My girlfriend moved in with Chris in the fall of 1999. Chris was dying of cancer. And she decided to live out her days at home. In addition to the nursing care that she was receiving, she wanted the regular company of someone she knew well that could also help her take care of day-to-day things. Jennie, who is now my wife, was that person. She had known Chris all of her life.
One night that fall, I was staying over. I was drunk. Sick drunk. As the evening’s mistakes were launching from my guts, I heard what I thought was an echo. But I soon realized that it was Chris in another restroom. She was throwing up too but for a very different reason.
The next morning, I felt awful. I went into the kitchen to get some coffee and was greeted by Chris with a smile and an embrace. “It’s nice to see you. I’m so glad you are here.” I have to admit that the first thought that went through my mind was unkind – what the hell is wrong with this woman? How could she be so pleasant when she is so sick?
Two months later Chris was dead. In spite of the pain, the loss, and the concern for those who would remain – she lived with dignity until her last breath. Her faith in God not only survived the attack of her illness, it strengthened. Her kindness not only endured but seemed to emanate effortlessly. She did not grow bitter. And she also did not become fake. She had an infant grandson and it grieved her deeply that she would miss so much and that Lucas would live without personally knowing his grandmother.
When I heard the story of Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her life on November 1st, 2014 and her decision to leverage this choice to champion the ‘dying with dignity’ cause, my thoughts immediately went to Chris and my heart sunk. What if she had decided to end her life earlier? What if she had concluded that her sickness and pain would so diminish her dignity that dying would be preferable? It’s hard to say, of course, but I’m certain the impact that she had on me and many of others would not have been so complete.
In the video that Brittany and her family posted on YouTube, her mother describes Brittany as “a very autonomous, bright, well-read, well-traveled person who loves adventure.” The implication of this phrase is that as Brittany’s cancer robs her of these attributes, it will also steal her dignity. And so the appeal is made to allow anyone in her situation the right to die with as many ‘dignified’ attributes as possible.
Since Brittany moved to Oregon, she has the opportunity to legally carry out her intentions. The video is a promotion to raise awareness and funds so that more states will adopt similar ‘dying with dignity’ laws. The thing is: you cannot die with dignity by hastening your demise to avoid losing attributes that never determined your dignity in the first place.
Human dignity is not contingent on health, self-reliance, intelligence, or beauty. It does not fly away in the face of pain or loss. Dignity is an intrinsic part of what it means to be a human being. And it is arguably the most important aspect of our humanity. It is not self-generated. Dignity is 100% a gift from God. Our task in life is to embrace our deep value, to live fully with our dignity, and to bring honor to the one who gave us this precious, unmerited gift.
Brittany’s choice is not merely personal. Her well-produced video has been viewed millions of times. The video promotes a view of human dignity to which I am adamantly opposed. It is simply those views that I stand against – not Brittany or her family. I pray for peace and comfort for all of them. But I do hope that she changes her mind and receives the palliative care that she needs as she lives out the wealth of her days with dignity.
The illusion of autonomy (or ‘self-law’) has so permeated our psyche that we have become ashamed of our weakness, embarrassed of our humanity. And so we pretend – to be stronger than we are, to not need God. This pretense is not serving us well. And it is grossly undermining our efforts to serve one another. We look down on the dependent, the dim-witted, and the fearful, believing that these attributes have made them less valuable and unworthy. But our intrinsic value, our dignity, was granted us when God chose to create us in his image. Though tarnished by sin, our dignity can never be fully erased and should always be protected.
The way Chris lived her last days changed my life. By the time she died, I was sober and a small ember of faith was kindling in my heart. And it wasn’t just me. Everyone that came into contact with Chris during her life, all of it, was deeply impacted. And many of us were particularly humbled by the way Chris lived during her last months.
Chris accepted that her life had value, a value that transcended her circumstances. I am deeply grateful that she taught me how to live with dignity. And I pray that her story and the millions of others who have made similar choices for similar reasons will prove to be a convincing testament that you can live with dignity through the most harrowing of circumstances. And that this will provide the hope necessary for Brittany and others in her situation to choose to live out the full extent of their days.
Phil Hissom is the Founder of the POLIS Insitute and the primary author of Dignity Serves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-lesson course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.