Dignity in Life
The concept of when life begins and when it ends is one that scholars, theologians, and philosophers have debated throughout the centuries. It is a topic which many and few can agree upon, and I’m certainly not the person who holds the answer. I believe in the idea of a dignified life. A dignified life is one in which we choose how we live and, if we are so lucky, how we die. However, many aren’t lucky in how they die.
Life is fragile. We begin life dependent upon others for our well-being. We then grow, become independent, often cavalier about our mortality, only to become once again dependent on others. John Steinbeck was right when he said “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion is [sic] fruitless.We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” 1 Life is a journey and no matter how much we try to control and plan the journey of life, it ultimately takes us.
When I was sixteen, my Mom remarried. As I adjusted to having a Dad, I also adjusted to a new ideology: the idea of death with dignity. My Dad, a conservative Catholic, was strict in his following of his religion. He believed in the tenets of his religion except for one: a dignified death. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 5, Section 2277, states “Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable. Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.” 2 My Dad explained his faith to me and why in this case he did not agree with the Church he loves.
My Dad was married for over thirty years before he lost his first wife to cancer. He told me about the diagnosis, the treatments which never worked, the surgeries, amputations and the slow, painful death his wife endured. He talked about watching his wife, the mother of his children, being consumed by cancer, dying from pain. There was no end to the pain; there was no mercy, only the torture from endless treatments which only served to prolong a life that no longer had dignity. It was during this time he decided our pets have more dignity in death than we do. I listened to him as he told me about his wife’s death and later researched the concept of death with dignity. I wanted to understand how a devout Catholic could go against his religion. As I delved into my research I began to embrace one concept: it is not for society to decide what others should do based on our personal morals; it is for society to provide an option when there is no other.
Life without dignity, is not life. A graceful death, which frees a person from pain, should not be denied because of another’s religious view. The Declaration of Independence’s three examples of unalienable rights are: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 3 To believe in liberty means to embrace liberty even if it collides with our personal values. Liberty occurs when individuals act on their will and govern themselves, taking responsibility for their actions. To have liberty does not mean going against morals and ethics because liberty is defined in two ways. Positive liberty is when an individual acts on their will without the influence of societal restrictions and taboos while negative liberty is when individuals act without being coerced or influenced by other people. An individual who seeks death with dignity is exercising one of the inalienable rights: liberty because they are acting without the influence of society and others.
The choice to pursue a dignified death is supported by both positive and negative liberty. When individual acts on their own, seeking death with dignity, they should be able to choose, free of coercion from society and others. This last decision allows them to embrace the right to believe, act, and express themselves one last time. As my Dad pointed out, this was an act denied to his wife, denied to him to help her end her pain. If our life is a journey, then it is also a story which is told long after we pass those who keep the memory of us alive. How we tell our story, especially the ending, is just as important as any other chapter. My Dad’s telling of his wife’s last chapter influenced me and how I view life with dignity.
Steinbeck, John. Travels with Charley: In Search of America, New York, Viking Press,1962, accessed November 03, 2016, http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1024827-travels-with-charley-in-search-of-america.
Catechism of the Catholic Church - The fifth commandment,accessed November 03, 2016 http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm.
The Declaration of Independence (1776), accessed November 3, 2016,http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/,