Assisted suicide and the gift of being a burden

In all the discussions about assisted suicide that I’ve seen, one of the common refrains from those who want to keep that option open for themselves has been that they “don’t want to be a burden on others.” Often their concern is not even their own physical suffering as their bodies fail, but merely that their circumstances might make life a little more difficult for others.

Let me begin with a humorous little story about my wife.

When we were first married I still had some deep seated yearning to be chivalrous. Trust me, that has long since faded. On one occasion my wife had a nasty pinched nerve in her neck. She couldn’t turn her head, and most other movements were challenging. We arrived home after a family event, I parked the car and dashed around to her side of the vehicle. I extended my arm as she was obviously struggling to get out of the vehicle and asked,

“Can I help you?”

“No, I’m fine.”

Well, no, actually. She wasn’t fine. But in the face of such obstinate determination to not accept help from somebody else, what choice did I have but to turn around, leave her to her own devices, and head to the front door?

Why would she refuse help when she so obviously needed it? I propose the reason is because we have all been conditioned to be self-sufficient. We have trained ourselves to value being able to take care of ourselves, and when we need help from others we interpret that as a sign of personal weakness.

But here’s the big irony; we love to help others. Canadians seem to have an especially irresistible drive to help everybody else in whatever capacity they possibly can which was evinced by our recent hospitality toward Syrian refugees. We are a country with countless charities, and many Canadians can tell you which charities they are personally passionate about, and sometimes even involved with. We often go beyond just writing checks.

As a nation, we are eager to extend a helping hand whenever we possibly can. Which makes it all the more ironic that we are equally eager to refrain from ever accept a helping hand from others. Our passion for helping is clearly one-directional.

A major theme of my book on suffering is that hardship in life provides an opportunity for people to develop character. Virtue is only possible in a world with suffering. When we suffer we have the opportunity to become better people, and when other people suffer we have the opportunity to exhibit heroism by coming to their aid.

So whether we suffer honourably, or if we help somebody else who suffers, we build our character. We become just a little more virtuous. And many of those who do get out there and help others will speak to the deep significance associated with helpfulness. Not only is it virtue-building, it is also deeply meaningful and fulfilling. An exercise and an experience.

Consider, then, one of the implications of refusing to allow others to help us. When we struggle on our own or, in the case of assisted suicide, end our lives when we might need some help, we refuse to “be a burden” to others. But the act of bearing another person’s burden is one of the means by which we develop character, so if I refuse to let somebody else bear my burden then I am, in effect, robbing them of one of life’s virtue-building opportunities. Life presented those around me with an opportunity, but I took that opportunity away from them. My circumstances were being gracious, I was being greedy.

If I dedicate myself to helping others then I enjoy the benefits of character growth. However, if I refuse to let others help me then I refuse to allow others the opportunity for character growth that I have benefited from.

Call it harsh, but I would consider this self-serving hypocrisy. Who are you to take all the growth opportunities for yourself by spending your lifetime helping those around you, and then refuse to extend to others the growth opportunity that would come from allowing them to help you? If you have found great value and personal satisfaction in helping others, who are you to limit their value and personal satisfaction by refusing to allow them to help you?

That, I dare say, is not a demonstration of good character.

For the love of our character growth, be a burden! Share your suffering. Do not be so self-centered as to carry it all on your own, or hire a doctor to end your life so nobody benefits from the growth opportunity at all.

What a waste.

When my wife was in the hospital we had no choice but to accept the help of others. There was no way we could have handled that situation all on our own. I have lost track of how many people helped, and in what capacity.

And I have learned the value of being on the receiving end. I have learned that there is also character growth to be found in admitting, “I cannot handle this, can you help me?” I have seen the appreciation in the eyes of those who have come to my aid, and I hope next time life gets really tough I’ll remember that lesson and swallow my pride. Because when I admit my own inability to cope with my situation, and I allow others to invade in my vulnerability in order to help, then we all develop a little more character. We all benefit.

But keeping my problems to myself, or “checking out early” (to put it mildly) does nobody any good. I hope those who are considering suicide, doctor assisted or otherwise, will also consider the lost opportunity that they will end up withholding from those around them.

And if you’ve lived your life in such a way as to be of help to others, consider the selfishness of refusing to let others help you. The world needs you to stick around and let others grow as they bear your burden. Help populate our world with heroes.

Be a burden!