‘Thought’ for the Day

More on the ‘no you may not die until God says you may’ line of cant. This time from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Thought (thought?) for the Day.

Nine years ago my brothers, my mother and I saw my father go through five major operations in his eighties. It was almost unbearably painful to see one who was once so strong and upright, fight a long, slow, losing battle with death. Yet I can’t begin to imagine what it would have been like if he, or we on his behalf, had been given the choice to bring that last day closer. He was a proud man who hated being a burden to others. How easy it would have been for him to spare us those final tormenting days. I can see him doing it. Yet he would have been so wrong – because, more than anything else, we wanted to be there with him in his suffering giving back some of the care he’d given us when we were young.

That’s meant to be good – to be in some way compassionate, kind, sensitive – in some way that rises above, or digs deeper than, the possible desires of the person in question. It’s meant to be good, but it’s horrible. It’s horrible that he’s glad his father didn’t have the choice to end the torment. It’s horrible that he’s glad his father wasn’t able to do what would have been easy – that he doesn’t think ‘ease’ may be desirable when the alternative is torment. It’s horrible that he apparently thinks (although he may just have expressed it badly) that what he and his brothers wanted should outweigh what his father might have wanted. It’s horrible that he skirts the issue of whether his father would have preferred to end his own suffering for his own sake.

The doctors were heroic in treating his pain. All of us, doctors, nurses, the family, my father himself, were united in cherishing life, leaving it to a will larger than ours to decide when it should end. There are some choices we should not be allowed to make, and of these the most fateful is to decide that a life is not worth living. My father was able to leave this world gently because he was spared that choice. Better a society that strives for life, than one that offers us the choice of death.

Gently? Because he was spared that choice? Where does the ‘because’ come in? What’s ‘gentle’ about for instance suffocating to death, the way Diane Pretty did? Or dying in horrible ever-increasing pain? Is that leaving the world ‘gently’? Is a society that ‘strives’ to force continued life on other people who don’t want it because they are in pain or totally disabled and helpless, better than one that allows them the choice to end it? Well, possibly. There are arguments to be had – secular ones. But dragging in the ‘will larger than ours’ (whose? where? what’s its phone number? what’s its email address? how do we ask it for a review?) doesn’t help. Thinking it does can motivate people to produce some horrible arguments, that boil down to ‘my father might have preferred to end his life himself and avoid the last few days of pain, but fortunately he wasn’t able to make that choice.’

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