Viktor Frankel:Those who have a “why” for life can bear with almost any how. A purposeful life is a life with dignity.
I recently visited the graves of my parents. And of my brother.
This is the tradition in Judaism to visit the graves of our loved ones each year, around the Jewish New Year, which takes place in the fall.
There are three pilgrimage festivals in the Jewish faith. During the centuries of the Temple in Jerusalem the people would gather at the Temple where the presence of God was most keenly felt. Two of these pilgrimages take place in the early spring and summer, and the third in the fall which brings in the Jewish New Year.
The Feast of the Tabernacles (Sukkot), which today many Jewish people celebrate by living in temporary structures for seven days, comes at the end of a month of Holy Days that began with Rosh Hashana, the New Year. It is the last in-gathering of the people until spring. It is told that in Temple times when it was time for the people to go home, something happened. God couldn’t bear to let his people leave nor could He bear to leave them. They won’t be together like this, again, until the late spring. His love for them is so great He says to them, “Stay with me, just one more day.”
And so we have an extra day, another holiday,in order to be with God and God with us.
As I stood before the graves of my parents I said to them that I wished I had just one more day with each of them. Just one. I had been blessed to have parents who lived good long lives. But how much I would love one more day. To take back things I had said and say things I hadn’t. To tell them one more time how much I loved them and how grateful I am to be their child.
And I stood in front of my brother’s grave. Martin Arthur is in a different cemetery. And I cried. He was merely two and a half. And died suddenly from a disease from which no child would die today. He died before I was born. And I am here because of his death. And we are forever entwined. I cried at his tiny grave, covered in a plethora of beautiful red begonias, knowing how much his parents, our parents, mourned over him. And I have no doubt wishing that they could have had just one more day with him.
Which brings me to unconditional love. It is unselfish love. It is a love that can bear pain in order to have that one more day.
Yet, today, that unselfish love has been kidnapped by concepts like death with dignity. Assisted medical suicide. People who choose a date to die rather than live with future pain. People who choose to leave those they love and who love them back. Depriving them of that one more day that cannot be reclaimed.
I understand pain and the fear of pain. The kind of pain that does not register on the 1-10 scale. To be engulfed in spams of pain when just touched. When hitting that morphine pump just can’t seem to get ahead of the pain. I know that. And no one should ever be forced to live in that kind of pain; if there is no hope for a cure. There should be no hesitation in administering morphine in palliative care. There is nothing redemptive about unredemptive suffering.
But death is final. There is no “one more day,” ever. We choose life for a reason – we cannot honour God from the grave.
There is a verse in the Bible that says, “I set before you the blessing and the curse, life and death: Choose Life for you and your children.” Why? Why do we need a commandment that we choose life? Is it that we are too quick to give up? Is there something innate within us that chooses death over life? A fear of the unknown leading us down a path of personal extinction?
Or is the command to “Choose life” a reminder of the importance of unconditional love that keeps us here for others; a daughter for a mother, a husband for a wife, a parent for a child; not for ourselves.
There was the story of Gloria Taylor that galvanized death with dignity. She was discussing her decision to kill herself with her son and granddaughter. I watched her son cry at the thought of his mother dying, leaving him and his daughter.
Then there was the story of Ms. Griffiths who was able to fly to Switzerland and drink a concoction that was given to her. Why was she not able to take her own life by her own hand at home?
I ask these questions because I fear we are not prepared for the unintentional consequences. Are we really prepared for the consequences of government involvement in death? And Doctors whose job is to do no harm? I have written about doctors who approve death with dignity, because the hospital needs beds. I have written about a doctor basing her medical decision on her belief that her patient had no reason to live; because her patient had no visitors or cards. Surely her life was pointless! Except it wasn’t pointless. The patient was too vain to tell friends that she was in hospital.
There is no excuse, today, for anyone in the West to suffer unbearable pain at any time. We have something called morphine. And we have morphine pumps that allow us to self-medicate – to a point. But if one is at the end of life, then one should have the opportunity to choose the end with morphine.
Would we have this discussion at all if we prioritized life over death? If we promoted unconditional love? If we reminded those who want to end their life early that we need them to live for us. They have a purpose in life. A reason to live – rather than reasons to die.
Choose life: This is unconditional love.
From the Ethics of the Fathers: “Rabbi Tarfon used to say, it is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but you are not exempt from undertaking it.”