The Right-to-Live: Finding Meaning through Suffering

One of the closest relationships which I fostered during my first twenty years of life was with my grandma. As a small boy, I remember spending summer weeks at my grandparents’ home, being spoiled with a plethora of candy and other sugar infused snacks and basically being treated like a prince, because there, I was free from the confines of my parents’ oppressive rules, such as household chores and early bedtimes.

However, it was the example of my grandma’s quiet, selfless love which will forever remain in my memory. For years, I witnessed my grandmother as she gave generously and combated life’s hardships with strength and resilience. She would give all that she could to others, whether it be by giving a few dollars to a homeless person on the street, or by caring for her grandchildren as her own. I knew, as well, that she had a great resilience as I watched her bury her 45-year old son whose life was taken by an aggressive form of cancer.

While I was preparing to return to school for my second semester of college, I knew that I would be saying farewell to my grandmother for good. Her health was deteriorating, and at the age of 86, her cancer was untreatable. When I said goodbye to her, she was only weeks away from death, yet she was still able to smile and laugh despite the immense suffering which she was experiencing. Even up until her death I was able to learn from my grandmother. Through her example, I now know that life is worth living despite illness and suffering. I learned that there is beauty and value in every stage of life, and that joy can be found even up until death.

According to a news article in The Washington Post, 111 terminally ill patients have chosen to take their lives under a new “Right-to-Die” law in California. Proponents of the law have stated that each person has the right of complete self-autonomy and a person should be able to end his lives if death is imminent. This is a dangerous precedence set as suffering up until death is virtually deemed meaningless, and human value is placed in the hands of utilitarianism and hedonism.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, the psychiatrist Victor Frankl discusses to a great depth the person’s ability to find meaning despite pain and suffering. Frankl was no stranger to death as he lost his mother and brother in Auschwitz and his wife in Bergen-Belsen Death Camp. Despite being a survivor of the Holocaust, Frankl believed that suffering and death did indeed contain value. He wrote that “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has meaning.”

Death is difficult to accept, both for the person dying and for his or her loved ones, however, the proponents of the “Right-to-Die” combat death with a faux sense of compassion. They see human value as a prize won by the useful and healthy and fail to truly enter into the suffering of the dying person. The most basic, inalienable is right-to-life but can be given a more animating and active connotation by referring to it as the right-to-live. Each person has the right to live his or her life to its greatest potential, and it is the duty of each person to help others find meaning despite illness and death. A verse in the First Letter to the Corinthians, which was famously used by J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, states that “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). My grandma destroyed death as she accepted her death, she found meaning despite her suffering, and she did not allow her circumstance to keep her from truly living.  Let us all seek to build a culture that finds value in each person and that sees life, rather than death, as an intrinsic right.

Written by Patrick Conant, a current intern at the WYA North America office.