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Life, Death, and Purpose

Life, Death, and Purpose

A former athlete insists that the most wonderful thing that ever happened to him was the swimming accident that left him a quadriplegic.


If you are mentally ill, there's a month-long waiting period before your request to be killed will be honored by Dignitas. If you're mentally sound, though, the Swiss organization can arrange for you to be dead within a week.

Switzerland's law permits assisted suicide.

So, for the moment, does Oregon's.

Though the Bush administration is asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to strike down that state's voter-approved Death With Dignity Act, a federal judge in Portland has blocked the government from punishing Oregon doctors for helping patients die.

An American-born man who would have once eagerly taken advantage of a law permitting assisted suicide had one existed many years ago, currently lives in Jerusalem. Today, however, he insists that the most wonderful thing that ever happened to him was the swimming accident that left him a quadriplegic.

His story came to me via a well-known and respected head of a Jerusalem yeshiva. The handicapped man was a personal acquaintance and had told the rabbi how the first 20-odd years of his life were spent cultivating an athletic physique, honing muscles to perform at their optimum -- and how his fateful accident had seemed at the time more devastating than death itself.

A graceful athlete mere moments earlier, he was now unable to move in any useful way, barred by an obstinate spinal cord and an army of oblivious neurons from playing ball or swimming laps, from eating or attending to his bodily needs -- even from so much as scratching an itch -- on his own.

He could not, he discovered, even kill himself without assistance, which he desperately tried to garner, to no avail.

Pushed decisively away from a universe of action, he entered one of mind.

Frustrated by his inability to, so to speak, check out, he began to turn in -- inward, to a world of thought and ideas. Pushed decisively away from a universe of action, he entered one of mind.

If life is indeed now worthless, he wondered with newfound seriousness, then had running and jumping and swimming and scratching literal and figurative itches really been all that defined its meaning before?

That quandary, and pursuant ones, led the wheelchair-bound ponderer to contemplate the very meaning of creation itself and -- to make a long and arduous journey of self-discovery seem misleadingly trite -- he came to conclude that spirituality is the key to meaningful existence. He was then led to his forefathers' faith, what has come of late to be called Orthodox Judaism, and it is in the multifaceted realm of intense Jewish observance and study that he thrives to this day.

Most remarkable, though, was his auxiliary and inescapable realization -- that had he not suffered his paralysis, he would never have thought to consider the things that led him to his new, cherished life.

Whether laws like Oregon's that permit physician-assisted suicide will be able to withstand the federal government's conviction that they are illegal will likely turn on things like judicial understandings of states' rights.

But the more trenchant concept that inheres in any consideration of assisted suicide is "quality of life." Are some lives, the question essentially goes, to be considered less valuable, less meaningful, less purposeful and hence less worthy of society's protection than others?

Legislators and judges facing the issue will contemplate many questions, but none of more enormity than whether American society is ready to define what makes life worth living, and to act on such definition by allowing ill and depressed people to enlist the help of doctors to make corpses of themselves.

Men and women in extremis often find themselves facing the question of life' s meaning. Not all of us at the end of journeys through this mortal coil will experience epiphanies, but we all have the potential to be so blessed. And many of us, even if immobile, in pain and without hope of recovery, might still engage important matters -- like forgiveness, repentance, acceptance, commitment, love, God -- perhaps the most momentous matters we will ever have considered.

And so, as the host of legal and moral issues involved in the issue of assisted suicide are considered in judicial chambers and legislature halls, we would all do well to contemplate, too, the edifying story of a once-promising swimmer living a largely inactive but truly full life in Jerusalem.

February 8, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Anonymous, February 17, 2003 12:00 AM

I disagree with Sara's comments

Sara, as someone who is intimately familiar with the suffering of someone who had terminal cancer, I disagree with your comments. The problem is that most physicians today are simply not trained in pain management. Fortunately albeit slowly, the medical community is waking up to this fact and finding effective ways to treat pain. There is no reason a terminally ill person should have to suffer pain, there ARE ways that this can be addressed. I will never forget when my father a'h was suffering so terribly at the end, the nurses would not give him more pain medication because "he might become addicted." This was a few days before he died! Thankfully things have improved in treating pain but we still have a long way to go.

(4) Anonymous, February 13, 2003 12:00 AM

In reference to one who is sick and suffering...

(to Sara's comment below)
Even if someone is sick and suffering, God forbid, it is not within our limited knowlege to take his/her life. There have been stories where one who was on the verge of death and in great pain, has miraculously recovered: Would you like to be responsible for his/her remaining years? But whatever the case, only God knows how long each one should live and his/her purpose. Perhaps those last seconds of pain can be a way of rectifying for that person in this world so that he/she can gain so much more pleasure in the next world. It is not for us to decide -we see so little of the whole picture.
May we never have to come to this.

(3) Belle Plummer, February 10, 2003 12:00 AM

we should all act with love

This story focuses on the disabled athlete. Let me add that all disabled people feel isolated and this sense of isolation covers everything from their medical/financial needs to their human/personal needs. but they are isolated by their physical incapacity and society's studied blindness. If all of us awoke to our responsibilities, to even make the phone call or drop in on the neighbor, we would not have the need for "assisted suicide"

(2) sara, February 10, 2003 12:00 AM

it deppends

You are right, but those, are the rare ocassions in which a person thinks outside his body, but when you have a family member with cancer and you tried to do wathever is possible to keep that person alife, and that person only thinks on dying because he or she is tormented with such illness, and there is nothing to do, no medicine, no treatmen (most of the time, worse than the illness itself), you should let go, dont be selfish.

(1) Anonymous, February 9, 2003 12:00 AM


Bingo! Thank you for pulling apart the Qs and the issues so simply and articulately. I hope many others read this important article.

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