Friday, July 20, 2012


In the last article I posted (July 4) I mentioned that I had been working with the archdiocese of Boston on its educational campaign opposing doctor-prescribed suicide, an initiative that will appear on the November ballot here in Massachusetts…this year…for starters. If you think that this concerns only the Bay State, or that it’s a matter of “privacy” with no bearing on public policy, you might want to scroll down to that article before you read another word of this one.

That said, the issue does have its personal, if not exclusively private side. That’s what we explored in our reflection/movie/prayer sessions in seven parishes, where a total of 89 of us gathered to understand its “human” side: its spiritual, psychological, and social aspects.
One day over lunch, I told several sisters I had been thinking of using Scripture and film to do this and asked for their suggestions. Sr. Christina Miriam must have been inspired, because the HBO movie she came up with was perfect: Wit.

Emma Thompson plays Vivian Bearing, an “uncompromising” scholar of John Donne’s poetry. Independent to the point of isolation, Professor Bearing has become self-sufficient and even arrogant. At the age of 48, she is diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. She agrees to collaborate with medical research by submitting to eight months of chemotherapy. As she declines physically, she gradually “distinguishes herself in illness,” becomes “the one taught,” and is gradually freed from identifying her person with her professional self-image. She becomes the human being she was meant to be and so—we are led to believe—finds peace in God who never lets go.

The movie never mentions suicide, but every scene pulses with a human value that’s a major motivation both for those who go that route and those who choose life: dignity. Clearly, then, it’s a key dynamic in the current debate.

This past April, the Health Department of Washington State, where doctor-prescribed suicide is legal, issued its “Annual Death With Dignity Report” for 2011. Look at the reasons cited by the 94 people who died last year after opting to end their lives.

End-of-life concerns of those who died in 2011 in Washington State
Loss of the ability to participate in activities that
   make life enjoyable                                                          89 %
Loss of autonomy                                                                 87 %
Loss of dignity                                                                     79 %
Loss of control of bodily functions                                          57%
Burden on family, friends/caregivers                                      54%
Inadequate pain control  or concern about it                           38%
Financial implications of treatment                                          4%

Unlike laws about seat belt use, or allocation of tax revenue, this issue reaches deep within us to the core of how we perceive ourselves as persons and what we understand about our dignity as persons. As we met with people in parishes over Scripture and Wit, we all struggled with this. Morality notwithstanding, if viewers allowed themselves to remain with the surface narrative of the film—Vivian’s journey toward death—they could easily argue a case for taking their lives: Who wants to go through what she did? That narrative, though, offered us a portal for going to a deeper level: What do we deprive ourselves of becoming if we abbreviate the experience, despite the ordeal? What growth? What reconciliations? What relationships, including one with God? Vivian observed that she was “learning how to suffer.” Instead of standing apart from the rest of humanity as she had been doing, she identified with them and so, paradoxically found her true self. Not unlike real people.

Even more: The perception out there is that the Catholic Church insists on using every means available for prolonging life, regardless of expense, suffering, or indignity. So— many people reason—the only option for maintaining any kind of control over our lives is to decide how and when to end them. Nothing could be further from the truth! If Vivian made any mistake in her care, it was her decision to “leave the action to the professionals,” even regarding the management of her pain. She had already requested a Do Not Resuscitate order (DNR). Why not express her will regarding her treatment? As Pope John Paul declared to his physicians pending the course of his care, he was a “subject, not an object” of treatment; he expected to be in the driver’s seat. The movie highlights failure on several levels to provide the patient with adequate palliative care and underscores the need for everyone to have a health care advocate or proxy to ensure respect for his or her personal wishes.

As anyone who has spent a night in the hospital can tell you, you are definitely at the mercy of schedules, policies, and your disease itself—plenty to relinquish control over, plenty of indignities to endure. Why add to them unnecessarily? I’ve been touched by the dark faith of one of our senior sisters who lives with dementia. When it came to choosing Scripture passages to pray with at these movie nights, I ended up pairing the film with the Word she’s been quoting to us recently:
“Jesus said to Simon Peter,… ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, ‘Follow me’” (Jn. 21:15, 18-19).
Sr. Sean Mayer, FSP, and participants, Peabody, MA
The people I met with easily connected this text to Vivian Bearing’s experience and their own. It gives a fresh perspective to our common experience, as St. Paul understood well: “In all this we are more than conquerors because of [Christ] who has loved us” (Rom. 8:37). It takes trust and discernment all along the way. “Lord, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

As I mentioned before, most participants took the booklet To Life! Life and Death With Dignity Through Scripture and Screen, to use at home. It allows them to repeat the encounter through additional films and apply the educational experience to children, teens, and other adults. The idea was to extend the benefits of the group session among family and friends. The beauty is that no one has to be a media “expert” to profit from it. It’s a simple way to connect faith with media culture.*

Wit cleverly exploits the poetry of John Donne to shed light on Vivian Bearing’s inner journey and struggle for dignity. At the forefront is his sonnet “Death, Be Not Proud.” It’s short enough and relevant enough to include here in its entirety:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die.
In a flashback moment, Professor Bearing admiringly recalls how her own teacher and mentor, Eve M. Ashford, upbraided her for having referenced an inferior version of the poem and so, missed its point.
Ashford: Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause. This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.
Vivian: Life, death...I see. It’s a metaphysical conceit. It’s wit! I’ll go back to the library and rewrite the paper—
Ashford: It is not wit, Miss Bearing. It is truth….
Our postulants had their own workshop/movie session.
Like Paul who taunted, “Death, where is your victory? Oh death, where is your sting?” Donne chops death down to size by reminding it of its transitory nature and of the company it keeps. Instead, in suicide it takes on a mistaken identity. If we think that death rescues us from fear and pain—a fate worse than death?—we give it a power it does not have, a prestige it does not merit. In effect we say, “Yes, Death (“capital D”), be proud! You have saved me!”

Really, what does it mean to die with dignity? A question I sometimes asked participants was, “Did Jesus die with dignity?” The initial response was a resounding “No!” Then as they reconsidered, they weren’t so sure. Is it the circumstances surrounding death that determine a dignified passing, or the way it’s faced? When we look at the passion narrative in the Gospel according to John especially, Jesus is clearly in charge. He unflinchingly carries his kingship and control, sure of his Father’s love even when he no longer feels it. Go through chapters 18 and 19; you’ll see what I mean. His dignity in death is ours for the asking.

Dignity is not what we give each other, but is something human beings possess inherently within themselves. The respectful way we treat others acknowledges that dignity and can go a long way in helping them to recognize their worth, but nothing we do can add to that dignity or take away from it. In addition, a person’s dignity is eroded not by what is done to him or her, but by the choices she or he makes (cf. Mt. 15:11). While it is championed by believers, this is a principle that those of other faiths or of no faith can agree on. In fact, society has an obligation to ensure that its structures affirm each person’s dignity, too, so that people can live in keeping with it.

Regardless of how the November vote turns out, “death with dignity” will not be a one-time issue, soon to be replaced by other ethical dilemmas. How we respond to society in general will be shaped by how we respond to family, neighbors, colleagues, and friends as we share with them our vision of human dignity. For some of us that will come at the “comma” between life and life everlasting—ours or someone else’s. What insight faith can give at that point! What life!

*Interested in a digital copy of the family/friend booklet, To Life! as well as the guide for our conversation on Wit? E-mail me your request at

1 comment:

  1. Dear Sr. Margaret,

    Your July 20, 2012 post In-Dignity is beautifully written with a gentle guided tour of end-of-life issues.

    Thank you for clearly presenting the story of Emma Thompson's character - the challenges as well as her mentor having challenged her to see John Donne's poem in a different light. *~Death, br not proud.~* The poem is a masterpiece. Over the years I have read it many times, and am sure it is in one of my many books on grief, but it would take me forever to recall which.

    I'm going to attempt to print your article, and if that is possible, might use it a "bookmark," and not exclusively accessible on-line. A great deal of your comments should be read again, and certainly deserve time in contemplation.

    I would very much like to take you up on your offer of a digital copy of the booklet: To Life and also the guide for conversaion on Wit.

    Jesus is my Lord and my God.
    Mary, Queem of Apostles, I ask that you embrace all in the Pauline Family.

    Carol Anne Wright


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