Madness, Social Issues, Violence

Informed Consent, Suicide, and the Ethics of Agency

If you use the internet, then you saw a lot about Robin Williams this summer. Or perhaps more accurately, you first saw a lot of people speculating about the impiety of suicide while posting links to crisis hotlines, and then after that a lot of people mourning the loss of a great actor. I don’t know Robin Williams–I never even met him briefly in a San Francisco park–so I can’t say much about him personally. However, to take the general case, say a man has struggled with a depressed outlook on life alongside drug and alcohol problems for many, many years. He has also created a prodigious body of work and positively affected the lives of millions. (Yes, there may be a debt to the world that we inherit by virtue of being born, but he has paid his.) He begins to develop Parkinson’s, a non-fatal but neurodegenerative disease that greatly affects one’s daily life in the long run. I would think that such a person has really tried to beat his demons, and lost. In my mind, his suicide seems like a sad but nonetheless thoughtful, informed decision. It is not my place to say he should have chosen differently.

Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, were not practicing informed suicide. In their case–and in the case of most non-adults–I would think anti-suicide intervention not only reasonable, but necessary. Hospice care, on the other hand, is predicated on the idea that a person suffering from a terminal illness–including the illness of life, which shows symptoms of getting old–should be permitted to make their own end-of-life decisions. For example, a family member of mine has recently decided not to pursue additional treatment for his aggressive brain tumors. Surgery to remove the tumors could cause serious loss of cognitive functions, and he doesn’t want to spend his final days constantly traveling to and from the hospital in mentally diminished states. By declining the available “treatments”–which may or may not be effective in the battle against cancer–he chooses to end his life earlier than what otherwise might be possible. This seems like another informed kind of suicide. Continue reading

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Bible, Pioneer Valley, Social Issues, Violence

On Being an Angry White Dude

I was in the fifth grade when the Twin Towers fell. Living in California, I had never been to New York, nor had I even heard of the World Trade Center prior to that Tuesday morning. Before the start of school that day, I walked around the blacktop with my two best friends. A kid ran up to us and blurted out, “Did you guys hear what happened?” I think it was Jack who replied, “Shut the fuck up.” National tragedy would not occasion reprieve from our manly forbearance. Perhaps, as young kids with a penchant for cruelty as well as compassion, we did not have the combination of empathetic rationale required for processing such an event. Despite how cognitively, relationally, and socially removed we were from across the country, it may still sound blasphemous against the cause of humanity to admit that I don’t remember feeling emotionally upset. I deferred to Jack, keeping the pact of nihilistic silence–there’s nothing we can do, so who gives a fuck?–but internally my response was a single thought. What the fuck did you expect?

As a 10-year-old boy, I was not particularly versed in world politics, but nonetheless I believed that our imperialistic nation had bought this fate a long time ago. I remember being surprised that this had not happened earlier, and more frequently. At the time, my direct reasoning was something like this: if your nation does enough fucked up shit–from slavery at home to unnecessary invasions abroad–you’re gonna get attacked sometimes. I still see a truth in this cynical response, but looking back on my young perspective now, I am puzzled. At such a young age, I wonder, where did I come up with this political perspective? And, perhaps more importantly, how and why did I lack basic empathy for the people killed? Continue reading

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