Early this year my car broke down. Finally the repair was too expensive to justify – I had seen this coming for some time. Many months back I realized how much happier I would be without any debt in my life and that I would likely enjoy the hard work it would take to accommodate the lifestyle required for this financially restrictive goal. So I sold the car off to a nearby shop and, in no hurry to replace it, went about learning to commute sometimes on the bus, but mostly walking. This has given me a lot more time for one of my favourite activities: reflection and introspection. My walk to work in the morning is about fifteen minutes; a decent splash of time to listen to a handful of songs and go over anything that’s milling around in my mind.
This morning’s musings were from a group trip to Grand Forks this past weekend. My hockey team went down for a tournament and at some point between games the conversation fittingly, (given the rough-and-tumble nature of hockey,) to injuries and disabilities. One friend stated that he’d already mentioned to his wife that if he was ever in a situation where his body was so broken that he could only communicate “by blinking yes and no” that he would like to have his life ended. Now, this is a tricky request as euthanasia is not something that has been widely legalized. But I digress. This attitude towards a situation of this nature seems to be prevalent among, well, anyone I’ve heard talk about it before. It’s easy to understand when you’re framing it through the imagination of an able-bodied and independent human being. To go from all to nothing is to be prisoner of the body that is now only there to taunt you of its inability; a limp carcass that can only breathe and defecate, perhaps neither of those by your control.
I suggested that he couldn’t really know that he would want that until he was in the situation. He assured me that he had thoroughly analyzed this hypothetical situation and was sure of his assessment. I replied that if I felt there was more that I needed to do before leaving this planet he did agree that there may be something big enough to motivate someone to push through and complete their pending purpose. My thought was simply this: no matter how certain something seems, you’ll never truly know unless you’re dealing with it firsthand.
That being said, I understand it takes a certain kind of personality and strength of character to take on such a challenge. But I have learned that a mindset is not something merely inherited, it is built and maintained like a muscle. I myself have a physical disability, albeit a minor one. Ten years ago in an action of impatience I managed to cut the flexor tendon in my left thumb. After six surgeries spread over two years I am left with a thumb that cannot extend, even when forcibly pushed, and maintains only basic clamping ability. Fair enough – I’m able to do almost everything I could before. And had I handled myself better ten years ago it may well have fully recovered, so I understand my contribution to this disability through lack of patience and a delay in action to rectify it once the damage was done. Still, I have found that even now if I focus any of my thought on what I can’t do with it or worry for how poorly it may age through the years I start to feel rather anxious about it. But when I instead shift my thoughts to gratitude I am grateful for the fact that it can still do all the basic tasks that I would want it to do and that it’s a reminder any time I start to do something in a rushed fashion to slow down and do whatever job it is the right way. Could I extend this gratitude to save me in a situation where my entire body was broken and all I had was breathing and blinking? I’d sure as hell like to think so. But if you use the analogy of a disability being a weight, then I have learned to lift ten pounds with the gratitude surrounding my thumb… the gratitude required for the latter situation would be akin to lifting ten tons.
Ending one’s life, even when it’s completely understood by everyone around you, is a selfish act. But selfishness is important. It is an emotional mechanism that ensures we remember to take care of ourselves; to be sure we don’t forget to check in with our own needs and desires. The righteous selfishness of turning down a night out with friends to finish that book you’ve been reading is nourishing and wholesome, unlike the brazen selfishness of taking all four corner pieces of a cake because fuck everyone else and their happiness, I want the icing bits. Taking your own life, or requesting it be taken, is not the black and white simplicity of either of those examples. Your family may understand and empathize with you and your choice, but may never be able to accept it. Some pills are too big and bitter to swallow. Conversely, you may decide to stay around so as not to put them through the hell that is your demise only to fade into an oblivion of bitterness and resent leaving a shadow of your former personality that once shone so brightly to those you love. I can’t say what the right or wrong decision would be, if there even is one at all. But I can’t help but think that using your imagination to simulate this experience when your body and mind are fully working is such a shocking contrast that the only logical conclusion would be that you would want to die, and that this thought pattern primes you to lean even more towards that decision in the event that this tragedy should occur. If you wake up in the hospital with almost none of your faculties left and you’ve already laid out the circuits in your brain that know what to do: shuffle off. This may be efficient, neurologically speaking. You will already be completely overwhelmed with your emotions and those of your family around you which makes thinking difficult. Not a great time to make decisions. But it robs you of the opportunity to assess this new experience as it presents itself in the moment. Everything in you is popping out of memory as a reflex, confirming exactly what you imagined. “See?!? I knew this would be terrible. Time to check out.” This makes it particularly challenging to start flexing the muscle of gratitude; like being grateful that you’re alive, for example. Breath is not to be taken for granted. Neither is thought. Or self. These are precious gifts, all of them temporary enough in the best of circumstances.
One interesting point: before he said he’d like to pull the plug on such a situation he stated that he believes in reincarnation. “I believe we all come back anyway again and again, so…..” I’m left to infer that the thought of checking out early is cushioned by his belief that his existence will not up and vanish like a fart in the wind. Would his opinion change if he believed that once we die we cease to be altogether? Would it be different if he believed that we joined the almighty for an eternity in the Kingdom of heaven, so long as we’ve repented? A consistent quality in human beings seems to be a need to leave a legacy. The end is all too final if we don’t have somewhere we will live on afterwards, or at the very least some way our former existence will echo through future generations.
The point here is that you can never know what any experience will be like until you are in it. Fear, more specifically the fear of losing almost everything we perceive as freedom and independence, is strong enough to motivate people to believe they can predict the future through a hypothetical situation. And if you’re thinking that you agree with my friend and would absolutely pull the plug, then I implore you not to shortchange your strength and keep your mind open to the opportunities present in even the most unimaginable of circumstances