Joseph Curl, former White House correspondent for The Washington Times, discovered a startling fact during a sojourn in Florida while caring for his aged mother: Everyone he met, in the nursing home, the hospital, the real estate office—everyone—had a relative with dementia. This might be more characteristic of Florida than the nation at large, but watching his own mother’s descent into mental helplessness sharpened his perceptions. “We’re not prepared to let our parents go, or even force them to go, but then dementia happens. Only then do you realize that you’d really prefer that your mother or grandfather simply pass away … simply said, you yearn for them to die.”
Would it be so wrong, then, to ease your afflicted mother gently into the next world? He knows it’s controversial to say and agonizing to think about, but as medical science extends the life of the body, we see more attention focused on the quality of the mind. Assisted suicide is probably quietly practiced on a wide scale already; expect it to occupy the main stage in a decade or so. When life becomes an unbearable burden, who can blame the bearer?
These thoughts reach out and shake us. Most of us will not experience a violent death, but everyone with an aged parent cringes at a future of unseeing eyes staring from a familiar face. Two hundred years ago, life was lamentably short for most. Now it’s regrettably long for some.
But does it ever cease to be good?
Apparently it did for Robin Williams, and for the increasing number of Americans, largely middle-aged men, for whom suicide seems the best option. Every case is unique, and no one can guess the combination of factors that lead a man to kill himself. All we know is that for a certain individual at a certain time, life was not good.
How odd that, in an age of ease and comfort and endless diversion, we find ourselves increasingly doubting life’s goodness. Most Americans seem to believe there comes a point at which it’s not worth living. This is easy to understand in an end-of-life situation: “a tough subject,” as Joseph Curl says, fully understood only by those in charge of an elderly dependent who’s losing his or her mind. Far more disturbing is the marketing of despair among the healthy middle-aged and the young.
To take one small example, this year’s Carnegie Prize, an annual award for children’s literature selected by a library organization in the UK, went to The Bunker Diary, by Kevin Brooks. The announcement met with controversy because the novel is about a 15-year-old street kid kidnapped by a psycho and kept in an underground prison with no hope of escape. “Children don’t need happy endings,” the author blithely says, and he doesn’t give them one. The chairperson of the judging committee defends its choice with boilerplate verbiage about “exploring difficult issues within the safe confines of a fictional world.”
“Difficult life issues” means endless war, persistent poverty, abuse of the innocent, fleeting success, social-media bullying, and other evils. Love, beauty, and friendship seem illusory in such a context, but this is where modern culture gets it all backward. As Augustine said, evil is negation; love and beauty are the realities. Turns out, children do need happy endings. So do grown-ups.
Can we decide whether our lives, or someone else’s, are worth living? It’s not a decision we’re authorized to make—in fact, we know life is good because God is good. Objectively, there can be no doubt: the satisfaction of relationships, the pleasure of sensation, the joy of imagination, the beauty of the earth. No one experiences all the good all the time, but the world pulses with God’s goodness. The paradox is that when we clutch life too tightly we may not see its worth. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). What your life means to you is secondary; the real issue is what it means to Christ.