Life, Death, and Purpose
A former athlete insists that the most wonderful thing that ever happened to him was the swimming accident that left him a quadriplegic.
If you are mentally ill, there's a month-long waiting period before your
request to be killed will be honored by Dignitas. If you're mentally sound,
though, the Swiss organization can arrange for you to be dead within a week.
Switzerland's law permits assisted suicide.
So, for the moment, does Oregon's.
Though the Bush administration is asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the
Ninth Circuit to strike down that state's voter-approved Death With Dignity
Act, a federal judge in Portland has blocked the government from punishing
Oregon doctors for helping patients die.
An American-born man who would have once eagerly taken advantage of a law
permitting assisted suicide had one existed many years ago, currently lives in
Jerusalem. Today, however, he insists that the most wonderful thing that ever
happened to him was the swimming accident that left him a quadriplegic.
His story came to me via a well-known and respected head of a Jerusalem
yeshiva. The handicapped man was a personal acquaintance and had told the
rabbi how the first 20-odd years of his life were spent cultivating an
athletic physique, honing muscles to perform at their optimum -- and how his
fateful accident had seemed at the time more devastating than death itself.
A graceful athlete mere moments earlier, he was now unable to move in any
useful way, barred by an obstinate spinal cord and an army of oblivious
neurons from playing ball or swimming laps, from eating or attending to his
bodily needs -- even from so much as scratching an itch -- on his own.
He could not, he discovered, even kill himself without assistance, which he
desperately tried to garner, to no avail.
Pushed decisively away from a universe of action, he entered one of mind.
Frustrated by his inability to, so to speak, check out, he began to turn in --
inward, to a world of thought and ideas. Pushed decisively away from a
universe of action, he entered one of mind.
If life is indeed now worthless, he wondered with newfound seriousness, then
had running and jumping and swimming and scratching literal and figurative
itches really been all that defined its meaning before?
That quandary, and pursuant ones, led the wheelchair-bound ponderer to
contemplate the very meaning of creation itself and -- to make a long and
arduous journey of self-discovery seem misleadingly trite -- he came to
conclude that spirituality is the key to meaningful existence. He was then
led to his forefathers' faith, what has come of late to be called Orthodox
Judaism, and it is in the multifaceted realm of intense Jewish observance and
study that he thrives to this day.
Most remarkable, though, was his auxiliary and inescapable realization -- that
had he not suffered his paralysis, he would never have thought to consider the
things that led him to his new, cherished life.
Whether laws like Oregon's that permit physician-assisted suicide will be able
to withstand the federal government's conviction that they are illegal will
likely turn on things like judicial understandings of states' rights.
But the more trenchant concept that inheres in any consideration of assisted
suicide is "quality of life." Are some lives, the question essentially goes,
to be considered less valuable, less meaningful, less purposeful and hence
less worthy of society's protection than others?
Legislators and judges facing the issue will contemplate many questions, but
none of more enormity than whether American society is ready to define what
makes life worth living, and to act on such definition by allowing ill and
depressed people to enlist the help of doctors to make corpses of themselves.
Men and women in extremis often find themselves facing the question of life' s
meaning. Not all of us at the end of journeys through this mortal coil will
experience epiphanies, but we all have the potential to be so blessed. And
many of us, even if immobile, in pain and without hope of recovery, might
still engage important matters -- like forgiveness, repentance, acceptance,
commitment, love, God -- perhaps the most momentous matters we will ever have
And so, as the host of legal and moral issues involved in the issue of
assisted suicide are considered in judicial chambers and legislature halls, we
would all do well to contemplate, too, the edifying story of a once-promising
swimmer living a largely inactive but truly full life in Jerusalem.