Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
So wrote Dylan Thomas, thereby immotalising the death of his father. There is a longstanding association between the personal melancholia of artists and their creative fascination with death, whether seen through the lens of longing, fear, ambivalence, courage, despair, relief or some more complex commingling, with poetry acting as a powerful meidum for such thoughts. Frequently, however it is death in the form of suicide which prevails: Anne Sexton, like her friend and contemporary, Sylvia Plath, was prolific on the subject of suicide (which, eventually, they both committed). Eloquent and sharp, her poem Wanting to Die makes this observation:
But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.
By this logic, the need for death is obvious, predetermined: it goes without saying. But human beings are fragile, pain-filled creatures. There are few pleasant ways for us to die, and fewer still by our own hand. In the days of ancient Rome, suicide was a socially accepted practice, particularly when, as was often the case, staying alive would only provoke one mad emperor or another to kill you in a far more unpleasantly creative manner than slitting your wrists in a warm bath. Classic literature even romanticises the concept – Romeo and Juliet is the obvious example, but particularly in feudal Japan, love-suidice pacts were a tragic staple of Yoshiwara society. More recently, George Orwell’s 1984 created a whole new horror from the concept: a violent, inescapably totalitarian world in which even the freedom to die has been effectively withdrawn, forcing the populace to endure a life of brutality and fear.
Historically, the human reaction to suicide has been mixed. Judeo-Christian believers tend to respond in the negative, on the grounds that the act falls squarely within the definition of murder, which is a sin. Others view it as a human right or individual freedom, drawing a moral distinction between how we treat ourselves and how we should treat others. Either way, the concept of a situation in which anyone would want to die tends, rightly, to make us uncomfortable.
Which leads us to the problem of euthenasia, and what it means. Despite longstanding anecdotal evidence and social speculation, keeping a positive attitude makes no medical difference in fighting cancer, which, though true, undercuts an extremely powerful (and useful) instinct for suvival. Because human beings, though mortal, do not like to confront their own mortality. Implausible hope has a place in our universal pantheon: if nothing else, it keeps us sane, gives us strength and can, on occasion, help us hang on long enough for the cavalry to arrive. But it’s not a panacea, and at times, the easier, braver, more honest path is to accept the inevitable, the better to meet it gracefully. This latter point is held by euthenasia advocates, because once you have acknowledged that a painful death can’t be averted, unless you believe in the innate sinfulness of removing yourself from the world, there is a certain logic to ending matters peacefully, on your own terms.
Consider, then, the heart-wrenching case of Angelique Flowers, who died – violently, vomiting fecal matter – at the age of 31. Having suffered Crohne’s Disease for half her life, she was then diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer. She didn’t fear dying, but only the pain it would, inevitably, cause her. Before she died, Angelique devoted much of her time to exploring the possibility of euthenasia, which isn’t legal in Australia, and although she fultimately obtained a drug which would’ve allowed her to die peacefully, she chose not to use it: either through fear of repercussions for her family or a final change of heart, we’ll never know. But for me, the point of legalising euthenasia is choice: one which allows a greater scope for both dignity and courage. We do not jail those who attempt suicide and fail; neither should we punish the dying by demanding that they expire in a prolonged, painful fashion.
Because mercy is not always the same as a happy ending. Sometimes, it just means a lessened measure of grief.