The world is a better place because Professor Stephen Hawkings did not kill himself. Diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21, and given a life expectancy of two years, no one would have failed to sympathise with his dilemma. But he defied all expectations and lived for a further 55 years with this vicious and debilitating disease. He passed away on 14 March 2018.
What did he do with this time? Rather than sit and sulk, and count down the days until his demise, he shared how his diagnosis inspired him to get serious with his post-graduate scientific research. In 1988 he published ‘a Brief History of Time’ which was a best-seller. He bought cosmology and quantum physics to the masses, who showed their appreciation through book sales reaching several millions. In 2014, the film ‘The Theory of Everything’, based on the memoirs of his first wife, Jane Wilde, was released, starring Eddie Redmayne who won an Oscar for his lead performance.
Beyond all his academic and literary achievements, his family with a wife and three children who survive him, it could be said that his ‘will to live’ was his biggest achievement and legacy to the world. He is quoted as saying, “Although I cannot move and have to speak through a computer, in my mind I’m free.”
Every day the death culture in which we live seems to dish up another account of tragically life-sapping proportions. I was saddened by the news that a perfectly healthy 89-year old British woman had her application for physician-assisted suicide at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland accepted for the simple reason that she no longer felt she fit in to this modern, digital age. Yet another healthy 85-year old from Italy despaired of ageing and losing her looks, and so saw fit to end her life in the same way. These cases illustrate that people can be vulnerable for all kinds of reasons – skewed thinking, social alienation – but what it boils down to in all cases may be a failure to value the most precious gift we humans have – life. It is truly an anomaly that so many seem to lose it prematurely, struggle to hold on to it in the face of certain death whilst others toss it away so casually.
It is common knowledge that human beings have biological needs for food, water, and clothing as well as emotional needs to feel loved and valued; but what is usually overlooked is the spiritual need for hope. Human beings need hope as a plant needs water if they are to feel life is worth living. This factor is especially necessary during the challenging times of life, and will determine that we endure until the happy times come again. Happiness is not a prolonged continuum but comes in fits and starts when you least expect it. You might derive happiness from a succulent taste on your tongue, a sweet scent or a pleasant memory. It may come unexpectedly and pass just as quickly.
Our life’s purpose is not to be invented but discovered because we were conceived in the mind of our Creator – an act suffused with purpose. Discovering that purpose is not always straightforward, but it is safe to assume it already exists. The Bible is a life-affirming book which makes it clear from the onset that God regards each life as valuable and that value derives from God-given purpose. We are told that “all things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16). It is not for us – God’s creation, to regard the life which He created (including ourselves) in a casual and indifferent way. The psalmist writes “I will praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
We can so easily fall into the trap of thinking that our life’s value is dependent on what we do, and what people think of us. For example, rich lists correlate peoples’ worth with their earnings. This attitude of being ‘self-made’ contradicts the inescapable truth that we do not will ourselves into existence. Something totally outside our limited understanding decided we should be conceived into existence a miracle indeed considering the overwhelming odds against conception. We are all walking miracles! It stands to reason therefore that since we did not determine the act or timing of our conception or birth, then why should wepresume to determine the type or timing of our own death. The journey of this earthly life is never easy and requires trusting the Creator from start to finish.
Yet, self-determination has become the order of the day. We are endlessly writing lists, planning our future and charting our own course. We cannot choose our own purpose, although many do try to chart their own course. The result is we can become prone to distress and disillusionment when things do not turn out the way we had planned. We can end up looking for meaning in many activities, achievements and relationships which were never meant to satisfy the deep longings of the human soul. If these things can make us happy, then it stands to reason that they also have the capacity to make us sad.
Many would agree that human life needs to be cherished from conception to its natural end. The Greek philosopher, Socrates, argued that human beings belonged to God, and therefore suicide was the destruction of God’s property. In his seminal work entitled The City of God, St. Augustine of Hippo made the logical case that the commandment “to love your neighbour as yourself” puts the “self” on par with the “neighbour”; consequently, whatever you wouldn’t do to your neighbour such as killing, you should also refrain from doing to yourself.
Today, the subject of suicide is no longer taboo. Prior to the revocation of section 1 of the Suicide Act 1967, suicide was against the law. Now the subject of suicide and assisted suicide hardly seems to raise an eyebrow. There have been many attempts to legalise assisted suicide in recent years in the UK. Although these attempts have failed so far, in the next parliamentary session a bill is likely to be introduced once again in the House of Lords. The view is now commonly held that those who kill themselves must be suffering from a mental or physical illness which so impairs their quality of life that life becomes unbearable. If suicide is made legal only in the case of terminal illness, this will surely be a slippery slope to allowing it on other grounds in the future.
Without knowing it, we have placed people in categories where some peoples’ lives are deemed more worthwhile than others. For example, those who are weak or disabled and who cannot contribute to society in the normal way, are regarded as a drain on society. Should such people decide to end their lives, this may not be deemed a great loss to society although the family and loved ones left behind will greatly mourn their absence. We easily forget the intangible qualities which people bring to their families and friendships. These cannot be adequately assessed in purely financial terms. Those who are contemplating suicide because they think their family and friends will be better off without them need to hear the survivors’ stories. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they are left with a never-ending trail of regret, sorrow and wounds which never heal. So much for the theory that our life is our own and has no impact on others! Society benefits from having to care for the weak, disabled and dependent because by so doing, we develop compassion and patience, and are reminded that we are inter-dependent beings meant to find our deepest satisfaction in communion with God and one another.
As we have seen with abortion and the delivery of poor elderly care, the erosion of the right to life always starts with the most vulnerable in society. Any barrier which is erected to stop such erosion must start with the foundation of the sanctity of human life without which human viability becomes subjected to the vagaries of human opinion. Such a society must be avoided at all costs.