge to us, that it raises a question about the meaning of our lives to which we must provide an answer. We cringe, rightly, at the banality of a ‘funeral selfie’; but we lack a category altogether, thank God, for a ‘dying selfie.’ Television stations still shield us from showing videos where people die, and rightly so. There is perhaps no greater proof of our fundamental and universal commitment to the sacredness of human life than that we endeavor, whenever possible, to protect ourselves from voyeuristic viewings of the moment of its passing. We may wish them to be known, but only by those who already know us well. To have it otherwise is a kind of profanation of the mystery of human life and mortality.
So there is a serious danger about reflecting on the manner of these two coming deaths: to write about them risks trespassing upon the holy and terrible moments that they will respectively face. What is more, my own death is not imminent, at least that I know: while I have reflected more on it as a possibility than most people my age I know, I have been assured (and readily believe it) that there are few matters where the gap between theory and the encounter is wider.
Still, the way they have spoken of what is before them invites such reflection: they have, for better or worse, made available to us the stories they are telling themselves in order to prepare for that final day. Those stories are different, and those differences matter: but there is a kind of boldness beneath each that I wonder whether I would have. To invite a kind of publicity into one’s own death requires a unique kind of confidence: I would be tempted to falsify my own existence under such scrutiny. That is a temptation for all of us even now, no doubt, but beneath the shadow of death such temptations take on a new force.
But their stories contain two separate worlds. Tippetts and Maynard are not so far apart from each other as it might seem: but minuscule differences take on a grave importance when thinking of matters of life and death. Surgeon’s use scalpels (or even smaller tools) because millimeters can matter: shall we be any less careful in questions of the soul? Those who oppose assisted suicide, as I do, carry a difficult burden of not making those differences clear, but demonstrating that a world where assisted suicide is an option is somehow less ennobling, less beautiful than a world where it is not. Few have managed that more delicately and graciously than Tippetts. I add only a few reflections to her stirring account.
For my entire adult life, I have only been able to make my way to two possibilities: The universe must either be a heartless place with a flagrant disregard for its inhabitants, so that the cruelty of the suffering which falls upon us is exacerbated and deepened by the absence of it in our neighbors. Or the goodness which stands beneath all things must be so overwhelming, so terrible, so transcendent and awful that it somehow—I confess to not understanding how—makes worthwhile the piles of wrecked human lives which fill our history. I have, I thank God, to this point escaped such grave suffering myself (which has always been to me a sign of my own internal weakness and not of my strength). Yet the pain which has fallen undeserving on those I know has made me more committed, not less, to the proposition that the world must be goodness all the way down. “Beauty will meet us in the last breath,” Tippetts writes, and she speaks as one who knows.
But what kind of demand does such beauty make upon us? The Christian tradition has spoken of death not merely as an event, but as a force which works through us and all things. It is the final enemy of mankind, the foe for which we have no remedy. In this characterization of death, the Christian tradition shares—ironically—a great deal with those in our own day who are feverishly working to defeat it, those fabled ‘transhumanists’ whose aims are more fiction than science. The transhumanists offer a perverse parody of the eternality of heaven; but among the central ironies of the Christian faith is that the enemy of life becomes the instrument of God, so that death inaugurates his own destruction precisely by working his means. Only those means cannot be wielded by us against those who have done no wrong: to do so would be to claim for ourselves the judgment inherent within death, and then to misapply it. The Christian tradition sees the moment of death as one which ought not be forestalled forever, but which also ought not be chosen. Such is the uncomfortably narrow path by which end-of-life decisions are made.
But “beauty will meet us in the last breath.” And what kind of a beauty is it, this which the Christian tradition—and others—points to? It is the beauty of those, like Kara Tippetts, who turn their face toward their enemy and do not look away nor yield themselves up to his side. The gap between swallowing the hemlock and succumbing to cancer might be, to some, nearly indistinguishable. We will all end up dead, after all, so wherein lies the difference? It lies here: To choose death, even when death is inevitable, is a fundamental betrayal of the sacredness of life. It is a concession to the enemy, not a triumph over it: it claims for itself ‘dignity,’ but it is a false dignity that comes from binding oneself to that which destroys human life. The choice to commit suicide attempts to make death our friend, in hopes of sparing ourselves the perceived indignities which might await us. It is not a moment of surrender to a foe greater than ourselves, but a momentary joining-up with him in his work.
There is a deeper nobility, though, a more pervasive goodness in those who deny death the final pleasure of persuading us of its poisonous ‘benefits’ to mankind. To come to the moment of our death and to know, despite all else, that death may have the satisfaction of our bodies but can never touch our wills is among the central moments of our greatness. Such a moment belongs to the martyr, not the suicide, the one who with clear eyes sees the limits of the enemy’s power and knows that there are realms that it cannot touch. The nobility of death is revealed within the very fragility of mankind, for in what (I imagine) must be an ever-present fear it enjoins upon us to remember that we are not alone. If we are lucky, we will have the hand of those who love us to help see us through. If we are not, we know that we undertake a journey which is central to our humanity and which has been made a great many times before.
It is possible to speak of these matters in strictly religious terms, as Tippetts does. And she is right to do so: the death and resurrection of Christ provide secure grounds for thinking that the terrible goodness at the heart of the universe somehow encompasses the suffering within it and gives it a meaning it otherwise lacks. Jesus Christ’s life reveals to us that the awful beauty—the “hardest peace”—not only goes to the center, but toward its outer reaches and beyond. But the intrinsic, incomprehensible beauty of a death which is nobly faced but not chosen also provides me a reason to be a Christian: Christ’s willingness to die for the joy of the resurrection set before him explains the intuition that such a death is a kind of greatness, even while it deepens it. Such an account of death may be difficult to argue for; we see it best when we witness in the lives of those like Tippetts, which is partly why our society depends on telling the stories of those who died in the service of others. But once grasped, it makes more plausible the thought that if there is a God he would have to be great in just this way, and that the universe is not the heartless place I have sometimes thought it may be.
Of course, I have not yet come to the hour wherein my faith in such a beauty will become sight—or not. And I thank God for that. In the time between, though, I pray that Christ will give Kara Tippetts and her family the strength to see her death through to the end, that she would hear strains of all the saints and angels rejoicing and so be emboldened for her journey home. And I pray that Brittany Maynard and our society will come to see the possibilities and demands of the greatness of humanity, the very tragic beauty of a death that is courageously faced, but not chosen.
James Arnold assisted in editing this piece.