As much as our world changes and the values and morals alter concurrently, sometimes it is good to see that embedded deep within us is a natural understanding of how we should respond. Many health situations that create controversy and endless disagreements often start from a good intention that is found within us as human beings. The push for assisted suicide generally comes from seeing someone suffering and acknowledging that things shouldn’t be that way. Our desire to eliminate suffering in others is good, but we don’t always pursue the correct course of action.
What this tends to create in society is the belief that each individual should be able to do what they think is best. As an individualistic society, we are quick to argue that nobody can force their beliefs and opinions on me. I am free to do whatever I want, whenever I want. Sometimes we will add the caveat “as long as I am not hurting anyone,” but often, culturally, we see our freedom as the one objective truth.
Do you remember hearing roughly a month ago about a MLB umpire who saved a woman from jumping off the Roberto Clemente bridge in Pittsburgh? I found the story a beautiful testament of someone caring about a stranger and doing something when others just walked by. What I find particularly interesting about the story is how it was reported. People came together to help a woman who was trying to jump off the bridge and commit suicide. John Tumpane, the man who first started helping the woman, is spoken of as a hero and as someone who saved another person’s life. These weren’t Christian news agencies, but this event was reported very similarly in several mainstream secular articles.
I agree that he was able to help save someone’s life, but I find the cultural inconsistency obvious.
This woman didn’t want to live. She made a plan, she started to carry out that plan, and then she was stopped by someone walking by. Most people will look at this as a positive ending to a story that could have been tragic. We see someone wanting to end it all and we rejoice that someone noticed and she was able to hopefully receive the help she needed.
In a purely individualistic sense, what I see is a woman who was not allowed to make a choice she wanted to make. She wanted to end her life, but other people decided that her life was worth living, worth saving. To us, it is easy to see this as heroism in action.
Why do we as a culture not view this as an infringement on her rights?
I’m playing devil’s advocate because I think it is important to draw attention to this societal inconsistency. When someone says they want to die, we are taught to tell people, to get them psychological help, and to assist them to reach a place where they want to live. We have help lines, we have suicide prevention programs, and we have counseling sessions. As a teacher, I am a mandatory reporter. If a student tells me they want to die, I need to tell someone about this.
Why is this not just another choice someone is able to make?
With the rise of the assisted suicide movement, more and more people begin to answer that each person should be able to choose when they die. Yet in this real-life situation, we see the immediate response of the public as being quite different. We have a natural instinct to tend toward life and not death. When we see someone doing the opposite, we know there is a problem. Something is off within them and we want to help them re-establish a proper balance.
What is my point? Simply this: that in a culture that seems to place personal autonomy as the primary good of life, we should step back and acknowledge the intrinsic flaws in such a system.
Yes, I have freedom.
Yes, I should be able to use that freedom to pursue different things.
But there should be a limit to this freedom.
We trick ourselves into thinking that our actions impact merely ourselves and so nobody should have a say in what we do. Yet there are no actions I can think of that only alter the individual. If you talk to anyone who knows someone who has committed suicide, you will know that although the person acted only against their own person, they impacted countless others.
So if what I want isn’t always what is ultimately good, what should I use as the barometer for goodness? If my perceptions can be flawed, what can I use that will clarify how I should act? Naturally, I would present the teachings of Christ as reliable moral guidance. It is the strange truth that only in losing our life in Christ do we gain life. Only in surrendering our freedom to the Lord can we live an authentically free life. A life of heroic virtue will impact countless souls. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, a life lived for others enriches our own personal lives.
We reach out to others when they need help. We assist people who are struggling. This is part of being in the human family and in the family of God.
“One can be damned alone, but saved only with others.”
Russian Orthodox saying