We have become a culture of “choice.”
In abandoning spirituality and morals in favor of legal and literal definitions of equal “rights” regardless of merit or coherence, we are now free to choose nearly whatever we wish, whether it be a lifestyle, gender, or even our own version of the truth. It’s all relative to the individual. In this new culture of free choice I have begun to question what I actually do for a living. I work in the behavioral health department of a hospital. We spend a large amount of time and taxpayer money preventing individuals from choosing to end their own lives, but, logically, I have been beginning to wonder why.
When we hear the word “choice” in a political context we automatically think about abortion. The argument is that a woman’s body is her own and therefore it is her choice as to whether to continue her pregnancy. Many pundits believe this may be the biggest issue in the upcoming elections. Several countries have legalized assisted suicide (different from euthanasia) for people with incurable diseases, thus giving them the choice of discontinuing their lives if they feel it necessary. This is legal in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont, and being pushed by Maryland gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur. It’s considered a matter of choice as to what to do with one’s body and how people wish to live (or end) their lives. Words like “dignity” and “privacy” are often used in association with these choices—specifically, the right to privacy for women and the right to die with dignity for the afflicted. But this leads me to ask: What is the difference when it comes to suicide?
How Is Suicide Different?
From a merely logical point of view, suicide is a choice. The person considering or making the choice to end their lives is probably in a considerable amount of emotional pain or feels that his or her life is no longer worth continuing and, thus, has decided on suicide. This is a choice that some people make but which we, as a society, try vehemently to restrict. Logically, it makes no sense. Morally, it demonstrates a kind of national schizophrenia.
The argument against suicide is generally that it is a decision made under emotional or psychological duress and, since no person would normally want to end his or her life, the suicidal person must be returned to his or her “right mind.” However, the decision to have an abortion is also made under duress. A 16-year-old teenager who finds out she is pregnant and knows her parents will be furious and she won’t be able to go to college, et cetera, is also under mental duress. Is this considered “right mind”? Similarly, an individual facing an incurable disease is also under mental duress and typically under the influence of medication. Is this considered “right mind”? It is commonly believed that people who decide to commit suicide are “mentally ill,” but this term has become so vague as to incorporate emotional states that have nothing to do with illness.
Schizophrenics, who are clearly experiencing a disease that alters the normal functioning of the brain, do not often want to kill themselves and are, more likely than not, paranoid that other people are trying to kill them. They are interested in self-preservation. When schizophrenics do make the decision to commit suicide it is often when they are in their “right mind” thanks to treatment from medications and therapists, and have become despondent about their incurable condition. It is more a result of depression rather than a disease of the brain. Depression is a mood disorder, which can be exacerbated by life conditions. Furthermore, what is known as situational depression, which is in reaction to life conditions, is actually appropriate and normal. If you just went through a divorce and lost your home and your dog died, it is perfectly appropriate to be depressed. People suffering from depression, by and large, can be considered in their “right mind.” It wouldn’t hold up for an insanity defense because such people are perfectly aware of their actions and whether their actions are right or wrong. They’re just not happy. Of course, neither is the pregnant teenager or the patient with the terminal disease.
Three Forms Of Choice
Logically, there appears to be little difference between the three forms of choice. The morality of it is where I become confused—not in my own understanding, but what the existent argument is for our current muddled culture. If a girl says she wants an abortion, we bring her to Planned Parenthood and help her carry out that decision; if the same girl says she wants to end her life, we take her to the hospital and a therapist and convince her not to. If that same girl has incurable cancer, however, we can have a doctor prescribe medication by which she can end her life. The distinctions between the three are very blurred. Why are the two acceptable but not the one?
We appear to value a life only when in its prime or, at the very least, capable of carrying on a conversation. In essence, a life is only valued in relation to the rest of society, its ability to act meaningfully in that society, and to have value to others. Often, the reason for dissuading people from suicide, even those that cannot function on any meaningful level, has more to do with how their loss would affect those around them rather than how it would affect the person in question. “Don’t kill yourself, Tom, we would miss you too much,” has nothing to do with Tom and everything to do with Tom’s value to others.
While reading St. Augustine’s Confessions recently, I came across this applicable quote:
This is the way of things. This is the lot you have given them, because they are part of things which do not all exist at the same time, but by passing away and succeeding each other they all make up the universe, of which they are all parts. For example, our speech is accomplished by sounds which signify meanings, but a meaning is not complete unless one word passes away, when it has sounded its part, so that the next may follow it.
This is our moral dilemma. Our lives have meaning only when they have been lived according to the natural progress of life. To use Augustine’s metaphor, we are words being spoken in the story of life. A word cut off before it has barely begun renders the rest of the sentence meaningless. Likewise, a word cut off before the end of its pronunciation leaves the sentence meaningless.
Our current society wants the ability to end life at its very beginning and before its final syllable, but wishes to maintain some kind of meaning. Unfortunately, we cannot have it both ways. It is nearly impossible to convince someone who believes life has no meaning not to commit suicide. Indeed, Albert Camus opens his work, The Myth of Sisyphus, wondering whether or not suicide is the most rational and reasonable response to a life that has been stripped of meaning. As is typical in America, we want to have our cake and eat it too, to deny life but still believe that it holds some meaning and value. Life must have a value in and of itself. It cannot be valued as a means toward some end, such as “society” or “rights” or “choice.” Rather, life is the end we must seek in order to give any weight to those terms. “Society” exists only where life is valued and people come together in an effort to stave off death; “rights” exist only in relation to individual lives that are, first and foremost, lived; and “choice” cannot exist outside the bounds of the natural results of those choices.
When we attempt to exist as two different minds, two different understandings of life that are naturally in conflict with each other, we end up in a state of contradiction, a logical fallacy that renders culture senseless. Thus America, the lives of its people, and particularly the words spoken by its leaders, have become a meaningless babble from the mouth of a schizophrenic.
Marc E. Fitch is the author of Paranormal Nation: Why America Needs Ghosts, UFO’s, and Bigfoot and the recent recipient of the Robert Novak journalism fellowship. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and four children and works in the field of mental health.