Today was supposed to be the day that Brittany Maynard chose to die. This seems an odd sentence to write. Unfortunately, that statement is not a quote from an Aldous Huxley novel or the latest dystopian film. Instead, it is the only reality deemed plausible by a young woman diagnosed with terminal cancer.
You have probably heard Brittany’s story by now. It is all over the media (both news and social) and the blogosphere. The video of her story has recorded millions of views. What you may not have heard yet is a satisfying response to the question of how to process and think about issues like assisted suicide, terminal illness, suffering, and death. It is a difficult story to respond to, and not merely because of the emotion that is wrapped up in the human response to suffering and death. Our society hates being questioned, how dare one question the autonomy of an individual, let alone an individual who is terminally ill.
Brittany has made her decision and is satisfied with it. That is what she tells her audience in the video. “I can’t even tell you the amount of relief that it provides me to know that I don’t have to die the way that it’s been described to me that my brain tumor would take me on its own.” I would posit however that behind the soft piano music and exquisite set-dressing there is anything but peace. “My question is: Who has the right to tell me that I don’t deserve this choice?” Brittany asks in an op-ed for CNN. “That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain? Why should anyone have the right to make that choice for me?” Might I offer a casual observation from my admittedly short life on earth? When people, at least Americans, ask the question, “who has the right to tell me…?” they are generally not at peace. They are usually angry.
If I were Brittany I would be angry too. I feel jipped if a barista makes my breve too sweet. While most people may not be terminally ill, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who’s life has not been personally affected by the terminal illness or “untimely” death of a family member or friend. We all know, to one extent or another, what it is like to face pain, and our natural response is to search for answers.
“Your brain will do very strange things to you when you don’t want to believe something. You will come up with fairy tales.” That is how Brittany’s mom describes her first thoughts after learning of her daughter’s diagnosis. She hoped that maybe the doctors had the wrong x-rays, that it was all just some horrid mistake. Brittany’s mom is right. When you do not want to believe something, you can come up with almost any number of other things to believe. Most of those things will not be satisfying, and of the satisfying things, even fewer will be true. The view that Brittany takes, that she should be able to choose her own death date, is the result of her belief about life; what makes it worth living, and who her life is about.
In the previously mentioned video, Brittany tells what her view of life is: “The reason to consider life, and what’s of value, is to make sure you’re not missing out. Seize the day, what’s important to you? What do you care about? What matters? Pursue that. Forget the rest.” With such a view as that, it is easy to see why Brittany’s response has been, “The worst thing that could happen to me is that I wait too long because I’m trying to seize each day, but I somehow have my autonomy taken away from me by my disease because of the nature of my cancer.” If life is truly about seizing the day and not missing the moment and only pursuing the things we each decide to care about, then news of terminal illness is incredibly threatening to one’s autonomy.
That is really what Brittany’s story is about. Autonomy. Apparently that is also what Brittany’s life has been about to this point as well. But now, that autonomy is threatened. She says it is not “right or fair” that all Americans do not have the choice of assisted suicide. But the real injustice is not committed against Brittany. The real injustice has been committed by Brittany; and not only by Brittany, but by every human who has walked this earth since our Adamic fall from grace. We all, along with Brittany, have demanded authority over our own lives. Eat, drink, and be merry has been the mantra of humanity long before the millennials opted to seize the day. But our lives will be demanded back from us, by the only one who can legitimately claim authority over them. God, our creator, redeemer, sustainer, who alone has immortality. It is not in autonomy that we find relief and peace, but in surrender. In surrender, even a terminal diagnosis cannot shake one’s life, its worth, or its value.