Death is inconceivable. I am not saying it does not happen all around us every day. But we cannot conceive of death. Life forces propel us through space and time: We see others die, and know we, too, shall meet an end. But the mind reels. It is a living, adaptive instrument. The instinct for survival recoils in the face of extinction.
So I call Christina Symanski a dark sort of heroine. She died late last year, after deciding to starve herself to death.
We don’t normally praise the suicide. Our law is steeped in fictions holding that self-destruction is always irrational, the product of a diseased mind. Threaten to kill yourself, and the state can swoop in, seize you, medicate you, and hospitalize you against your will. I suppose that’s a good thing in most cases.
But Ms. Symanski’s case was not routine. She spent six years trapped in a body that did not work. At 25, she dove into a shallow pool, emerging crippled for life. For six years, she fought against the bars of her new prison. Late last year, she wrote, by means of one of the endless series of devices that sought to keep her tethered to the world the rest of us take for granted: "I have come to the point in my own life where I’m struggling with the question, `Is this life worth living for ME, or am I just prolonging my own suffering?"
It is against the law in almost every state of the union to help a person end their own life. So Symanski considered moving to Oregon, which allows physician-assisted suicide in some cases. But she did not move. She remained in New Jersey, researching how to end her own life in a way that would not implicate others in a crime or otherwise require them to engage in acts with which they fundamentally disagreed. Her family, understandably, did not want her to die. They grieve her loss all over again now.
Those who regard life itself as a gift from God have every reason to disapprove of Ms. Symanski’s choice. Who is the pot to say to the potter, why maketh me so? Those convinced that the world of apparent chance and circumstance reflects some larger purpose are right to faithfully play their part in the drama of being.
But those of us who live in a silent universe bounded only by the inchoate drives of our species ought also to have the right to make different sorts of choices. I may not regard life as a divine gift, and I must concede it not the product of my will. I find myself in this world, the sum of experiences, choices and factors well beyond my ken. What state has the right to require me to serve these unseen masters to a bitter end?
A close relative struggles now at the end of a long life with gathering dementia. My wife and I watch her evaporate with a growing sense of horror. We fear death less than endless suffering. Whether rightly or wrongly, our choice, our hope, is that when our springs are so encrusted with rust that life’s bounce is mere agony, our loved ones will stop the senseless ritual of oiling a machine that no longer works. We have these discussions like two convicts planning an impossible escape. The state says we must be mined of every last moment.
Ms. Symanski is a heroine in my eyes because she refused to be a slave to necessity. She read the syllogism. All mortals must die. She was a mortal. Therefore she must die. And when her life became a burden she could no longer bear, she ended it.
I am uncomfortable writing these words. The instinct for survival is all there is, I am afraid. Threaten me with extinction, and I will strike back with all that I have. I cannot conceive of what happens after death: instinct, desire and hope are all I know. But I can imagine a world in which I have nothing left with which to fight the inevitable. Whatever claims reason has as a tool adapted for survival, experience teaches that no one lives forever. In the end, we are all Christina Symanski. Few of us have the courage to face things with as clear an eye, however.
I write today healthy and full of life. That can change in an instant. I know this and I am forever on my guard. And I am angry at friends who have ended their own lives, feeling they took something from me I was not prepared to give. This dance along the line dividing hope and despair is, simply, life. Ms. Symanksi’s is over. It a choice she made. Somehow that seems right.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.