The story of Brittany Maynard has recently come to my attention. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the story, Brittany is a young woman who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Instead of undergoing the long and painful process of dying slowly of her disease, she has opted to end her life prematurely. The teachings of the Church clearly condemn such an action, and it is not my desire to try and defend this teaching.
Rather, I was struck by the many comments that appeared in response to her story. A theme that was common to many of Brittany’s supporters was that suffering was an immense evil to be avoided at all costs. Although suffering is certainly an evil that results from a fallen world enslaved to sin, I sensed in their comments a fear of suffering which is the antithesis of Christian spirituality. For many, it seemed that the thought of a death marked by intense struggle and pain was something that seemed unbearable.
Fear of suffering is a poison that can prevent us from the fullness offered in Jesus Christ. In the particular case of Brittany, it appears to have led to a rash and dramatic attempt to avoid pain, but there are also less dramatic forms of this fear that can prevent us from true happiness. I have come to believe that true happiness is a dynamic dying to self which requires courage, particularly the courage needed to embrace suffering. By learning to embrace the Cross, we discover the depths and power of unconditional love. We experience the depths of sin in our lives and in this process are opened to the boundless mercy of God.
This path of freedom is patterned on the actions of Christ himself. Only through the Cross can we discover the boundless freedom of the Resurrection. All other forms of happiness and inner peace prove temporary or insufficient when compared to this stillness that comes through the paschal mystery. In this way, suffering is salvific. Instead of being meaningless, it becomes a dramatic opportunity to enter into communion with Jesus Christ.
The mystics are those who have discovered the art of bearing one’s Cross. They have allowed themselves to suffer the death of the ego and so participate in the unconditional love of Christ. Brittany’s case is not only sad because she wants to thwart the natural course of human existence. The real tragedy is that she is missing the opportunity to share intimately in the Cross of Jesus Christ. In our sadness at her decision, let us allow ourselves to suffer for the sake of others who may wish to follow her example.