The only thing that makes a story worth telling is the underlying and fundamental certainty that life is worth living.

Now in its fifth season, the incredibly popular TV show The Walking Dead is the story of human life after a “zombie apocalypse.” At first, the story seems to be just a strange series about undead monsters and the humans who are fleeing from and fighting them. But as the series has progressed, the real story has much more significance. It is not just about gruesome zombies or human bandits, it is all about the question: is life worth living?

One of the show’s frustrations is also its key to greatness: every time the human protagonists catch a break, their good fortune doesn’t last long and the bottom seems to drop out from beneath them. And yet they keep struggling… they keep walking. Even when it seems like there is no obvious “destination” for them, they know that they have to keep moving forward; they have to keep living.

All of the characters have had their normal lives completely disrupted. Most of the people they loved have died. Every single one of them suffers on a daily basis in a world they have not created and in which they have not chosen to live. And yet, they choose to fight. They choose to engage with the life they have.

They do this because of the fundamental principle that is the basis every human story: life is worth living.

Think of any great story. Every one of them is built upon this premise. If they weren’t, there is no real conflict; instead of fighting courageously when one encounters overwhelming odds or faces an impossible situation, the characters would simply die. The reasonable thing would be to take matters into one’s own hands and end one’s life. If they’re going to die eventually, why not simply face death on one’s own terms?

Because life is worth living.

Ending It

At this moment, a 29 year-old woman named Brittany Maynard is preparing to die on November 1, 2014. She is planning to end her own life by self-administering a lethal dose of medication. Brittany has terminal cancer, and experiences pain and suffering on a moment to moment basis. Because of this, she has moved from her home state of California to Oregon so that she will be legally allowed to kill herself.

Since she made known her decision to end her life, it has sparked many people into thinking about this issue.

Actually, on second thought… I don’t believe that too many people are actually thinking about this issue. I think that many of them are “feeling” about this issue.

We see this beautiful young woman and hear about her wedding and learn of her pain…and we feel compassion. We feel so sorry for this woman whose life has been entirely disrupted. In doing this, we are being human. It is human for us to feel such compassion for Brittany (and anyone else in pain). And it is natural that we don’t want her to suffer any more. If there is a way that her pain can be taken away, wouldn’t that be better than for her to needlessly endure?

We Are Not Animals

But to agree that ending her life is the solution is decidedly “un-human.” That is what we do with animals when they are in pain. If you’ve ever had to “put down” a beloved pet you know how heartbreaking it is.

There is a real difference between a human being and any other kind of animal. Because we are human, we don’t merely experience pain… we can also “suffer.” Suffering is only possible when you are aware that you are suffering. People are aware when they are suffering; animals do not have the same self-awareness. A human being can look up from their battle and ask “Why?” An animal doesn’t ask this question. This makes human suffering exponentially worse than animal suffering… but also exponentially more meaningful.

There is something in us that recognizes that human suffering, while evil, is worth it. We intrinsically know that life is worth living. When we see someone endure suffering heroically, even if it costs them everything, we see human dignity in action. It is the reason why we cheer for those who are willing to face unstoppable odds. It is the reason we love heroes…they remind us that life is worth fighting for. They remind us that there is more to this life.

As Christians, we know that suffering is not worst thing. Yes, if all there is in this universe is the material world (no soul, no spirit, no God), then the worst possible evil is suffering. But we know that there is more to this life than what we can immediately see.

Dignity is not found in taking one’s own life, but in facing the challenge well. Compassion is not helping another person to end their own life, but in caring for them in their weakness and pain.

Another Girl’s Choice

I’ve only been to Italy twice, but the very first time I was there, I remember walking into one of the many random churches in Rome. I was startled to see, among the classic paintings and statues in marble, a side alcove which featured a photograph of a young woman. Surrounding the photograph was an abundance of notes and pictures indicating how this girl’s life had affected countless individuals. The girl was an Italian teenager named Chiara Badano, and she was declared “Blessed” in 2010. Like Brittany, she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

chiara-luce-badano-teen

In 1988, when she was only 17, the advancement of her bone cancer left her paralyzed and in bed. This beautiful young woman had been an athlete and loved to dance, but she was confined for her last two years to a body that wouldn’t obey her. Her cancer left in almost constant agony, but she refused to take any painkillers. She said that they made it more difficult for her to focus, and “there’s only one thing I can do now: to offer my suffering to Jesus because I want to share as much as possible in his sufferings on the cross.”

Blessed Chiara faced the last years and months and moments of her life with the confidence that her suffering was not meaningless. She was confident that her life was not meaningless. Chiara had encountered the person of Jesus Christ, and in discovering the love of God, her life was transformed. Her life was not pointless, and her illness was not merely evil, it had the ability to draw her even more deeply into life and into the mission of God himself. She had met the God who entered deeply into human suffering and had redeemed it.

More Than Just Pain

Jesus has given human suffering a power and a purpose. Jesus reveals that all life, even the most painful and broken life, has the ability to make a difference in this world. When Blessed Chiara had given away every thing that she had and was unable to hardly speak, much less move, she stated, “I have nothing left, but I still have my heart, and with that I can always love.”

The only difference between Brittany and Chiara is the knowledge that life is worth living, because all human life, no matter how seemingly painful or insignificant, has been redeemed by the life and death of Jesus. In the end, Jesus died. And in the end, Chiara died. But the truth is: that wasn’t the end. There is more to this life than many of us realize.

We have truly lost our way if we equate the term “care” with “assisted suicide.” For as long as medicine has existed, there have been strict rules for those charged with the responsibility to care for the suffering the first of those rules is: “Do no harm.” How have we lost this first of commissions?

We have forgotten what it is to be a human being.

Our culture has exchanged a “Sanctity of Life” ethic for a “Quality of Life” ethic. In doing so, we have positioned ourselves to rate a person’s worth based off of our perceived quality of their life. We think, “I wouldn’t want to have to live like that” and in our fear, we forget the truth: life is worth living.

Brittany is not a villain. She is our sister who is in incredible pain. I do not condemn her even though I believe her actions are wrong. I can relate to her struggle more than anything. I think that we hear about Brittany and we are afraid. “What if it was me? What would I do? Would I be strong enough to die well?”…

But this is where a heroic life could be made. “Death with dignity” does not mean dying like an animal; it means dying like a human being; with untold worth and courage. Not taking one’s own life, but living it out until the end of the story. Blessed Chiara died two days before Brittany is planning to take her life… Blessed Chiara, pray for Brittany… and for us!

About the Author

Fr. Mike Schmitz

I'm the director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and the chaplain for Newman Catholic Campus Ministry at the University of Minnesota—Duluth. Every Sunday at Mass I record my homilies; if you want to listen they're on bulldogcatholic.org or iTunes.

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