With the recent Me Before You best-seller and movie which focuses on the topic of assisted suicide, I thought it might be helpful to take a second to address the topic.
First off, this article by Stephanie Gray is well-worth a minute of your time. She talks about how Louisa came from a family that put others first, a “You before Me” philosophy of life where each made sacrifices to love and serve another (this is a great thing). Will’s family, however, has a “Me before You” philosophy—putting their own interests first—this is a horrible thing. (Side note—this is more obvious in the book than it is in the movie.) She also explains how Will’s suicide is a result of his “Me before You” mentality. (She also touches on the idea of euthanasia.) It’s short, but potent.
Also, here is an article I wrote earlier on the book/movie – discussing some of the pros and cons of the story.
Let’s take a moment though to look a little deeper at the concept of assisted suicide or euthanasia. Is it wrong? That depends entirely on what you believe about the purpose of life. If our purpose on earth is simply to derive as much pleasure as possible, if it’s only to be happy (as the book implies), then maybe suicide makes sense. The problem with that is two-fold. First off, pleasure and happiness are changing things. They come and go…and then come again. Will even found happiness with Louisa, despite his circumstances, but was basing his decision off of what would mostly likely happen. He was worrying about what was to come. He wanted to die before things got bad. So the argument that he should have been able to die because he wasn’t happy doesn’t really hold up in this case. He was happy. That’s not why he wanted to die. He wanted to die because he was afraid of what might come. But, for argument’s sake, let’s say it was about happiness. He agreed to wait for 6 months in case he changed his mind and things got better. (They did get better, but it didn’t matter… but that’s not my point.) Who can put a time limit on how long it takes for things to improve? What if after 6 months things were still bad, but in 7 months he would find supreme happiness? Or what if in a few years’ time there would be a cure to his disability and he would get his life back? What if he could be promised he would learn to love his life again in 10 years’ time? Would it be worth waiting any period of time for happiness to return? The thing is, we don’t know the future, but countless people who have endured horrific things will tell you that in time, life does come back, and with it happiness.
The second problem I see with the rationale that assisted suicide is viable by argument of a pursuit of happiness is that I disagree that the pursuit of happiness is our highest purpose. Happiness is elusive. It’s best not sought but caught. What I mean is, we get surprised by happiness when we stop searching for it. It’s like catching a butterfly—hard to catch, but if you just sit still, it often comes to you. When we pursue meaning and purpose with our lives, happiness comes as a by-product. No wonder Will was so miserable. He had no purpose other than his own pursuit of pleasure (until he met Louisa, at which time he found happiness again). His problem wasn’t his wheelchair but his lack of meaning in life. When we seek to serve others with our lives, we discover that sometimes our greatest sorrows and trials become the best vehicles to do so. Just consider Joni Eareckson Tada who was herself rendered a quadriplegic from a diving accident. Or Nick Vujicic who was born without limbs. Their struggles have become their greatest opportunities… and given their lives meaning and purpose as they seek to help encourage others. Amazing.
Of course, if we believe in Jesus, we have even greater reason to believe our lives have purpose. We all long for this anyway, but the Bible tells us it’s true. It tells us that God created us with a purpose and even gives us a promise that He can work any and everything, (even horrific accidents that leave us incapacitated,) for our good, if only we let Him. As long as we still have breath, then we still have a purpose on this earth. Consider what Paul said, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” (Philippians 4:11-13). This from a man who suffered beatings and imprisonment and torture. We hear “I can do all things” quoted all the time, but the context here isn’t just about going out and doing something awesome, like running a marathon or losing weight or publishing a book… It’s about being able to be content in all things. Finding purpose and choosing contentment from a wheelchair, that’s one of those really difficult “all things” Christ enables us to do. There’s no room for suicide in Paul’s line of thinking, because Jesus enables him to face any situation with contentment. And because Paul knows that everything can be used for good. He does well, then praise Jesus! He gets beat, then He identifies with Jesus in suffering, and God is glorified…Praise Jesus again! Everything is win-win with Jesus.
Paul also writes that, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). This means that as long as we have breath, God still has good things for us to do with our lives. He still has a purpose for us. We need only look for it. And if we can’t find it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Sometimes we only discover after the fact that God was using our lives and our example to encourage and inspire others. Just because we can’t see a purpose, doesn’t mean God isn’t still using us to His purposes. To choose to die through suicide is to say that we know better than God about the use of our life.
In the end, Will didn’t want to die because of his injury. He wanted to die because of fear. He was afraid of the pain and suffering he would inevitably face. He was afraid that he would hold Louisa back if she stayed with him. He didn’t quite say so, but I dare say he was afraid she’d leave him as his previous girlfriend had done. And I have no doubt these are common thoughts and fears for someone in Will’s situation. Will’s death was a twisted pursuit of purpose, in some ways. He died to set her free from loving him. Back to that “me before you” mentality, he felt Louisa’s sacrifices for her family had held her back in life, and he wanted to set her free to pursue her own dreams. He didn’t want her to put others first, not even himself. He wanted to set her free to put herself first for a change. This sounds really self-less, but it’s misplaced and it’s proud. He didn’t give her a choice in the matter. He didn’t consider her wishes or desires. Selfish. It was what HE wanted, to do things on “his terms.” He sounded like he was putting her first, but he was still putting himself first. Part of that was because he didn’t like being served. It’s takes a lot of humility to receive and to let yourself be served by others. It can feel like we are being selfish when we let others do things for us, but really we are giving them a gift. We are letting them love us and we are giving them the opportunity to be like Christ.
Will thought that it would harm Louisa and her future if she stayed to serve and care for him. But look at what the Bible says about serving people.
But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,[a] 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave[b] of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-25).
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7).
“Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered” (Proverbs 11:25)
When someone is in a position like Will’s, where they need constant care, it’s tempting for them to think they are a burden to others. In some ways they are, of course. That doesn’t mean it’s a burden that should be removed. Burdens can make us stronger. They can develop Christ-likeness in us. They can give opportunity to demonstrate love. And, when we choose to serve and bless someone who is a “burden” to us, we have this promise that we will be enriched in return. We get what we give. We care for others and we receive care ourselves. Certainly we see this in Lou’s case. She was a blessing to Will and his family, and received much blessing and care in return. Yes, Will blessed her with money in his will and through his death, but had he lived, he might have been a much bigger blessing to her over a much longer period of time. His selfishness robbed her of that. When someone thinks their death will bless those around them, it’s a wrong way of seeing things.
There is another big, practical problem with the concept of Euthanasia. It’s a slippery slope. How do you decide when it’s ok and when it’s not? If Will gets to die because he’s miserable facing life as a quadriplegic, then what about someone who has cancer? Or what about someone who is depressed? Or someone who’s child died, or whose parent died? What about someone whose girlfriend or boyfriend broke up with them? Do you see the problem? If Will gets to die because he’s unhappy, then what about other unhappy people? When is someone miserable enough that it’s actually OK for them to kill themselves (or for us to help them)? There’s no boundary here. It’s a crazy slippery slope. And once we open that door, we are planting thoughts, small little seeds into people’s minds. Instead of assuming they will face whatever comes and find a way through it, they begin to think they shouldn’t have to face it… The very idea undermines people’s strength, the very thing they need most in trying times.
This is a huge reason why I’m concerned about the government getting involved in the issue. The moment something becomes legalized, it changes how we think about it. Why we would assume something is OK just because a politician says it is, is a mystery, but it’s also a reality. The moment something’s no longer legally wrong, we are in danger of losing our conviction that it is morally wrong. Maybe not individually, but collectively as a society. A lot of people who wouldn’t consider assisted suicide if it was illegal will suddenly see no reason not to consider it. I don’t know that I think the government should have any say in the matter, (I’m not a big government proponent), but I definitely have great concern about the consequences if such a thing is legalized. Not to mention that our tax money could then go to support it, and any other number of complications.
It is perhaps ironic that Will, who chose to end his life, does the best job of encouraging Louisa to make the most of hers. “You only get one life. It’s your duty to live it as fully as possible.” Our lives are a gift. The thing is, it’s not only a gift when we have an able-body. It’s a gift when we have breath. Will was right to see Lou’s life as a gift, but he was wrong to think his life was no longer a gift because his body was no longer as able. He still had a mind and a voice and a heart. I can’t help but think about Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything where he, too, faced certain and debilitating health issues. He knew he would become incapacitated and suffer…to a greater degree even than Will. But he chose to live. He didn’t focus on what he was losing but on what he still had, a good mind. He chose to marry and have children and work and live life to the fullest he was capable of. Beautiful.
The grass isn’t greenest on the other side. It’s greenest where it’s watered. The problem with the concept of euthanasia / suicide / assisted suicide… is that it means the person has chosen to stop watering their grass. They don’t see their life as a gift from God. Quite the opposite, they are rejecting God’s gift along with His ability to do something good with it.