The current debate on euthanasia and assisted suicide has seen many terms bandied about, at times intelligently, at other times deceptively. From one side or the other we hear about dignity, value, suffering, choice, or individual rights. The debate is often mired in technical issues, which have their importance. However, we cannot leave aside something much more significant, the fundamental question of life itself, in all its drama and meaning. Our love for life is without bounds. When we refer to something “dearer than life itself”, as the expression goes, it is something intangible, infinite, beyond us. It is this “beyond” that makes it possible to love what attracts us.
How is it possible that we should even consider euthanasia and assisted suicide as solutions to the problem of an individual’s pain and suffering as he or she approaches death? How is this possible for us human beings, who affirm that no one has the right to take a life, who over the centuries have established legal systems to ensure the protection of life, and health professions and hospitals to preserve that life to a reasonable extent?
And yet it is possible. Why this contradiction? Why this love for life and at the same time this fear of suffering that would at times make us almost instinctively wish to end life?
Luigi Giussani reminds us that “we have a strange fear of affirming being.” We are attracted by what we love and yet we fear losing it. We love life and yet we fear that it might become so unbearable that it is best ended. Our reason affirms what is there - life - yet our will is paralyzed by the fear that suffering will make life unbearable. This is a temptation, and yet, the desire to die, in virtually all cases is short-lived. Experience teaches us that those close to death ultimately value and love life evermore, even if they might have momentarily thought otherwise at some point in their suffering.
What helps our suffering brothers and sisters to affirm life, to discover that it truly has meaning? We have seen it again and again: a simple gesture by a health professional or the loving presence of a friend or relative makes them understand that loneliness is a much deeper form of suffering than physical pain.
What can help us to love life like these suffering individuals and to glimpse its meaning? A face, a friendship, a community, signs of something beyond, infinite, ultimate. Only a relationship with the beyond makes possible what would appear to be impossible, and allows us to keep our eyes fixed on what is before us, life itself. Only this kind of relationship, what John and Andrew and Martha and Mary lived with Jesus 2000 years ago – an event, now - can conquer our fear of the unknown and allow us to embrace life fully. It is still possible for us today.