Dignity

If you haven’t heard, there’s a young woman named Brittany who will be committing suicide dying with dignity with her doctor’s help on November 1st of this year.

Brittany is 29. And she has stage 4 glioblastoma that, back in April, gave her an expectation of living six more months. Because of that, she decided that on November 1, she would take a deadly concoction of pills (prescribed by her doctor) and pass away “with dignity.”

There are so many things I want to say. So many things about this that make me so unbelievably sad.

I’ll start here.

There is such an overwhelming amount of cognitive dissonance with regards to her situation from everyone offering her support.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychology term.

Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors.

This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance etc.

For example, when people smoke (behavior) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition).

Attitudes may change because of factors within the person. An important factor here is the principle of cognitive consistency, the focus of Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance. This theory starts from the idea that we seek consistency in our beliefs and attitudes in any situation where two cognitions are inconsistent.

Leon Festinger (1957) proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.

Essentially, we want all of our beliefs and actions to all match up and be pretty and in alignment with each other and we are willing to make leaps in judgment and logic to achieve that goal.

Back to Brittany’s situation.

The media and, (based on my twitter/facebook feeds and general internet perusal), the general American public have lauded Brittany for her choice to “die with dignity” and kill herself die on her terms.

Cognitive dissonance comes in because you present the same media and public with a gay teenager or a woman whose husband cheated on her contemplating taking doctor-prescribed pills and the same media and public will explode with an outcry of “Don’t do it! Your life is worth so much more than you think it is! They can’t take your self-worth from you!”

Riddle me this:

How is Brittany allowed to “die with dignity” with millions applauding her bravery because her cancer is wreaking havoc on her body with no way to stop it?

How is a person suffering from deep depression (with no real cure and a life-time diagnosis) not allowed to do the same?

How is physical pain so much different than emotional pain that we, as a society, will allow a young woman to kill herself because of a physical disease, but not a mental one?

Why are such brilliant and life-affirming organizations like “To Write Love on Her Arms” (rightly) lauded by the public, while in the same breath, we declare that Brittany is brave and making a good decision in committing suicide?

And before we go off on this whole rabbit trail of “But it’s not suicide!”, let me show you a few definitions of suicide–

The act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally especially by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind (Merriam-Webster)

Death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with any intent to die as a result of the behavior. (Center for Disease Control)

Here’s my favorite:

Suicide, taking your own life, is a tragic reaction to stressful life situations — and all the more tragic because suicide can be prevented. Whether you’re considering suicide or know someone who feels suicidal, learn suicide warning signs and how to reach out for immediate help and professional treatment. You may save a life — your own or someone else’s.

It may seem like there’s no way to solve your problems and that suicide is the only way to end the pain. (Mayo Clinic).

Brittany, a person of sound mind, is taking pills with the intent to die due to a stressful life situation in order to end the pain [that late-stage cancer brings].

Tell me what part of the above statement does not fit with the above definitions.

It is suicide. It is suicide and we are applauding a young woman for taking her own life and it is appalling.

Don’t mistake this for callousness and cry that I’m “cold-hearted” or “couldn’t possibly understand.”

I don’t know what it’s like to actually be diagnosed with a fatal disease.

But you’re wrong in saying that I’m cold-hearted.

I’m completely empathetic.

I watched a boy my age die from medulloblastoma. Sam was in high school when he was originally diagnosed but somewhat in remission when I first met him at our freshman retreat the summer of 2012.

Sam, who was playing cards with me a week before his final fatal diagnosis, spiraled downward until he died January 2nd of our freshman year at college.

I have watched his parents try to cope with the fact that all of his friends are now halfway through this life milestone and I’ve watched his older sister graduate college without him there.

I know what cancer does and I know the heart-wrenching ugliness that it brings to its victims and their families because I have seen it happen.

But for all the ugliness of Sam’s death, he also brought such a glorious light to the world for the brief semester we all knew him at IUPUI and for the 19 years he previously walked through life.

Sam and I were never best friends, but we talked several times, lived in the same building, took the same intro-level classes that first, and his only, semester. It was the first time in my life that death happened in an unexpected way in such close quarters and it affected me.

He introduced me and others in our building to “Cards Against Humanity” a week before fall break, which was when he returned home, went to the doctor, and received the news that this time, there would be no recovery.

There is not a single time I play that game that I don’t remember the complete shocked hilariousness of playing for the first time and Sam watching with glee as we tried to out-do each other’s depravity. That is a memory I cherish and will cherish forever.

Less than a week before he died, Sam and his family held a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Want to know how much he raised?

More than $180,000.

More than $180,000 to give to a hospital that is fighting every day to prevent more deaths like Sam’s.

Soon after his death, his family set up a scholarship fund at Sam’s high school to be awarded to other high school students going through a tough situation.

The Honors College at IUPUI holds a benefit dance every year in his memory to raise money for the scholarship fund as well as St. Jude’s research.

That is the legacy he left behind. That is the legacy that his high school and college friends, family, and everyone at St. Jude will remember.

But what if Sam had chosen to “die with dignity”?

What if he had chosen to bypass the ugliness and pain of his disease and go out on “his own terms”?

That is $180,000 less that St. Jude would have had to work towards a cure.

That’s a legacy that would never have existed because Sam’s legacy would, instead, have been an ordinary one, not extraordinary like it was in real life.

And so it grieves me that Brittany has chosen her legacy to be one of death. Her legacy will forever be that she fought for the right to let other people commit suicide rather than fight to create an exquisite, extraordinary legacy like Sam’s.

There is so much good she could be doing in this world right now and she has chosen not to. She has chosen that rather than work to raise money for a cure and for research for other cancer, or even just for awareness, she has chosen to die. The story is not about her cancer, the story is about her dying and it is so tragic that people are pointing to it as “uplifting.”

What about a young woman choosing to end her own life, for any reason, is uplifting?

The term “Death with dignity” makes me sick to my stomach.

It implies that anyone who chooses to go through the progression of advanced cancer to the bitter end does not have dignity.

It implies that anyone who goes through any disease to the bitter end does not have dignity.

It implies that Sam died without dignity. I cannot and do not believe that. I also happen to be pretty damn sure that his parents and sister would rip into anyone who dared to say so.

I watched Sam deteriorate as each picture that was posted leading up to his death was more and more of a departure from the skinny, but relatively healthy, college freshman I had known and last seen laughing hysterically while playing cards.

But just because Sam’s outward appearance and physical wellbeing changed so drastically, his soul and his spirit and his dignity never did.

Every. Living. Soul. On. This. Planet. Has. Dignity.

God gave us dignity at birth and it sticks with us until we take our last gasp.

Do you know who can take your dignity away?

Not the police, not the bullies, not the media, not your peers, not your friends, not your family, and sure as I live and breathe, cancer nor any other type of mental or physical disease can steal your dignity.

Your dignity is with you for good.

Let’s go back to our trusty definitions.

The quality of being worthy of honor or respect (Merriam-Webster)

Cancer cannot take that away from you. These poisonous and destructive cells in your body do not get to decide your self-worth and inherent value. You are honored and you are valued, not by those cells, but by your family and friends. 

Most of all, you are valued by your Creator.

Perhaps that is the saddest part of the entirety of Brittany’s story.

She clearly does not know God.

God gives us peace. He gives us hope. He gives us light and joy in the darkness.

None of which Brittany seems to have or she would not be making the choice to end her life before cancer does it for her.

God brings such beauty in the hard places.

I’ve seen it in my life on a much smaller scale than Brittany’s but it still was there. Through all the emotional troubles I went through this past year, there were still the splendid, intimate moments with my ever-loving, ever-patient friends and family that proved to me that God was still there.

I saw it in Sam’s life as he raised $180,000 in one single event. God blessed his walk through the valley and He blessed me and a multitude of nameless others through that walk.

Sam’s motto was, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

Anything is possible.

I’m not saying that Brittany will be miraculously cured if she doesn’t go through with her current plans.

Reality is, she probably won’t.

But in reality, she has the opportunity to bring stunning light to the world. She has the opportunity to inspire, not through her death, but through her strength in life. She has the opportunity to truly exemplify living life to the fullest extent rather than being the poster child for giving up.

As a society, we need to not encourage death as an option and alternative to ugliness. Rather we need to gently encourage her to make the choice to inspire beauty and hope in the time she has left.

For if we are afraid of pain and death, who among us would ever truly live?

(You can find more about Sam’s organization to raise money for his high school and St. Jude HERE)

(HERE is the original post I wrote the day Sam died).

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