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Ralph Dolan: Taking control of the end of one’s life

Ralph Dolan poses for a portrait, Tuesday, in Northampton.


Ralph Dolan poses for a portrait, Tuesday, in Northampton. SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

The world that I inhabit is full of human suffering: one long, mournful cry is carried on the wind. We would like it to be otherwise. We go to the experts to learn the secrets of the good life. We work hard to keep our psycho-physical balance in a social, political and economic realm that is quite out of balance.

The human community is at a crossroads. The course we take and the kind of world we leave in perpetuity depends in part upon how we answer the question: Why do I exist?

Even if I am blessed with comfortable and stable circumstances, how can I fail to see the misery, exploitation, torture, slaughter, famine and disease in other quarters of the human community.

Even close at hand: funeral processions, sickness, poverty, joblessness, homelessness, misunderstandings, errors of judgment, rip-offs galore, congestion, injustice, loneliness, betrayal and broken dreams. It’s a constant struggle to stay alive so you can have the dubious pleasure of growing old, falling apart and dying.

It’s just the facts of life. No one is exempt.

Those who commit suicide are responding to circumstances that for them are intolerable. Circumstances that are intolerable come to us in so many disguises.

Youth is an incredibly beautiful time, a time of exploration and rapid expansion. To have that end so traumatically in suicide seems such a profound loss, such a waste. We try to save them but we can’t until we as a society turn away from violence.

As I see it, the older you get, the less tragic is suicide until you get to that level of deterioration at which your interest in suicide makes perfect sense to those who truly care for you. You’ve had a good life Chalk it up. Physical disabilities and brain malfunctions make it impossible to go on.

What horrifies many elders is that living death which occurs after one loses the ability to be self-sufficient, needing continuous care and not recognizing one’s own kin.

A successful exit requires careful planning.

There is a certain nobility in facing the end-of-life issues squarely and, when the moment arrives, taking the matter into your own hands. I am reminded of generations upon generations of Inuit elders who stole off in the night and threw themselves into the dark, arctic sea when it became clear that they were failing and slowing down the hunt. The act was integrated into the way of life. The very survival of the people depended upon it.

A new term is needed: self-deliverance. It’s actually an old term which can be defined as a suicide that contains strong elements of courage, selflessness and living in harmony with the natural law of endings.

The problem of over-population will plague humanity. Asking couples to voluntarily limit the number of children they bring into the world would have little effect on the population explosion. It would take several generations facing the hardships of over-population to get the problem under control.

In a society of the not-too-distant future, our elders who have come to the end of the road, however they choose to define that, will be allowed to deliver themselves in a dignified manner from this earthly coil.

It will ease the congestion on the continents and in the nursing homes. It will ease the fear and worry that beset the elderly as they become increasingly physically incapacitated.

Far removed from religious dogma and the law of the land it is clear: self-deliverance, the last bastion of human freedom, is an idea whose time has come.

Ralph J. Dolan of Haydenville served in Vietnam and has had a career as a licensed psychotherapist. His column appears on the fourth Monday of the month.

Legacy Comments3

Suicide is murder. Euthanasia is murder. There are all kinds and forms of murder. There are all kinds and forms of violence. Murder is a form of it. Call me strange, I admire one with the courage to be as mournfully disillusioned as myself, but confess I’m suspicious of anyone who loves humanity and freedom so much, that they call for a ‘freedom’ for someone else to murder themselves as a demonstration of their own open minded concern and caring world view... of the human community, whoever that is. The first paragraphs of your article I see as a veiled mockery of very thing you purport to wish were the case. Saying how things are ‘one long mournful cry... carried on the wind’, the words could have come from Eccliseasticus himself. With seeming compassion and wisdom, you declare how you would ‘like it to be otherwise’. But, I’m not convinced of your sincerity in this regard. Curiously, the Wikipedia article on psychotherapy [4-6-2014] talks about the therapist helping with 'higher levels of functioning' and promotion of 'well-being'. I believe they are discussing material functioning and well-being, not non-functioning or non-being. Indeed, your thoughts are far removed from religious dogma and the law you mention at the end, but they do venture into the religious, into the law and into systems; as if right out of a Margaret Sanger playbook. Like a character in that incredible scene of the Apocalypse Now film having fed from the trough of human disease, with no proper antidote, can see nothing but ‘The horror. The horror.’, one has to ask themselves if they might need some refreshment. In your article, there’s talk about experts in the good life, but who are they, how did they become thus and what do they know? Would they be involved in the process of deciding whether one is to live or die? Are we, the unlearned public, to presume the individual, rationally and radically independent [or not] even in his degraded state, having ventured through these mysteries of soul and suffering solely under the merits of his own stunning mental prowess (and the supposed caring thoughts of close friends and family) has arrived at a perception so true, so revealing, so compelling that we should serve him in his quest to murder himself? Why would one allow some individual [for lack of a better term] to decide whether one’s life has merit or worth or value with respect to them continuing their living on? Who are they to determine whether anyone lives or dies? Upon what criteria? With what measure? With what tool? How and with what is that tool calibrated? If I can decide whether I live or die, surely I’m capable of discerning whether you should live or die… maybe even with a keener acuity, since it would not be me that died, I could be freer of any bias in the matter. Perhaps these supposed experts are doctors, lawyers, professors, ministers from the church of such and such? High minded, credentialed individuals, estimable gentlemen of the community who’ve spent their lives seeking out the answers to life’s perplexities… Or perhaps the truth is revealed to us by way of some new scientific data showing how the brain is no longer really a brain, but an amalgam of fatty ‘stuff’. Or maybe it would come from some Swiss thinker, who, having rigorously considered the deepest things from up in a lonely Alpine cabin over a long cold winter, who happens to have just published a book, has some new insight into the mind of man? Or merely the latest news poll of working mothers struggling to care for their families and their parents at the same time? We must know by now there’s no truth keener than that from an eye witness! Wait, there’s more… plastic stick on happy talk… about a balance - of psychological, physical, social, political, economic, etc. – systems really, as though the determination of one’s value in the ‘community’ can be derived from a human, scientific or utilitarian contrivance, or some deep human understanding we alone have arrived at for the first time in all of human history... After all, we’ve come so far now that we have electricity! Space travel! Cell phones! We are modern! You write about the Human Community… an amorphous thing, instead of neighbor, an actual physical person. But how we treat our neighbor, sir, is what defines our ‘human community’. That alone. Anything else is quite incidental. Enabling willful predilections’ is not treatment. Murder is not a treatment or a solution. It’s a crime. You ask “Why do I exist?” Of course there is no answer to this question outside of the religious realm (by this I do not mean the spiritual realm, that other amorphous and insubstantial thing whose time came and I wish would go away…) but why do you ask it? Your article ends with the notion and prides itself in being ’far removed from religious dogma’. Why would you ask a religious question if you do not seek a religious answer? It’s like asking a cannibal “what’ is for dinner?” You know the answer to the question. You cite ‘the dubious pleasure of growing old, falling apart and dying.’ Rembrandt, I think it was, when asked what he wanted to do said ‘I want to grow old’. I concur. And I really don’t care how many tubes are in me, how many diapers I go through a day. I want to live. I don’t care how many tubes are in you either, or how many times a day I’d have to change you were I to have to. Your dignity, your worth to the ‘human community’ as you put it, is not measured in terms of bodily degradation. It’s not your humiliation or your limitations. It’s not your clothes. It’s not your junk vehicle or worn out golf clubs. It’s not your lack of education, how many medals you didn’t get or how many mountains you didn’t climb, books not written, friends you don’t have or promotions missed. It’s not your nightmares. It’s not your kids or your ex-wife or that girlfriend dumped you. It’s not what you won or lost or got caught cheating. It’s not that you’re paralyzed or infirmed, you don’t like your tattoos, are just a plain loser, or depressed and just want to throw in the towel. Degradation of the nobility of your person, simply put, is through sin, period. Kings may invite an honest beggar to table, but to a scoundrel he’ll send the dogs. That sin behaves like a sickness is true. A therapist might be interested in understanding the nature of the disease… and in trying to not collaborate with the illness. ‘It’s just the facts of life’ , as used here, seem words of one who sees the world as nothing more that numbers and charts; of one who is clinically removed. I suspect you’ll find this remark laughable, but not to laugh too hard sir. Of course suicide is a response to circumstance. It’s the wrong response, the cowardly response, moreover, the hateful response, the defiant response. At best it’s a misplaced argument. All human killing is from hatred. Circumstances leading to it come ‘to us in so many disguises’ as you say. You wait for that day when our society turns away from violence, but a society does not turn away from violence without each individual person beginning to turn away from violence. So let the first one to turn away be the one who is contemplating it. Not the ones who are the victims of it. It’s helpful if the ‘human community’ gets their priorities right. That way the victim is not the one responsible for the crime. I can see it now, ‘It’s your fault my misery is increased, because you won’t let me kill myself’. Better still, ‘you won’t let me kill Uncle Harry.’ Even more, ‘you won’t let me kill Junior’. You mention that an interest in suicide ‘makes sense’ to those who care for the one who, in his miserable state, considers it. Suicide never makes sense to those who care for you. It’s disturbing to those who care for you. It adds to their sorrow and burden. It feeds the logic of deception. It only ‘becomes accepted’ by those who are tired of you, of having to care for you, who are weaker than you or unable to see through your self-deception. Those too, are the ones who are in need of support. To have these feelings, these thoughts, I suppose is perfectly human is it not? Even to wish that God would take one who is suffering is not sinful. But physical disabilities, brain malfunctions, exhaustion do not justify murder. Murder is horror. Lack of self-sufficiency is not horror. Many people are not self-sufficient. Babies aren’t. The infirmed are not horrible. The sickness may be horrible, it’s true. Old people, young people, any people, in any state of physical or mental degradation are not horrible no matter what your ‘feelings’ might be towards them. Nor do they lack ‘nobility’. Nobility is not defined by courage in the face of difficulty to ‘self-deliver’ (which is running away). The day you published this article I watched a person jump off One World Trade Center. Fearless yes, noble no. Courage is an aspect of nobility, which is much more closely tied to truth, an objective truth, not a truth I made up, or a 'truth for me'. I remember a news real years ago when crack had just come around. Dan Rather was interviewing an addict, in the final stages of her addiction [she was surely to die soon, so bad was her condition]. Dressed in tatters, gaunt, filthy, 30 something years old but looking a haggard 70, she made an intense visual image for the news cameras. When asked what she wanted she replied, ‘To be loved’. A singularly truthful and dignified answer, perhaps the only real thing she ever said, we don’t know. It was as if she, in those few seconds, had said the most beautiful recitation of an Ave. And if there is redemption in this life, surely she was granted it at that moment, though in a self-made prison she must have died, having shared for a brief moment the light of truth about herself. A moment of nobility. Your solution, ‘to take matters into your own hands’ comes from the mouth of the snake. There is not a humble man on earth who would follow your suggestion. Though you may not feel this way, I suspect your Inuit friends might have a little trouble with your solution now, what with color TV, or ski-do and modern heating. George Orwell, in his book “1984” called your suggested propaganda campaign ‘mis-speak’. You change the meaning of a word or in this case the word itself, without a corresponding change in reality. Calling murder ‘self-deliverance’ does not change the act. It remains, and always will remain, murder. It is true cowardice, true selfishness, and the only natural occurrence I’m aware of in which creatures kill their weak and infirmed are ants (and maybe birds- I’m open to correction here from those who know). Further, it should not be confused with self-sacrificial giving, such as when one gives their life to save another. It is not heroic to snuff out one’s life to save another from the burden for care for you. It is hateful, spiteful, suicide no matter how soft the talk leading up to it. A friend of mine died of cancer. A vicious, miserable death. He took no pain killers. He was anything but a pain lover by the way. He was married, had children, loved and was loved. Played in a rock band (nationally known). He loved life. I saw him hours before he passed, surrounded by loved ones, knowing and sensing his rich blessings. What a man! You cite over population as a plague. Over population is not the plague. Greed is the plague. Selfishness is the plague. Delusion of mind is the plague. Dissolution of family is the plague. Corruption of the heart is the plague, and a supremely difficult thing to remedy. There is no shortage of food. There is a shortage of sharing. This ‘human community’ throws away enough food to feed the world. We have been living in the green revolution nigh 60 years. And now it’s turning into the organic green revolution, yippee! There is no shortage of land, but there is an overabundance of ‘I want’. No one who has finds it easy to surrender what he has. Neither does one easily relinquish dominion. The congestion to which you refer is the congestion of principalities, not persons. There is no shortage of those who want to be boss! (Or at least tell him how to run his business) Nursing homes are going out of business in fact I suspect not because they lack people to fill the beds, but because people can’t afford to pay for them. Not when it costs $200.00 for a $2.00 switch so grandma sets of the alarm when she tries to get out of her wheelchair. You say that suicide will ease fear and worry of the elderly… I think Dr. Mengele was quite expert at easing fear and worry. Were his patients being murdered, or, by your definitions, were they exercising the ‘last bastion of human freedom’ and self-delivering themselves, doing the work of and for the ‘human community’… Were I a Nazi historian, how would I write the story today? I’m beginning to wonder.

At a funeral service a number of years ago, a Roman Catholic priest told the tale of meeting with former Springfield Republican editor Dick Garvey who was hospitalized at the time of the meeting. Garvey was a devout Catholic who attended church every day but seldom was rude enough to insist on his own convictions when dealing with others. The priest said he was speaking with Garvey in the hospital when, apparently out of the blue, Garvey said, "Father, I am dying." The priest admitted the straightforward statement had surprised him. Garvey saw the surprise on his face and said, consolingly, "I am dying ... and it is not a matter of sadness." Did Garvey mean that his Catholic belief in a heavenly afterlife overshadowed his fear of death or did he have some deeper and wider insight into life and its doings ... doings that included death? Since Garvey did not explain further, the interpretation is up for personal grabs. But because I liked Dick Garvey and because I knew him as a largely truthful man, I choose to think his understanding was an understanding in which any man or woman might find an assured peace: It is not a matter of sadness. -- adam fisher

THANK you for this. The world needs this discussion. Technology and medical advances have allowed interventions to control or advance birth but not to control and advance death in a humane way. Self deliverance needs to become as available, accepted and integrated into life as contraception and in vitro fertilization have been in the last century. Self deliverance is not suicide out of despair, it is as you say, 'living in harmony' with the natural law of endings and neither should have legal implications.

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