Wednesday

Cultural Consciousness, Societal Schizophrenia & Suicide Tourism

"We sat there on the couch and watched him die!" she exclaimed.
A young woman I spoke with recently, had viewed a program on a public broadcast channel about the current trend in euthanasia known as "suicide tourism." It is travel for the purpose of ending one's life in a place that has fully embraced and actively facilitates assisted suicide. There was something about boarding a plane on a one-way vacation to Sweden for the sole purpose of dying that troubled her.
 She was equally unsettled that one man's death journey had been documented and televised for Whosoever Will to witness.
"It's the 'Mr. Rogers channel', for goodness sake!" she said.
"Exactly what about it bothers you?" I asked, wondering whether our views were similar.


--Showing only the peaceful moment as the life ends, persistently desensitizes observers to negative aspects of suicide. It slowly erodes the society’s disapproval of such practices; stigma is removed raising its appraised value as a desirable option for others.
--Suicide is presented as compassionate and well-reasoned and, depending on the premise, logical. The argument is emotionally compelling. Those who disagree may be considered intolerant, merciless and uninformed.
--Encouraging the practice may discourage others engaged in their own fight with chronic or terminal illness when, in fact, current research holds promise of imminent cures while modern technologies offer more than ever before in pain management and coping strategies.
--"It made me feel sad to see how hopeless he was. He was someone who believes 'this is it. When it's over, it's over. No God. No nothing.'"


If I sound na├»ve, rest assured that I have held front row seats in the theatre of pain and death from Parkinson disease, cancer, dementia and old age, injury, and diabetes to name just a few. I have cared for some of these folks until their death and have walked with others who did the same. I am neither intolerant, merciless, nor uninformed.


Admittedly, having our views challenged is always unsettling, as it was for my friend. Yet in this case, I confess to being relieved at her discomfort. Not just because she had come to some of the same conclusions as I, but because she had paid attention, and had listened to her resistance, as did our thoughtful predecessors. Some of their conclusions I have agreed with, some I haven't (even after careful consideration, it's rare for parties to agree all the time). The point is that they bothered to care at all about this balance between an individual's preference and society’s greater good. Therefore my children and grandchildren have enjoyed the benefits of a "culture of life". The implications of losing this kind of cultural consciousness are many and serious. But as long as thoughtful and caring minds show up to wrestle with them, there remains hope for the world's children, individually and as a human race.


To further complicate things, not only are we drifting in and out of cultural consciousness, we seem to be suffering from a mild societal schizophrenia. Some of us will recall the collective outrage over the 1978 Jim Jones suicide/mass murder tragedy in Guyana: 912 dead. And the Hale-Bopp comet crowd of 1997: 39 dead. Is this the cliched difference of apples and oranges? Perhaps, but the net result is the same.


"You realize that after you drink this, you will fall asleep and you will NOT wake up, right?" the social worker explains to the man.
"Yes."
"I can't help you drink it, but it's there whenever you're ready."
"I'm ready now," the man said through the device attached to his throat. And he took the cup. 


With regard to euthanasia, death with dignity, assisted suicide, end-of-life practices--a plethora of labels, it seems that some societies are also weary enough of the recurring debate to "drink the kool-aid." And to extend the sugar-laden metaphor, is it really good for us? Will we too fall asleep and NOT wake up? I wonder.

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