Suicide is a key image for our culture today. Our society is always looking for new ways to destroy itself. We seem intent on destroying our connections to our forebears, destroying their reputations and even tearing down their statues. We reject the classic achievements in music, art, and architecture that they have handed on to us. We are committing collective suicide by refusing to have enough children to replace our populations. And, increasingly, we are literally killing ourselves as individual human beings. The chart below shows a steady increase in suicides in the United States from 1999-2019:
Increasingly, post-Christian culture does not see killing oneself as a bad thing per se, provided it’s done in the proper way. A Swiss organization that calls itself “Lifecircle”, for instance, claims to be working to prevent “suicide.” The organization’s brochure quite correctly points out that:
. . . over half of these people [people who kill themselves in Switzerland] go into death through a violent suicide, which means that they jump in front of a train, jump from great heights, shoot or hang themselves. By these kinds of suicides, people who have seen these images are permanently heavily burdened.
Every year in Switzerland more than 300 train conductors somehow have to cope with the experience of having run over a person… All these people go with their suicide into an uncertain, sometimes brutal death in loneliness and without a goodbye from their relatives and loved ones.
There’s a catch, though. Lifecircle is not so much opposed to people intentionally killing themselves, as it is to some of the messy details (such as those described above) that often follow from committing suicide on one’s own. Their brochure goes on to say:
Perhaps these people could not have been brought to go on living, but they would have had a chance to go into death quietly and in a state similar to sleep, accompanied by understanding people.
Just tidy the process up, provide a little company, and of, course, implicate the medical profession in the process. Then it’s no longer suicide, you see, but Assisted Voluntary Death (AVD), and Lifecircle is more than happy to facilitate AVD.
Lifecircle is one of several “suicide clinics” (not that they call themselves that) in Switzerland, and the dense haze of euphemism around the grisly matter of killing is an essential part of the business model. The number of people availing themselves of these facilities has grown steadily over the past couple of decades. Roughly half of the clientele is Swiss, the other half “suicide tourists” from other countries. I first heard of Lifecircle (perhaps “Deathcircle” would be a more appropriate name) six years ago when I read about one of these “tourists,” an English woman named Gill Pharaoh. She went there to die not because she was terminally ill or in incurable pain, but because growing old was “no fun.” Today’s throwback is the post (slightly revised) I wrote about Mrs. Pharaoh in August 2015 . . .
Here is a sign of things to come, or more accurately, a present reality that is becoming all too common:
A British woman with no serious health issues ended her life July 21 at a suicide clinic because, she said, she didn’t want to grow old. Gill Pharaoh, 75, said her work in a nursing home revealed the “awful” truth of old age and burdens placed on loved ones and caregivers, the Telegraph reports by way of the Sunday Times.
Let me emphasize at the outset that I don’t wish to ridicule Pharaoh: I pray that she can find God’s mercy in the hereafter. She provides us with a concrete example, however, of how today’s conventional wisdom promotes death as the solution to our problems. The appeal to relieve the “burdens placed on loved ones and caregivers”, for instance, is one of the primary emotional appeals that euthanasia advocates use (and both euthanasia and abortion promoters rely heavily on appeals to emotion). Pharaoh herself, who wrote extensively about her decision before she killed herself, dismissed the idea that she should expect the support of her children in her old age, saying: “I had children for the personal and selfish reason that I wanted them for the pleasure and joy they bring. I want them to enjoy their middle years without having to worry about me.”
This is a sad and confused argument. Again, I don’t doubt Pharaoh’s sincerity, but I can’t believe that she was as selfish as she claims. Surely she changed diapers, cleaned up vomit, awakened from much-needed sleep to feed or comfort crying babies, none of which is very joyful or pleasurable, and that didn’t deter from giving birth again. Did she really think of her children as merely a “burden”? Of course not. I’m sure she thought the “joy and pleasure” well worth the “burden” and, yes, the “worry” of caring for her children from birth to adulthood. By even the crassest calculus, isn’t it reasonable to expect her children to return the favor when she needs them to do the same for her?
. . . and needless to say, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the crassest calculus. I’m sure Gill Pharaoh endured the discomforts and inconveniences of child-rearing for the same reason that any of us who are parents do: because we love our children, not because of some loss/benefit ratio. We see the trouble we endure for their sake as a way of expressing our love, of making it real; that’s why, despite all the trouble they cause us, our children bring us joy and pleasure. Ironically, what she has done now is really much more selfish: she has deprived them of the opportunity to love her in the same way. Even worse, by citing their convenience as a primary reason for her premature death, she is placing responsibility for her decision on them.
And, of course, there is more to the ‘”awful” truth of old age’ to which she refers than the purported inconvenience to loved ones:
she recounted a life slowly sapped of former joys like long walks and gardening sessions. “Not to mention the hundred and one other minor irritations like being unable to stand for long, carry a heavy shopping bag, run for a bus, remember the names of books I have read, or am reading, or their authors.”
A few decades ago, when we as a society still recoiled at the thought of intentionally ending any innocent person’s life, euthanasia advocates relied on searing anecdotes about terminally ill people undergoing excruciating suffering, or about people such as Karen Ann Quinlan who were kept alive only by machines, and who seemed to have no hope of ever regaining consciousness. More recently we have reached the point where few of us seem to find it remarkable that we commonly starve to death people who aren’t even dying or unconscious, but are merely extremely old or disabled. And so now, apparently, we are expected to accept that simply slowing down, or having to put up with “minor irritations”, is reason enough for otherwise healthy people to take their own lives.
There’s no reason to think that it will end here. We live in a culture that has increasingly rejected the belief in the sacredness of anything, including human life. Public schools (and many private, even religiously affiliated, ones) reinforce this worldview in a variety ways. It is communicated by popular culture in countless messages both subtle and overt. It follows that if all we really are is protoplasm, or a particularly complex assemblage of molecules, what could possibly be sacrosanct? If the materialist view is correct, then there cannot be any sort of “meaning” to anything; human life itself is meaningless and suffering, which (in this view) is nothing but pointless pain and distress, is worse than useless: why not just put an end to it all? In such a world suicide clinics can only multiply. Is it any wonder that St. John Paul the Great spoke of a “Culture of Death”?
In response to this Gospel of Despair we Christians can point to the Mystery of the Cross. Christ showed us in his own agonizing, distressing death that suffering even to the end can be not just meaningful, but redemptive: through our suffering we, too, can accomplish great good. We have seen the lesson of Christ’s redemptive suffering reflected in the lives of countless of his followers, from the first martyrs to St. John Paul himself, who taught a worldwide audience that “death with dignity” does not mean taking it upon ourselves to cut off the concluding chapters of our lives.
Many of us know family and friends who have likewise embraced the Way of the Cross. In my case I’m thinking in particular of an aunt whose faith-filled serenity during a slow and difficult death from cancer had a profound impact on everyone who saw her in her final days. I couldn’t help but think of this aunt when I read that Gill Pharaoh had said: “I do not want people to remember me as a sort of old lady hobbling up the road with a trolley”. My aunt’s loved ones don’t picture her infirmity when they remember her: they talk about her, how she exuded love and joy despite her suffering, an image of beauty in the midst of the ugliness of her fatal illness. They don’t remember her depleted body: they remember her.
Again, my purpose isn’t to criticize Gill Pharaoh. She, along with the 611 of her fellow British citizens who ended their lives in Swiss suicide “clinics” between 2008-2012, and an ever lengthening list of others throughout the Western World, is a victim of a Godless, and therefore anti-human, worldview, a philosophy that tells us our “dignity” somehow lies in escape from what we are. The Truth is very different. St. Irenaeus said that “The Glory of God is Man fully alive.” Suffering is a part of every human life: we can’t escape from it without denying our humanity.
Featured image top of page: Seneca’s Suicide, by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez (1871)