Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers.
As I sat on the bus, the weather changed before my eyes. The moment I got off, I was immediately drenched in a torrential downpour of rain, the likes of which I hadn’t seen in months. So I steered my wheelchair into Dunkin’ Donuts for a moment to get a hot drink, then wheeled the extra block to the movie theater to watch the newest sappy love story, “Me Before You.”
The story, based on the book of the same name by English author Jojo Moyes, tells of businessman William “Will” Traynor (played by The Hunger Games trilogy’s Sam Claflin), who is rendered a quadriplegic after being hit by a motorbike; and of Louisa “Lou” Clark (played by Emilia Clarke of “Game of Thrones”), who, after losing her job at a bake shop, finds herself assigned to be Will’s caregiver.
The book—and film—proceed to tell the tale of how Will wants nothing more than to end his life at Dignitas (the Swiss assisted-suicide facility), and of Lou’s attempts to convince the man she comes to love not to do so. I found to my pleasant surprise that the film explores many complex themes in a serious fashion, from love and loss to disability and freedom.
Louisa fails in her quest. At the end of “Me Before You,” Will goes through with his plan for euthanasia. Because of this, LifeSiteNews, a pro-life website, has called for a boycott of the film, calling it “disability death porn.” An editorial on the site argues that prospective moviegoers should boycott the film because “[y]ou before me is better than me before you.” Both of these miss the point. “Me Before You” does not glorify Will’s decision to die—and people, especially those who are pro-life, should watch the film, because it highlights very real issues alive today.
Life Is Full of Difficulty
At the beginning of the film, a vibrant Will Traynor is shown in his prime of 33, with an apartment, a beautiful girlfriend, and a fast-paced, well-paying job in the business sector. That all changes when he crosses the street and is struck by a motorist, leaving him completely paralyzed from the chest down (and with limited mobility in his hands). He is left in the care of his wealthy but distant parents and Nathan, his Kiwi nurse.
I do not know what it is like to be paralyzed for extended periods of time—and if fate serves me well, I hope never to know. But I do have an inkling of what the fictional Will Traynor—and so many real-life “Wills” —go through on practically a daily basis. I was born with a neuromuscular, genetic disease, found among Ashkenazi Jews and some other groups, called nemaline myopathy. Deriving its name from the thread-like fibers in the muscles (nema is Latin for “thread”), NM affects all of my voluntary muscles (limbs, neck, back, chest, lungs) and has confined me to a wheelchair for the past 14 years, and to a ventilator-mouthpiece setup for almost a decade. I’ve always had difficulty using my body—but I know what it is to be able to live relatively normally then lose that ability suddenly (I broke both my legs before my thirteenth birthday).
In one scene Louisa tells her boyfriend, Patrick, of Will’s wish to end his life. “I don’t blame him,” says Patrick (played by actor Matthew Lewis, who most famously played Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter franchise). “[I mean,] to have someone wipe your arse…” Patrick, for all his denseness in his interactions with Lou, has hit upon something very true. Man, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is created in imago Dei—in the image of God himself. Just as God needs help with nothing, so too man strives for as much autonomy and independence as is humanly feasible. To require the assistance of others in the most private of matters—as Will does, and as I often do—is to be stripped of the autonomy that gives humans their most basic dignity. We suffer actual pain, too—for example, when my ventilator is accidentally disconnected.
All human beings have fears, but those with physical disabilities face a unique set of fears. We fear pain and suffering. It is an ever-constant threat, as I discovered when being suddenly hospitalized for pneumonia this past July. We fear that we will not be loved. Not all men in wheelchairs are as good-looking as Sam Claflin—I speak as a man, but I know women with disabilities who have similar worries—yet we all seek the Emilia Clarke to fall in love with us.
Yet, perversely, we don’t want them to fall in love with us, because we fear we don’t deserve it. “I don’t want you to miss all the things that someone else could give you,” Will says to Lou in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film. There is much I will never be able to do. I will never be able to sweep a girl off her feet, take her climbing, hiking, or get down on one knee when the time comes. I will never be able to carry a newborn in one arm and a toddler in the other. I will never go skydiving, scuba diving, or plant a garden.
Death Is Not the Answer
We don’t wish to burden others. “The world will be a better place without me,” Will says near the film’s end. So, because he is so restricted, Will decides he will seek to end his life at Dignitas (euthanasia being illegal in the United Kingdom, where “Me Before You” takes place). He sees no point in continuing to live out what he sees as his miserable and pathetic existence. I thought so, too. In my teens there were times I would have taken my own life, if I’d had both the means and the guts to do it (thankfully, I was too much of a coward).
What was the point, I thought, of living an existence fraught with difficulty, when I couldn’t tell whether the light at the end of the tunnel was an escape or an oncoming train? It certainly didn’t help matters when my best friend married my first love. I could not help but think “maybe she’d have gone for me if I’d been able-bodied,” similar to Will’s best mate Rupert marrying Alicia, who broke up with Will after the accident.
But life is not merely of value if we experience joy with it. As I wrote back in April, “human life is intrinsically valuable independent of the experiences of the possessor[. A]ll of history, from the Big Bang onward, has been, ultimately, in the service and perfection of life, most specifically human life.” Life should be lived because it is valuable in and of itself. To discard it is to discard something beautiful.
There is a poignant scene where Will tells Lou about his trip to the Place Dauphine, and she asks why they do not go there together. “You don’t get it, Clark,” he replies wistfully. “I want to be there as me. The old me.” Far be it from me to preach to the Wills of the world—14 years on, and I still have difficulty accepting that I will never walk again. But I am reminded of the famous Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
When Will tells Lou “I get that this could be a good life, but it’s not my life,” he’s wrong. This is his life—and it is my life. The old me is dead. This Will Traynor—and this Dovie Eisner—must find peace in who we are, not who others inhabiting our bodies were.
Life Means Hope
Let me address one final point—that by taking his own life, Will, as some critics of the movie claim, does not wish to be a burden on others. If we care for others, it seems intuitive that we would not wish to trouble them. But as Gilbert Meilaender writes at First Things, “is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other—and to find, almost miraculously, that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens? Families would not have the significance they do for us if they did not, in fact, give us a claim upon each other.”
I would add something a counselor once told me: people can be either givers, takers, or both. If you do not want to take but have no choice, give. Stephen Hawking can move only a cheek muscle yet has given the world much in the way of the sciences. Those who can speak, can communicate, can give of themselves to others. Let there be no “trade deficit.”
I urge people not to boycott “Me Before You,” but to watch it. It highlights the real struggles a portion of humanity faces. And I must respond to Stephanie Gray by quoting my friend Asher Lovy, who in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide wrote that “suicide is the culmination of all those times we weren’t selfish, all those times we forced ourselves to smile, or to laugh, or go out, help you move, drive you to the airport, not take those sick days or vacations. It’s all those times we thought of maybe telling the world to go to hell for a few hours and doing something for ourselves, but then chose not to because of our obligations to the ones we love and their expectations.”
This does not make assisted suicide at all morally acceptable—you will find no more fervent opponent of assisted suicide and euthanasia than me—but it is understandable. To know is to be able to seek solutions. That’s because as long as the candle burns, repairs can be made—as long as there is life, there is hope.