Softened up for death

Could our persistent search for a hardship-free world be blinding us to the value of suffering?
Cristina Alarcon | Sep 22 2009 | comment  

An article in a recent Chicago magazine promising "sixty-three ways to pamper yourself" offers the following suggestions: "consume extravagantly, personaliz[e] your doorknobs, work for fun." The message here, and all around us, is clear: Pamper your body, be good to yourself, don't sweat. And, as if by contagion, you and I crave this immersion in comfort and pleasure.

Facilitating this trend is the newest technology, allowing easy access to whatever we want when we want it, at the click of a button. It's a breeze; anytime, anywhere, no sweat. But might we not be pampering ourselves to death? What is it that drove 44 per cent of Canadians to favour euthanasia last year? It is something we in this country ought to consider with the approach of the second reading of Bill C-384 this fall, a bill which would make physician assisted suicide legal. This is the furthest such a bill has ever gone in Canada.

As a pharmacist, I deal with people who undergo great suffering, physical, mental and spiritual, the latter two often being the most intense kinds. Paradoxically, I also often encounter the seeker of quick-fix, no-sweat pick-me-uppers; people wanting diet pills for a painless slim-down; happy pills for an even temper and just about anything to slow the aging process. Interestingly, it is often the person undergoing the greatest trials who complains the least and shows the greatest courage, in contrast to the more self-absorbed person whose topic of conversation revolves around miserable little aches and pains.

Has our Western culture lost the ability to cope with suffering? And at what cost for the future of our civilization? What is it that makes some people bear hardships courageously, while others fall apart at the smallest of life's pinpricks? Could it all boil down to attitude?

Attitude is synonymous with belief, bias or mindset. Though it is partly affected by temperament, it can also be greatly influenced by cultural environment. Having encouraged us to pamper ourselves from the cradle onwards, making us so soft that we crumble at the mere sight of adversity, our Western culture is partly to blame for our stupefied state. Most of us grow up to become control-freaks; so trained are we from a tender age to expect to exert perfect control over our destinies that the smallest setback can become an intolerable event.

Could our persistent search for the utopian, hardship-free world, be blinding us to the great value of suffering?

There is no doubt that suffering is repulsive to human nature, and justly so, for it seems to set limits to what we can achieve. And yet without it we would not thrive; there would be no growth, no creativity, no true love. How poor our culture would be without the poetry of the forlorn lover, the music of a dying Mozart, or the compassionate caring that can well up in the most hardened of hearts when a loved one suffers.

But when chronic or terminal illness strikes and there seems to be no hope, why not then have the choice -- and whose choice would it be -- to end this misery? To choose death would seem most logical, yet not more valuable, as even in such "hopelessness" there remains the inner freedom to grow in love and courage. Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl put it most eloquently: "When we are no longer able to change a situation... we are challenged to change ourselves."

Ultimately, suffering is the price we pay for being alive, for being human, and yet it remains an elusive mystery. In spite of all our technological progress, we are unable to do away with it completely. As Bill C 384 comes up for reading, a bill which would give doctors both the right and the duty kill, we ought to reflect upon this mystery and on the possibility that suffering is a necessary part of life, that it has a hidden purpose, that we need it to a certain degree and that without it we would lose a pearl of great price. We would most certainly become less human.

Cristina Alarcon is a pharmacist in West Vancouver and holds a master's in bioethics. This is a slightly edited version of an article first published in the National Post (Canada).

Copyright © Cristina Alarcon . Published by You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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