By Mark Azzara
In light of what I wrote over the past two weeks about grieving and divine healing, I find myself facing a challenge: What would I have said to Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman with incurable brain cancer who committed assisted suicide on Nov. 1? Or to put it another way, what would I say to the next Brittany Maynard if I have the chance?
Brittany got a lot of publicity for her choice to end her life. Kara Tippetts isn’t anywhere near as famous but she has chosen to live until the very end, even though her husband and children will watch her go through great suffering. Click here to read what Tippett would have liked to say to Maynard.
Had I been in Maynard’s presence — because this is something you definitely cannot do via Facebook — I would have used whatever grace God gave me to enter into her suffering, which was far more than physical. She may not have realized it but she also was suffering emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. She chose to avoid that suffering rather than take advantage of it.
The Rev. Richard Rohr, OFM, a Catholic priest/psychologist, has spoken about five unalterable rules of life that seem appropriate to mention here. I learned about them from a couple that attended a retreat at his Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. They are rules that apply to everyone, young and old alike.
First, life is hard. Some people may have the resources to forestall the difficulties but no amount of money can prevent cancer or Alzheimer’s, car crashes or falling down a flight of stairs. Life is hard so that we will look for higher meaning that transcends those trials. I wish Maynard had done so.
Second, you’re going to die. Period. End of debate. So begin now to prepare for it. I don’t mean picking the date, like Maynard did. We need to see death as God does — as the beginning rather than as the end. We need God to remove our fear of dying. That means letting it happen when God says it’s time because, as we approach death, we are able to more fully comprehend the higher meaning of life. To live despite your pain because you want others to see that your focus has turned to the joyous life that awaits you is an act of extraordinary courage. I wish she had asked Jesus for the courage to do that.
Third, you’re not in control. So many forces beyond your control combine to govern your life that you should begin, sooner rather than later, to consciously turn your life over to the One who can bring a sense of sure-handed control to it. And yes, Jesus IS ready to take control the instant we invite him to do so. This is precisely why we call him “Savior and Lord.” Rather than eradicate all our problems, however, God chooses to do away with some of them and give us the grace to rise above those that remain so that we can live fulfilling lives anyway, rather than letting our problems control us. I wish Brittany had asked God for that grace.
Fourth, you’re not that important. Everyone else is as important as you. Everyone. So rather than live with a focus on yourself, give your broken self, including your dying body, to those who are as valuable to God as you are but who may be even more broken and wounded. If you want to know how beautiful your life can be, give life to someone who thinks he’s dying inside. Read, memorize and live St. Francis’ prayer, in other words.
Fifth, life is not about you. It’s about God and your/our relationship with him. As Jesus said, “God alone is good.” Our greatest quest should be to experience the goodness of God for ourselves and then, out of sheer joy and total obedience, to share His goodness with others. There is no more fulfilling way to live. In fact, this is the only way to live a truly fulfilling life. This is how we prepare to live in the eternally fulfilling presence of God. It’s also how we get a taste of that life now, even while still living in this one.
I wish Maynard could have heard that message. I wish she had died a natural, even if probably painful, death out of a desire to convey, even with her last breath, how much she valued her life – so highly that she wanted to hold onto it until the absolute last moment, as a sign to others of how valuable their lives are, too.
Make not mistake — I don’t want to see her or anyone else suffer. But grasping the higher meaning of life helps you go beyond your pain so that your last days also declare to others how valuable they are to you — so valuable you want to hold onto those relationships until the absolute last moment.
To go beyond your pain in order to focus on validating and healing the pain of others is an act of extraordinary courage. I wish Maynard had asked God for that kind of courage — the courage of Jesus on the cross.
What a wonderful gift it might have been for her to tell anyone who was going through a tough time, “I’m going through the same thing, too. You’re not alone. Let’s talk.” Maynard would have given that person an extraordinary gift by entering into the other one’s pain rather than focusing on her own.
In short, I wish she had asked God for the courage to live — truly live, with all its pain and suffering — so that others could benefit from what Jesus called “denying yourself” in this life even before she died bodily. We could have learned so much from someone who, by God’s grace, had come to the point of truly understanding that higher meaning of life.
Mark Azzara spent 45 years in print journalism, most of them with the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut, where he was a features writer with a special focus on religion at the time of his retirement. He also worked for newspapers in New Haven and Danbury, Conn. At the latter paper, while sports editor, he won a national first-place writing award on college baseball. Azzara also has served as the only admissions recruiter for a small Catholic college in Connecticut and wrote a self-published book on spirituality, “And So Are You.” He is active in his church and facilitates two Christian study groups for men. Azzara grew up in southern California, graduating from Cal State Los Angeles. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut.