Monday, November 3, 2014

don't call her brave

Today the world woke to the news: Brittany was dead.

As she promised she would, she had taken the pill that ended her life. “Her suffering was over.” She was dead. As the headlines proclaimed the news, the television hosts shook their heads and softly smiled, teary eyed. Brittany is dead. And she was “so brave.”

Brittany was many things, I’m sure. But please don’t call her brave.

Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her life might have been a private decision, but she made it public, wishing to become a voice for “death with dignity.” So before you shame me for speaking out with my opinion on one woman’s choice, I think it’s fair to say that Brittany opened the topic for discussion when she chose to become a public spokesperson for her cause.

My Facebook newsfeed has been jammed with comments about her choice in the last few weeks. I have many “friends,” and many of them have different viewpoints than I. I like it that way. I understand that the world is made up of persons with varying, opposing ways of looking at life. I like to think that we can share our thoughts and opinions and “agree to disagree.” I have friends with whom I disagree profoundly on very serious matters, but I still care for them. Sometimes I share my views, and sometimes I stay silent, because I know that the internet in general and Facebook in particular is not the best place to change hearts and minds. That happens best over time, with one on one face-to-face human contact. But we live in a virtual world, and sometimes we have to reach out here. At least I do, on days like this when I feel like my heart will burst if I don’t write about this. I’m writing this before I even take a look at my newsfeed, because when I see the many comments about her bravery, it will take a good deal of strength for me to make it through the day without much virtual (and perhaps real life) fist-shaking, screaming to the heavens, aching sorrow. I also feel a responsibility to share this view, realizing that for some of my friends, my words might be the only ones they see offering an opposing view. To those I say, please, just listen to my ideas, and think about it.

By now, the whole world knows Brittany’s story. She was young and beautiful, with “her whole life ahead of her.” A ghastly tumor grew in her brain, and it was robbing her of “everything.” She decided to end her suffering, and that of her family, by taking a pill that would solve all that. Her suffering and theirs would be over, and she would be oh so brave. And thousands of others would be inspired by her, and would be able to be brave as well. They too, if faced with suffering that seemed unbearable, could be “brave” and end their lives.

Before you call me out with the modern clarion cry of “How judgmental!” let me make it clear: I don’t judge Brittany, or anyone else, ever. I can’t. God alone judges hearts and souls. I can’t begin to predict the condition of Brittany’s soul or anyone else’s. This isn’t about judging Brittany and choosing for her heaven or hell; it’s about discerning the ramifications of her actions, and, for me personally, deciding what it means to be brave.

I don’t think suicide is brave. I think it’s tragic. When Robin Williams ended his life, the whole world cried, and we asked “WHY?” We didn’t say he was brave for ending his suffering. We (rightfully) bemoaned the misunderstood nature of depression and raged against the stigma of mental illness. Now, when one young woman with a brain tumor commits suicide, we say she was brave. I don’t understand.

Now, I’m sure some will argue that brain tumors and other fatal illnesses are nothing like depression. For these illnesses, there is no cure; only a certain sentence of horrific suffering. People like Brittany have no hope, only the inevitability of hardship, pain, and unimaginable indignities for them and their families. But if months from now, a cure for Brittany’s condition is discovered, will we still celebrate her choice? Of course it’s unlikely, but it is possible. Life is like that. Whether or not you believe in miracles or God or any kind of hocus pocus, I think we can all agree that we can’t predict the future.

But back to that horrible suffering she likely would have endured. Don’t we compassionately kill dogs, for heaven’s sake? Why should we insist that our fellow humans suffer so much when we give animals “dignified” deaths?

Because we are more than animals, that’s why.

People are more than dogs and cats. We have immortal souls. And if you don’t believe that, fine. Let’s take faith and God and the hope of an afterlife completely out of the picture. Even if there is nothing but blackness when we die, I will argue that there is meaning and purpose to life, and that it is not brave to kill ourselves because we suffer. Because I don’t know about you, but I suffer every single day. And if ending suffering is the reason for choosing the time of our deaths, how dare you tell me my sufferings are not enough to die for? And who will decide when the sufferings are enough? And why, oh why, do we not all end it today? Please give me a reason to live. If I believe this way, there is no reason at all for any of us to live. There is meaning and purpose for no one, and the only right thing to do is blow up the planet, and put the whole nasty mess of us out of our misery.

Ponder this as well: thirty or forty years from now, when you are dying in a hospital bed, how brave will you be? Do you want to decide what that means? What if your particular brand of brave, like mine, means walking through suffering and allowing others to care for you until your natural death? If Brittany’s legacy follows its logical conclusion, you won’t be allowed to decide. Someone will hand you a pill, or give you an injection, and the whole crazy concept of “personal choice” will be nothing but the dead motto of a dying culture.

Brave. I’ve said Brittany was not brave and I mean it. Let me tell you what brave is.

Brave is soldiers who go into battle for those weaker than they, knowing that they may not come out alive. Brave is medical professionals who fight Ebola. Brave is mothers who take their children to the hospital for their tenth or twentieth surgery for hydrocephalus. Brave is the man who can’t walk or speak because of his muscular dystrophy, but welcomes visitors who come to him for encouragement, which he freely offers with joy.

Brave is the man who changes his wife’s diapers and cleans her feeding tube. Brave is the woman who gets out of bed and goes to work at a job where she is unappreciated and demeaned, because she has children to feed.

Brave is the man with no limbs who speaks around the world to people about the beauty and meaning of each human life. Brave is the veteran who overcomes alcoholism and drug dependence. Brave is the widow who comes home to an empty house every day. Brave is the families of those with dementia who listen to stories again and again from loved ones who no longer recognize them.

Brave is what I learned from the little girl who died in my arms. You will say she was too young to know she was brave, and that I am a fool for believing the fairy tale that her soul was full grown and she was aware of the value of her suffering. That may be true, and I myself have entertained the thought that my beliefs of a loving God and redemptive suffering are only coping mechanisms that I use to deal with unfathomable pain.

But no one can argue that she taught me to be brave. Brave was walking into the NICU more than 100 times to see my baby subjected to pain, to watch her bleed, to see her cry without making a sound. Brave was standing before the board of ethics explaining that lives of brain damaged children have meaning and purpose. Brave was taking another breath while my arms ached with emptiness.

Brave was her father carrying her casket to the foot of the altar.

The brand of brave I learned from her enabled me to write this this morning.

So call Brittany bold, or self-assured, or independent. Say that she was assertive, or that she lived and died on her own terms.

But please, I beg you. Don’t call her brave.

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