Friday, October 24, 2008

Life. Don't Take It Lightly

Just yesterday I heard that the British footballer Daniel James had gone to a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland and committed suicide, assisted suicide being legal in that country, even for non-terminal patients. James had been paralyzed from the neck down in a sporting accident and decided his life wasn’t worth living. When I heard about this I was both appalled and saddened.
A few years ago while I was staying at a Buddhist society in Europe I was informed that at 3 in the afternoon someone was coming to see me to talk about the Dhamma. Just before 3 I heard the front gate open and I saw a man in a wheelchair entering the premises. After a bit of fuss getting the wheelchair through the front door the man was pushed into the library by the person accompanying him and I entered to meet him. As we introduced ourselves he held out his hand, I took it and his grip nearly crushed my hand as he shook it. He was a good-looking man of about 25 with a fine complexion and well-developed arms and chest.
Almost immediately he got down to business. ‘Two years ago I was in a car accident in which the driver, my friend, and another person were killed. I was left paralyzed from the waist down. I’m undergoing therapy at present but the doctors tell me that if I have not regained the use of my legs within another 12 months I probably never will. I have decided that if I can’t walk again by that time I’m going to kill myself’. He paused for a moment, letting this piece of information sink in. Then he continued. ‘I have gone to Catholic and Protestant clergymen, a rabbi, a Baha’i teacher and a Hindu swami to ask them if they can give me good reasons why I should not end my life. Now I want to know what a Buddhist would say about this. That’s why I’m here.’ All this was said in a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact manner that convinced me he meant what he said. I asked him, ‘What did these other religious teachers say to you?’ ‘They all said I shouldn’t do it’ he replied. ‘Is being in a wheelchair so terrible,’ I asked him. ‘I will never get an erection again. I leak urine. You can probably smell it a bit. I can’t shit any more like normal people. Every morning I have to remove it manually. I used to love sports, I was a real sportsman. Ill never be able to run and jump like I used to. For the rest of my life I’m going to have to depend on others and quite simply, I don’t want to live like that.’ As he said this I detected a hint of emotion in his voice for the first time. I asked, ‘And have you given any thought to how you intend to kill yourself?’ ‘Gas’ he replied, ‘Its quick, clean and painless. So that’s it. Can you, as an expert in Buddhism, give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill myself?’ I listened to all this and decided to take the approach I have sometimes found useful in such cases. I spent a few moments pretending to ponder his question and then I said. ‘No I can’t. Given your circumstanced I think suicide is your best option.’ He opened his mouth to say something but nothing come out. He must have assumed that I was going to try to convince him not to kill himself and when I didn’t respond as expected he was knocked off balance. His friend who was standing behind him gave me a horrified look and waved his hand indicating that I should not say such a thing. ‘So you agree. You think I should kill myself?’ ‘Yep, I said.’ Now it was my turn to be silent while my words sunk in.
Finally I said, ‘The only thing I think you should reconsider is how your going to commit suicide. May I recommend another way?’ ‘Er, yes’ he said. His friend looked down and shook his head in despair. ‘This is what I would recommend. I live in Sri Lanka, in Kandy up in the mountains. Every time I go to the town market I see dozens of young guys on all fours crawling around amongst the crowd begging for money or food. They’ve all been crippled by polio. Now because they spend all their time down near ground level and are always breathing in dirt and dust, they often get lung infections. And of course because they crawl around their hands and knees are bruised, calloused and covered with scabs. I also know that almost none of them get any help from the government or any charitable organizations. They live by begging and petty theft. Now this is what I recommend you do. Sell everything you have, go to Sri Lanka, get yourself a one year visa, and do everything you can to improve the lives of these young guys. They have lived on the streets for years so they are a pretty tough bunch. I will be more than happy to give you contacts in Kandy who can help you get a house and the other things you will need. Of course there are no facilities for wheelchair-bound people in Sri Lanka, no ramps or anything. The pavements are uneven and the roads full of pot holes, so getting around will be a constant struggle. I calculate that two years of this plus the strain of working with these very difficult kids should finish you off. I think the only problem you might have is that someone might come to know of what you are doing and try to help you which might prolong your life or even stave of death altogether. But you can always tell them to piss off.’ I said all this in the same no-nonsense tone that he had used when telling me of his resolve to commit suicide. He sat looking at me for a while and then we had a long talk.
I can understand and I sympathize with the terminal patient who is in great pain and who wishes to end (or perhaps better, to shorten) his or her live. But to want to kill yourself just because your life is not going the way you want it, is, to me at least, nanarcisistic, selfish and stupid. The ‘If I can’t win I’m going to take my ball and go home’ attitude to life bewilders me. In Vienna I met a distinguished surgeon who told me his life had become meaningless since he retired some years previously. He didn’t know what to do with himself and was increasingly suffering from bouts of depression. I felt like grabbing him by the collar and shouting, ‘You selfish old man!’ With the skills he had developed during his career there was so much he could do for others – tutoring young medical students, volunteering his knowledge to some charitable organization, spending periods during the year in an undeveloped country passing on his skills to surgeons there. And even if he didn’t want to share what he knew, he could travel, write a book, do some research or take up a hobby. But for whatever reason such possibilities just never occurred to him. The Buddha said that to be reborn as a human is a rare opportunity pregnant with possibilities (S.V,457). To squander that opportunity, to fail to see its potential or to be so fixated on one particular course that it blocked out all others, seems to me to be a terrible tragedy; far worse than being confined to a wheelchair or paralyzed from the neck down. I am not advocating that ‘you can achieve anything if you really want it’ or that ‘never give up’ approach to life so popular in America. The first is a delusion – you can’t achieve anything you want; life is full of limitations. And the second is almost a recipe for unhappiness – knowing when to gracefully surrender, when its time to call it quits, is a mark of good judgment. I am talking about an appreciative awareness of the fact that we are alive and using the time we have well. Yes, we may find obstacles in our way, sometimes very serious ones, so we may have to modify our goals, adjust our expectations or consider completely new ones. I am constantly astonished at how people with serious disabilities find fulfilling and creative ways to spend their time or make their lives meaningful. Daniel James’ self-pity, lack of imagination and willfulness led him to take his life. How very sad.
When I returned to the Buddhist society the next year the young man in the wheelchair came to see me again. He invited me to lunch in the flat he had just bought and where I met his new girlfriend, who quite coincidently, happened to be a Buddhist. I didn’t ask him if he had changed his mind about killing himself but I assumed he had. Sometimes you have the privilege of making a significant difference to someone’s life. If Daniel James had made the goal of his life inspiring and encouraging those less disabled than he himself, I wonder how many lives he might have been able to change.


Shieldwulf said...

It would be appreciated if you could blog more about depression and how it is related to our urban life, and in particular, how anxiety, boredom, stress etc are related to depression. Can depression even arise as a result of a comfortable life, or lack of the right perspectives? I think so.

madsolitaire said...

Thank you, Bhante. This is one of the most insightful article. I was especially intrigued by how you handled the young man who wanted to kill himself. It was obvious that what you said shook him out of his perspective and re-evaluate everything he thought he knew. Sometimes, I too wonder what i would do if i were in a similar situation where i have to be almost totally dependent on others for my daily needs.

Justin Choo said...


This is a very powerful piece of your excellent approaches to looking at life's problems.

I would like to post your message, with due credit to you in my 2 blogs, with your permission.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Justin,
You have it.

Dewi Kayangan said...

Dear Shrasvati Dhammika,

I come across your article in Justin's blog.

The subject of commiting suicide is a reflection. I had a serious suicide attempted in 1998, and I had chosen a method from a euthanasia book - Final Exit. And I was left alive - to this day.

When I started learning about Buddhism and the Dharmma (starting February this year), I realize that all that I've been through are nothing but the results of my own action. I'm bearing the effects of the causes.

All my money that had been cheated. My psychological illnesses - ranging from Severe Depression to Eating Disorder. My childhood bitterness. My previous job as nightclub girl. Th hospitalization in mental wards. These are all due to my own actions, and no anyone else.

I'm extremely grateful that I'm alive, and able to learn the Dhamma, which is a chance in a million rebirths. In return I should thank those who have hurt, cheated, humiliated me.

When I look at the mirror again, I think I'm the most fortunate person on earth.

Only if Daniel James had such realization.

Grace Chan

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Grace,
Thank you for telling your story. While thanking those who 'hurt, cheated and humiliated' you don’t also forget to thank those who introduced you to the Dhamma, who wrote the book you may have read, who accepted you and who have befriended you since your life changed. Sometimes we have to go through great pain to understand great insights. I hope your further journey is a smooth one.

Vasile Andreica said...

Being disabled myself and mostly dependent on others, I can relate to the story and I considered suicide myself not once. Very nice story and approach, I will maybe translate it too.

paru said...

Bhante, can I have your permission to publish this article in our website;

It will be very helpful for many.

Anonymous said...

I understand the value of the message to some extent. Still, it's comfortable to judge the actions of others while distanced from the reality of their minds and hearts.

It's real suffering for people with wrong view to be suddenly deprived of what is normally most treasured to them, those qualities which spiritual people know to be superficial and not the utmost disgrace to lose.

And it's somewhat cruel to condemn and throw stones at those who come to be so desperate and who are hurting so much that the only way to stop the pain (in their limited horizon of consciousness) is to take their own lives.

They do not deserve our anger and indignation... Only compassion should be our response, knowing full well that a person who doesn't know the Dhamma is often in a mass of confusion and distorted perception.

Those of us endowed with higher wisdom only make it weaker by assuming that other people's interpretation of reality is as ordered and clear as our own. It's often not the case.

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