A peaceful death is a wish that just about anybody has. But death is somewhat of a taboo topic today. As a culture, we fear death. This fear reveals itself in the many euphemisms incorporated into our language concerning death. It is a fear of the unknown. The unknown is scary. We can’t plan for it. So we seek an antidote to this fear.
In the great stories about acquiring immortality (the philosopher’s stone, the Fountain of Youth, heck, even Harry Potter), it is not the one who acquires immortality that is held in highest esteem, but the one who is brave in the face of death.
In short, the human antidote to death is courage. But what exactly does courage look like, especially in the face of death? It’s a question being asked by many people at the moment as they are faced with the media attention focused on a woman named Brittany Maynard.
Brittany was 29 years old. She lived with her husband Dan in Portland, Ore. On New Year’s Day this past year, she was diagnosed with stage IV glioblastoma multiforme, a terminal brain cancer that causes a slow, painful death. Wanting to die with dignity, she selected a day to end her own life through assisted suicide (by taking a fatal dose of barbituates prescribed by a doctor). That day was Nov. 1, this past Saturday — All Saints’ Day.
Due to the inevitable attention surrounding controversy, Brittany’s story has sparked many polarizing debates over the morality and legality of assisted suicide (or euthanasia, or mercy killing, or death with dignity – more euphemisms). It is easy to get lost in the debate — a debate in which, honestly, I am not inclined to join. I’d rather not use this space to present my opinion on the legality or ethicality of this case. I’d rather present my take on one aspect of the whole: whether or not we ought to praise Brittany on the grounds of her “bravery.” This post is about the notion of courage in the face of death and how people are influenced by such an act. Brittany’s story is just a backdrop for the topic at hand.
While I withhold my opinion on the rightness or wrongness of Brittany’s decision (although I’m sure my position can be inferred from this post), I will directly address what I view as the wrongness of those who praise her for her “bravery.” I do not attack those who support her, for special support is exactly what Brittany needed. Fr. Tony Medeiros, creator of the “We Love Brittany Maynard” Facebook group, has made this quite clear. Fr. Tony has maintained that compassion, not derogatory attacks, is what Brittany needed during this time — compassion and many prayers. It is hard to disagree with Fr. Tony’s position.
Yet I also sympathize with blogger and online journalist Matt Walsh, who is disturbed by the language many people are using in praise of Brittany’s form of “courage.” What is Brittany’s bravery, he asks. Opposed to euthanasia, Walsh is concerned that people are praising Brittany’s choice to kill herself, as he bluntly phrases it. In fact, he finds the praise offensive on the account of cancer patients who do not end their own lives. Here is an excerpt of his article:
If you are saying that it is dignified and brave for a cancer patient to kill themselves, what are you saying about cancer patients who don’t? . . . If struggling against cancer until the bitter end is an act of courage, then it can’t also be an act of courage to opt out and “leave on your own terms.” What makes one courageous is that it is not the other. What makes one commendable is that the other choice exists, yet the heroic individual takes the more admirable route.
Matt Walsh, The Blaze
There is the courage to face death calmly, to accept it, to acknowledge that your time has come. Brittany had this form of courage, at the least. She knew she was dying and was reconciled to her fate. But the language used not only does not differentiate but equates Brittany’s form of courage with the courage demonstrated by other terminally ill cancer patients — cancer patients who do not take the pill. People who fight cancer to the end. People like Jim Skerl.
Jim Skerl was 58 years old. He was (and is) a beloved theology teacher at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland. He did not aspire towards anything, unless it be the practice of his faith, but rather he sought to inspire his students to live lives committed to faith and justice. For decades he had done exactly that, cultivating student commitment to solidarity within the service groups he created. He too received a terrible diagnosis — pancreatic cancer. After years of humble service at the school and after a year’s fight against the cancer, Jim Skerl passed away on Oct. 23. His funeral was this past Saturday, Nov. 1, All Saints’ Day – the day that Brittany Maynard chose to die.
Jim’s and Brittany’s stories are similar to one another. Jim’s and Brittany’s stories are also different in key components. Jim chose to fight through the effects of the cancer and continued to teach until Oct. 3, just 20 days away from the end of his struggle.
Kara Tippetts, another terminally ill person, has also decided to fight to the end. She wrote to Brittany asking her to reconsider her choice, claiming, “You have been told a lie. A horrible lie, that your dying will not be beautiful. That the suffering will be too great.”
When these stories are compared to one another, I see a dichotomy in the discussion of courage. Like Matt Walsh, I find it somewhat disgraceful to claim that these are equal levels of courage. I admit my bias. I am personally invested. Having known Jim Skerl, I am naturally inclined to view his story in an overwhelmingly positive light. I was a student of Jim Skerl; I am a product of Jim Skerl; I was influenced by Jim Skerl; I am still influenced by Jim Skerl. He has inspired me, and he will continue to inspire me every day of my life.
Compare to some Twitter posts:
“Brittany Maynard is the biggest inspiration ever!”
“A true inspiration in the face of terminal illness.”
“Thank you #BrittanyMaynard for being an inspiration to millions around the world!”
I wonder what Brittany has inspired people to do. It appears that the praise is directed towards Brittany’s choice to exercise her “right over her own body.” The cry for rights over one’s body is quite prominent in articles supporting Brittany’s decision. The issues of “rights” broaches upon legality and ethics, neither of which I want to tackle here. I was struck, however, by the following contrast in quotes:
“It’s not my job to tell [Brittany] how to live, and it’s not my job to tell her how to die. It’s my job to love her through it.” — Debbie Ziegler, mother of Brittany Maynard
“During his teaching career, Jim Skerl taught us how to live. Then he taught us how to die.” — Marty Dybicz, theology department, St. Ignatius High School
Thank goodness that Jim Skerl was a teacher and saw that this lesson was indeed part of his job. Like the professor from Tuesdays with Morrie, Jim wanted his students to learn about life by observing the way that he chose to die.
It may be that both Brittany Maynard and Jim Skerl (and other cancer patients who make similar decisions) are courageous. But if I agree to that position, I must make the claim that they are courageous in different ways and that one of those ways is much more commendable, much more inspiring and much braver than the other. Death with dignity, indeed.
The topics of assisted suicide and euthanasia must be discussed, and the publicity of Brittany’s story has opened the doors. I just hope that those engaged in the discussion are intentional with their words. Courage is a powerful descriptor, and it seems to be unwieldy at the tip of some people’s pens. I find that I have always been struck by one definition of courage and one definition only: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Dedicated to the memories of Jim Skerl and Kevin Healey. May perpetual light shine upon them.
Zachary JJP Zvosecz is a senior theology major from Cleveland who plans either to teach or act as a campus minister in Catholic high schools. He is involved with the CFJ, particularly by attending and leading retreats. He is also heavily invested in the student group Life After Sunday. Zack likes to watch soccer, wear Hawaiian shirts and read books while reclined on his favorite “Reading Rock.” When in his presence, don’t mention West Ham United or his alma mater St. Ignatius High School. Once he starts talking about either, he doesn’t stop.