We keep animals as pets, but we don’t do the same with humans. We use animals to make clothing and food, but we don’t do the same with humans. For all our similarities to the rest of the animal kingdom, we are aware of a fundamental difference in kind between ourselves and our furry friends. We are not meant to live and die as animals do, and certainly not to be euthanized as they sometimes are. The death of a human is a more complex event that has other important realities associated with it.
Our pets seem to process the world around them largely in terms of pleasure and pain, oscillating between these two poles as they instinctively gravitate towards pleasurable experiences, and engage in “mechanisms of avoidance” when they come up against pain or discomfort. Animals really can’t do much else in the face of their suffering apart from trying to skirt around it or passively endure it. Because of our strong sense of empathy, we find it more emotionally acceptable to “put the animal to sleep,” rather than watch it go through a long and agonizing death.
It would be a false empathy and a false compassion, however, to promote the killing or assisted suicide of suffering family members. Just like the animals, on an instinctual level, we tend to recoil and do our best to avoid suffering. We can respond, however, in a way that animals cannot, even to the point of deciding to willingly accept, and “offer up,” our sufferings. Every person encounters some suffering, even if it may be purely internal, like the pain that comes from loneliness, isolation, depression, or rejection. Every person must, in one way or another, confront suffering along the trajectory of his or her life, and human maturity is partially measured by how we address and deal with it.
Suffering challenges us to grasp the outlines of our human journey in a less superficial way, and to value human life and protect human dignity in sickness as well as in health. Victoria Kennedy spoke eloquently to this point when describing Senator Ted Kennedy’s final months:
“When my husband was first diagnosed with cancer, he was told that he had only two to four months to live. … But that prognosis was wrong. Teddy lived 15 more productive months.… Because that first dire prediction of life expectancy was wrong, I have 15 months of cherished memories. … When the end finally did come—natural death with dignity— my husband was home, attended by his doctor, surrounded by family and our priest.”
As human beings, we reach beyond the limits that suffering imposes by a conscious decision to accept and grow through it, like the athlete or the Navy Seal who pushes through the limits of his exhaustion during training. We also provide a positive example, and teach strength of character and encouragement to the younger generation as they witness our response to, and acceptance of, our own terminal circumstances. Our trials and tribulations also can serve to teach us important lessons regarding reliance on God and remind us of the illusions of self-reliance.
On the other hand, if our fear of suffering drives us to constant circumlocution and relentless avoidance, even to the point of short-circuiting life itself through euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, we miss those mysterious but privileged moments that invite us to become more resplendently human, right in the midst of the messiness, awkwardness, and agonies that are sometimes part of the dying process.
REV. TADEUSZ PACHOLCZYK, PH.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the director of education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org