I am interrupting my new-post hiatus to comment on the publicity surrounding the recent sad death of Brittany Maynard:
HER GAZE LOOKING OUT AT US from the cover of the October 6 People magazine could signify the dreams and desires of an up-and-coming young actress. But 29 year old Brittany Maynard is spending time in the pop-public spotlight because she announced her intention to take her own life at a certain time and a certain place for certain reasons. On November 1 she fulfilled her intention, and with the assistance of her family and a physician ended her life with an overdose of barbiturates.
PEOPLE MAGAZINE FACILITATED HER CELEBRITY with a six page spread of photos and personal interest info titled “Ending My Life—My Way”, tucked right in between a two page photo and PR puff piece of up-and-coming actress Emma Stone, and the tawdry sexual scandal of long-time actor Stephen Collins—the entertainment industry doing end-of-life issues in the only way they know how. The ironic result reads like a cross between the movie Network and the Onion news, and it is jarringly disconcerting and profoundly sad.
Two full page photo montages of Ms. Maynard’s life from infancy to honeymoon kayaking in Patagonia highlight the recounting of her discovery that she had a life-threatening, virtually untreatable brain tumor. Her condition deteriorated rapidly. She experienced excruciating headaches, seizures, mental lapses, and occasional loss of speech. The only treatment, radiation, could have left her blind and mentally impaired, and would perhaps have extended her life for only a few months. So she decided she would end her life with an overdose of barbiturates, assisted by her husband, mother, step-father, and best friend. Her family moved to Oregon, a state with “right-to-die” laws, to facilitate her decision. People reported that “Maynard says it’s easier to bear the pain now that she knows she is control. By making her decision, ‘I’m choosing to suffer less, to put myself and my family through less pain. It’s an enormous stress relief.’ “
I do not want to debate the morality of assisted suicide (though I do believe it’s wrong), discuss difficult and personal end-of-life issues, or even question Ms. Maynard’s motives—though it needs to be said that she welcomed the celebrity her plight brought her as a way to advocate for assisted suicide and “death with dignity.”
WHAT TROUBLES ME is People magazine’s attempt to create a celebratory mood in which death can be enclosed and controlled through personal choice. The article’s subtext is that this embrace of death is somehow actually life-affirming. When you wrap all this in the clothing of the celebrity-worshipping wing of popular culture, the dissonant effect of the article is like turning a funeral into a fashion show. The writer, Nicole Egan, tries to affect a serious tone, but the attempt falls flat in the midst of the glitz and glamour of the photo spread, and is finally defeated by the lack of any depth of understanding conveyed about the human existential encounter with death.
Popular culture has always celebrated surfaces and appearances, but also sometimes partook of the depth in serious art and inquiry. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was once “popular” culture; so was Handel’s Messiah. The difference now is that, while Medieval and Renaissance culture still embraced and enjoyed a “unity of vision” in which truth, beauty, and goodness were real and substantive, our Postmodern culture is left to play with the shreds left over after Modernity ripped up this vision bequeathed by both Classicism and Christendom (see Todd Gitlin’s analysis in “The Postmodern Predicament,” The Wilson Quarterly, 13 ). While it is still possible to find depth in popular treatments of human existential concerns—concerning grief and loss the movies Ordinary People, Tender Mercies, and Shadowlands come to mind—it has grown more difficult and the offerings are always fragmented.
THERE IS NO DEPTH ABOUT DEATH IN PEOPLE MAGAZINE’S ARTICLE, “Ending My Life—My Way”. I picked up the magazine at the grocery store check-out because the cover caught my eye: The bold headline “My Decision to Die” juxtaposed with a glossy picture of a young woman who looked like a celebrity actress gazing out at the reader—two fragments jammed together in a postmodern breccia. The outward appearance of style without substance was confirmed when I read the article. The clichéd talk of personal choice, control, a life with no regrets, death with dignity; the celebratory photo album; all wrapped in the ersatz romance and glamour of a pop-culture magazine.
I felt an unintended irony and sadness from reading this proud failure to give death the due we must give it. We do not—we cannot—defeat or even disarm death by brave declarations that are really denials. The bite, the sting, the crushing weight of our awareness and experience of death can’t be bundled up in a personal bucket list and discarded with anything resembling dignity. Death really is our enemy and death really does defeat us. As the popular playwright William Shakespeare once put it, “Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust” (Cymbeline, Act IV, Scene II). That is why the Apostle Paul’s declaration of the Gospel in the face of death really is good news. He repeatedly announces the victory over death through Jesus Christ: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25); “Death has been swallowed up in victory. . . . He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15: 54, 57). And thanks be to God that we do not have to write our own ending to our personal story, in which we vainly attempt to wrest peace and meaning from tragedy with platitudes and pluckiness. God has already written a much better ending to the story.
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