In conversation recently with a Mennonite friend I expressed my dismay at a widely praised recent novel by Canadian Mennonite author Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows. “I went to school with Miriam,” he told me; “her father was my teacher, and a very good one.” He remembered her sister too, who like her father, committed suicide. In her novel Toews seeks to create something beautiful and true from this family tragedy, according to Macleans magazine. She writes of two sisters, one with her life in shambles through failed marriages and numerous affairs, the other a successful concert pianist with a devoted spouse, but determined to end her life. It is the novel’s presuppositions about suicide that are cause for dismay.
Toews expresses anger that some members of her Mennonite community declare in “sanctimonious sing song and with bland pat-a-cake faces” that suicide is evil. The novel sees it as tragic, but not evil. But is that true? The Christian tradition has always considered suicide a grievous sin, but even today’s secular community realizes that a suicide is more than a personal loss to a family. It is a threat to society. The idea that my body and my life are my own business and no one else’s has led to a staggering rise in the suicide rate and to the movement to legalize assisting it. Macleans wrote in 2012 about a small northern village that had buried 96 suicides in 20 years, mostly young people. Suicide has a terrible copycat effect, writes Katelyn Beaty in Christianity Today, citing atheist Jennifer Hecht, and is therefore a threat to any community. Is not such a threat an evil? It is not only Christianity that has traditionally seen human beings as being defined by their participation in community, and as more than totally free individuals. Society needs to protect community rights, not just individual rights.
Toews also makes clear that in her view the Christian community has absolutely nothing helpful to say to someone who is suicidal. When a pastor manages to get in to visit the hospitalized sister recovering from attempted suicide, the “creep” is shamed into leaving when the sister disrobes. The mother remains active in the church, but she never seems to address the question of faith. The two sisters ridicule any suggestion of religious advice.
But not only Christianity is mocked. The mental health care team is also an object of scorn. They have no time for a “nutcase” who refuses to cooperate with their treatment and regulations. They wrongfully assume that the patient needs their treatment, but the sister who wishes her sister to survive only desires that they keep her safe and the suicidal sister only desires to be set free. The mental health team is seen as the enemy.
The sole reason for trying to dissuade a person from suicide seems to be a selfish one, that you need that person, or others need what that person has to offer. And it is here that the tension arises in the novel. Dare others deny a clearly expressed desire for death by a loved one of sane mind? The sister distraught at losing her only sibling begins to realize that she must out of compassion renounce her own desire to keep her sister alive and seek means to assist her to die.
And it is here that I think a Christian might agree with the author’s presupposition. She finds it a totally mistaken notion that everyone who seeks death is mentally ill, a common view in our culture. Have not many of us at some time considered suicide, not because we were mentally ill, but for a multitude of reasons. As a youth I was enamoured of the dramatic exit of King Saul, Roman generals, Socrates, operatic and theatrical heroes. Suicide has a mystique about it if you can avoid the thought of remaining forever dead and not being an observer of the dramatic exit. And one thinks of it when there is serious illness or pain or loneliness or despair.
Toews believes one has a choice, a rational choice, about setting a limit to one’s life, or to assist one to die. But here is where a believer will choose a very different path. No matter what is going on in the life of a Christian or what fantasies may flit through the mind, never can a believer think he has such a choice. He may not know the Catechism’s “I am not my own but belong,” he always knows he has a master and that that master will have a word to say at his exit – “well done, servant,” or something else he could never bear to hear. Thus we join those outside the faith who realize that there is more to human converse than discrete individuals, and we resist society’s increasing acceptance of choosing death as one’s natural right..
But it is not only the awareness of life as a gift and of its being owned by God that prohibits our throwing it away. The master took the form of a servant himself, obedient unto death, and he asks us to take up a cross and follow him, the suffering servant who has come to establish God’s reign over all the earth. To act as though my life or my body is my concern and no one else’s is unthinkable for any one taught by the Word of God. Christians are called to be responsible participants in the new community of the Kingdom of God, always there for others as they are there for us. To choose death is not to love my neighbour but to deny him. In gratitude for the way of suffering the master took for us, we follow like the apostles the way he points out to us lest we deny his merciful choice that we may walk with him in his suffering and be raised to his glory.
Suicide may seem a rational choice for one in pain, for one whose messed up life seems to lead nowhere, for one simply weary of our age’s empty treadmill of fun and games. But those called into the body of the Lord will call to others to hear his promise by their word of witness and acceptance of life’s sorrows. We who are called to eternal life can bear no other message and give no other assistance than that which leads to life, not death.
Dying with Dignity Canada's tagline is "It's your life. It's your choice." What do you think? Does that tagline speak the truth?