Okay, so posting this under a header of A Happy Pessimist may be stretching it more than a bit, but seeing how there is no other category in which it fits better, here it will stay. Just be forewarned that this does get kind of dark. Sorry, that’s the mood I’m in today… and with good reason. Let’s just say that life’s been kicking me hard over the past couple of months, and leave it at that, but now let’s get to the meat of this story (with my apologies to any passing vegans, of course).
Recently I have been looking into the subject of suicide, mainly into how it’s viewed by most major religions, and it seems to be one of those areas where there is an almost universal agreement: it is not good for the soul. Fair enough, I understand where they are coming from, and I can’t really say I disagree, though at times I do find their judgement to be a little too harsh for my liking. Of course, in a way religions are guides for the living, not the dead, and having lost some of my loved ones to suicide I can honestly say that I understand. When someone kills themselves there are always some lingering questions that remain unanswered, questions that are bound to haunt the living till the day they die. That is not much fun, I know that from personal experience… but as I was doing that research I also came across a little tidbit from Hinduism I found absolutely fascinating, one that sent my mind careening in a completely different direction: the belief that those who die by suicide are doomed to spend the time until what would have been their natural death as ghosts. Again, it makes sense to see the time before an unnatural death, and what would have been a natural one, as a liminal period, but that got me thinking about the uneasy coexistence of the modern world, ancient religions, and the miracles of modern medicine. It also got me thinking about the uneasy relationship between religion and euthanasia.
In Ancient Greece euthanasia was seen as a perfectly acceptable aspect of medical care, and infanticide was also an accepted practice. In other words, back in those days there was nothing like the modern obsession with the sanctity of life. It was only with the advent of Abrahamic religions that, at least in the west, euthanasia came to be frowned upon. Life is God-given, and that makes the taking of a life, no matter the circumstances, the ultimate sin. That is, for the most part, the view most modern states seem to have incorporated into their legal frameworks… and it is also where modern medicine, and that ancient Hindi belief come into play, because while that prohibition may have made sense in the ancient world, things have changed, and I suspect part of the problem is that religions have had a hard time keeping up with those changes.
One of the most remarkable shifts the world got to witness in the twentieth century was the dramatic increase in terms of our life expectancy. That was due to a number of factors: a drastic reduction in infant mortality (dead babies were, not surprisingly, one of the biggest drags in that regard); the advent of vaccines and antibiotics; the drop in the number of women who died in childbirth; and the advent of other drugs and especially of new surgical techniques. The problem is that with this increase in our ability to keep those who would otherwise have died firmly bound to the land of the living we also brought about new nightmares and new sufferings that would have been inconceivable just a few generations ago because it is not impossible to argue that we have done more to extend our life expectancy than our health expectancy.
Now, this is not to say that there were no agonizing deaths back in the old days where euthanasia would have been a blessing. In fact it is good to keep in mind that, no matter what the gazillion film versions of Robin Hood would seem to suggest, medieval arrows rarely killed instantly and with a single shot, but given that even minor wounds were likely to become infected, their kill rate was much higher than we would expect it to be (what can I say, gangrene was no fun), but the point I am trying to make here is that the things that could be done to prolong a person’s agony were far more limited than they are today, not to mention that doctors were far better at knowing when to call it quits (or maybe it would be more accurate to say that doctors themselves were among the deadliest weapons back in those days). Now things have changed.
Take someone who is involved in a car crash, barely clinging to life by the time emergency services get to them. Without modern medicine they would be dead in the very short term, no question about it, and no need to do anything about it either. In fact even with the latest technological advances their survival is anything but guaranteed, but at least they have a fighting chance. In this scenario we would like to think that there are two possible outcomes: either the patient lives (a good outcome) or dies (which is what would have happened anyway, so they are not worse off than they would have been if no attempts to save their lives had been made). The problem is that I think it would be more accurate to say that there are three possible outcomes, with the third one being one in which the patient lives, but that life is a living hell of extreme disability, utter dependence, and constant pain. If they are lucky they may not even be aware of their changed circumstances, if they are not… and yet the interdiction against euthanasia remains. What this person has become, however, is the opposite of a ghost. They are bound to the world of the living, but what should have been their time of death is long past, so what are they? It is impossible to tell.
Back in the old days, when those rules were actually spelled out, this wasn’t even an issue, now it is, and it is one that leaves us in a dangerous place. And of course this is not just about accidents. There are plenty of medical procedures, including even the most routine surgeries with the accompanying anesthesia, that may lead to an outcome that for the patient may seem worse than death, but those outcomes cannot be accurately predicted, so a decision of whether to treat or not to treat must be made beforehand, and the patient, and those around them, will have no choice but to live with the consequences.
Our first instinct is to try to save a life whenever possible, and if the outcome were a full recovery or death it would be a no-brainer, but that is not the world we live in, and yet it is a reality that we must navigate on a daily basis.
To us turning to our faith to look for comfort and guidance in our time of need may seem like the most natural thing in the world, but this is one of those instances in which the difference between our own world, and the one that gave rise to those beliefs thousands of years ago are so fundamental as to render them virtually useless, and when that happens we are left to our own devices.
Is the suicide, or the euthanasia, of someone who should have died a long time ago still a suicide? Are they still doomed to wander the earth as ghosts until the time of their natural death, when that day has already come and gone? It makes no sense, just as there are times when it makes no sense to try to keep living by a standard that emanates from a world that is so fundamentally different from our own, and that means that at the end of the day we have no choice but to try to figure that one out for ourselves.
It is a terrifying prospect.