Reflections upon suicide

Vermont just became the third state to pass an assisted suicide law—Oregon being first and Washington second. I look forward to the day when such laws go further, to the day when you can designate that your life be ended when you become unable to do so, for instance in the case of a progressively debilitating disease such as Alzheimer’s. I would also favor state mandated euthanasia when a person’s condition is severe and hopeless but not terminal; for example, in the case of someone who has profound birth defects or is in a persistent vegetative state. 

Everyone supports euthanasia for ailing pets, yet nearly everyone opposes it for ailing humans. They say that it would make people callous and, along with abortion, create a culture of death. They claim that suffering is an ennobling gift from God, and that only God has the right to end life. Many believe that euthanasia is a slippery slope that would lead to killing for convenience or political gain. I don’t believe any of these things; I believe that suicide is a human right, and euthanasia a societal responsibility. I even believe that, once we have done our best to instill in them a desire to live, we should provide healthy people with the means to end their lives painlessly if they request it. I believe this because no one who chooses to die should be forced to do so in a gruesome or painful manner, and no one who chooses to die should ever wake up in an ER after having sustained horrific injuries in a failed suicide attempt. As much as is humanly possible, we should insure that all sentient beings die peacefully and with dignity, and in the case of humans, we should, where possible, allow them to choose the time.

Some will exclaim with horror: “You don’t believe that the life of a human being is of any more value than the life of a dog?!” No, I don’t. The worth of any life is a subjective judgment. For example, I grieve when one of my houseplants dies, yet I kill dandelions by the score. It’s not because the life of a houseplant has more intrinsic value than the life of a dandelion; it’s because I value the life of a houseplant more than I value the life of a dandelion. So it is with humans versus dogs, or humans versus dandelions for that matter.

I mostly blame religion for people’s insistence that humans hang in there until the bitter end, no matter how much they suffer; no matter how much it costs; no matter how hard it is on their loved ones; and no matter how much they plead to be euthanized. If you’re a believer, you will probably point to my values in this regard as an example of the evils of atheism, just as I would point to yours as an example of the evils of theism. Yet, for all I know, a great many atheists might agree with you about suicide and euthanasia, but since I place no importance upon aligning my beliefs about anything with those of a given group, I don’t care. It is simply my view that if society values compassion, it has an obligation to insure, as much as possible, that every creature die a peaceful and dignified death, and that this death occur, as much as possible, at a time of his or her choosing. I believe this as strongly as I believe anything.

a really sad day

I’m planning to hire someone to finish a small digging project that I can’t complete due to the pain. I’m hurting so much that I called Mark (my orthopedist) today about the possibility of a partial shoulder replacement on the right side. The one he did on the left 37-months ago has just recently reached what I suspect to be its full potential for improvement, and I would anticipate just as slow a recovery on the right side, but my condition certainly won’t get any better if I don’t have the surgery. A full replacement would be more likely to alleviate more of the pain (I have no thought that I will ever be pain free), but it would also restrict the kinds of work I could do, and I had rather be in pain and able to work than to not be in pain and not be able to work. My problem now is that the pain is so great that work is out of the question, and I am also concerned that I have now worked myself into this level of pain a few times, and I am beginning to worry that I will eventually do so much damage that the increased pain level will become permanent and maybe even unbearable. I’m also concerned that Mark either won’t operate at the hospital my insurance will send me to, or else he will pronounce the joint too far gone for a partial replacement—and maybe even for a full one (joints can deteriorate to the point that the only option is to either do nothing or else to fuse the bones). Then again, I might feel better in a few days, and say no to another such nightmare.

Today is a lovely day, and as I look out the window at a project which I can’t finish, I am practically in hysterics. If it was work I hated, I could live with hiring someone, but how do I live with giving up things I love, one after the other? Depending upon one's perspective, there are many valid ways to interpret life, but certainly one of those ways is to regard it as a slow—or sometimes fast—fall into ruin succeeded by death, and that’s the one that is before me at the moment.

Sidney, the baby that I call my grandchild, was here yesterday. As I reflected upon the growth she has experienced in her first two months, and the growth that she will continue to experience for nearly three decades, I envisioned her as a flower that I will never see completely open, but I also remembered that her growth will someday turn to decay, and she too will increasingly fail until her life finally comes to an end. I then recalled a song that goes, “he not busy being born, is being dying," and since it's from my favorite movie, I put it up top. 

What to do? I ate some pot, but it made things worse. Pot quite often does that. I never know what it will do from day to day or even from morning to afternoon, but when it’s bad, it can take whatever is bothering me, multiply it by a factor of ten, and rub my face in it as if into fresh shit. Getting high on pot should not be taken to imply that the user will necessarily have an enjoyable experience.

The picture is of my Grandpa holding me in 1950. While holding Sidney, I remembered that picture, and I knew that, despite his dour expression, he must have felt with me somewhat as I was feeling with her, for I know he loved me. There is something so hopeful about new life that I can't imagine anyone not loving it, although my cat, Brewsky, certainly gives an excellent imitation.

Atheistic mysticism

The more remote the past, the less real it seems, and this includes my own past. I was looking for another picture just now when I came across this one of Dad and me. The year was 1980, and we had been tearing a plaster ceiling out of a hundred year old house in Brookhaven, Mississippi, in 102-degree weather. Dad wouldn’t have worn a dust mask for the work, but I might or I might not, my awareness of such things increasing with time. Twice a day, Mrs. Nations would invite us into the kitchen for a cup or two of strong coffee. I rarely drank coffee, so I stayed ripped on caffeine for days. I found that I liked the feeling, a lot. I also liked Mrs. Nations a lot because she was both cultured and oblivious to the class prejudice that would have kept most upper class women from befriending their carpenters. I thought she represented Southern womanhood at its noblest, and I wish I had told her. It was on this same job that two theatrically slutty women started making eyes at me as I was buying chicken dinners for Dad and me at Winn-Dixie. When the three of us got to the parking lot, they said they had to pick their kids up from school in a couple of hours, but would have time to hang-out for a while at McCall Creek. I said, “Are you ladies telling me you want to fuck?” and they giggled. I figured they wanted money, but I didn’t ask. I did ask if Dad could come. They asked how old he was. I said 70, and they declined. I told Dad about them, and he said I should go if I wanted to, but I considered it all too weird, and, besides, I was never one to pay for sex.

I hastened to look away from that picture just now, not due to any negativity regarding my memories but because it was so long ago that it seems like an event out of someone else’s life. For the past to feel this way un-centers me. I imagine myself floating in space. I feel as if I’m floating in space, and it makes me nauseous, but it also makes me feel high and free.

“There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy—a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all. He knew.” Graham Greene (from The Power and the Glory)

Floating without purpose. No center. No foundation. The past and the future a fiction to the present, and the present replaced by the future even as I try to grasp it. 

Men of intrigue

As a teenager, I was drawn to such divergent groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers, so it shouldn’t surprise you that I was likewise attracted to both the deeply religious and to their atheistic counterparts. I heard many a sermon in scornful opposition to the latter, but they only created in me an intense interest in what such men had to say for themselves. I mythologized one type of person as representing atheists. He—for it was a he—was an aging white male in a suit, and I envisioned him standing before a large wooden desk in a book-lined study. He was thin—as befitted someone who had weightier things than food on his mind—terribly smart and intellectual, and had the tortured look of a man who could see the human predicament for what it is rather than for what we want it to be. I would sometimes find his photo in Life Magazine.

I imagined atheists to be far more interesting than anyone I had ever known, and I was convinced that they would understand me in a way that no one else could. I wanted to ask one of them how someone so smart, sensitive, and educated, could fail to believe in God. I knew that the reason had to do with being “overly educated,” but I couldn’t grasp the process by which “too much knowledge” blinded one to truth when truth is knowledge. I knew that I would be putting my soul at risk just by talking to someone so deeply under Satan’s sway, but I was driven, not that I ever found such a person in rural Mississippi.

Preachers quoted Proverbs to prove that atheists were “educated fools” (“The fool hath said in his heart that there is no God”), yet I knew very well that the main difference between atheists and the people I went to church with was that the latter knew less, and ignorance struck me as a poor recommendation for being right about God or anything else. I realized, of course, that Jesus had said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children,” but in saying this, he implied that ignorance, credulity, and gullibility, were superior to intelligence, wisdom, and learning, when it came to discerning supreme truth. And, of course, he had said outright that God had deliberately hidden this truth from people of depth and thoughtfulness, presumably because he wanted them to be damned. This suggested that my inability to discern the truth of the Bible occurred because, well gosh darn, God simply didn't like me. My only recourse was to attempt to believe that which made no sense to me (meaning most of the Bible), to call my attempt faith, and to go about doing good and trying to find something to love about God; all in the faint hope that it would get me into heaven. As it turned out, I couldn’t pull that off either.

So it was that God became ever more of what he always had been in my life—an object of fear and loathing who threw lightning bolts at trees, breathed forth hurricanes, and filled lakes with eternal fire. Yet, it gradually dawned on me that the concept of a perfect being becoming anyone’s object of fear and loathing made no sense because a perfect being would, by the necessity of its perfection, instill its entire creation with perfect joy and thus win the perfect allegiance of everyone, right down to the tiniest germ. Even Satan would give up his lust to rule heaven because no pleasure would be even remotely comparable to the delight of pleasing God to the fullest extent of ones God-given ability. No one could say no to God because no one would even think to say no to such an entity. What then, I came to wonder? Could my inability to believe in the written word of a perfect being mean that such a being did not exist, or that I had the wrong written word?
Against this internal background, I was being warned repeatedly in sermons of the threat posed by atheism, yet I knew that some atheists could be brought to God. For instance, I heard what I thought was a recent account* of an atheist who was walking down a remote beach one day when he found a watch. As he reflected upon its presence in such a place, he realized that, just as the intelligent complexity of a watch proves the existence of a human designer and builder, so does the intelligent complexity of the universe prove the existence of a heavenly designer and builder. I considered it a compelling argument, but it also struck me as such an obvious argument that I felt sure an atheist would be able to dismiss it from the comfort of his study, and I wanted to know how.

...As I write, it occurs to me that if I had a suit (preferably a three-piece), a book-lined study, and an air of sophisticated urbanity, I would look like my early image of those men about whom I was warned, men I wanted so desperately to know, sensing as I did that the preachers weren’t representing them nearly so well as they could have represented themselves.

*It was made-up by William Paley in 1802.