Saturday, June 18, 2005

Liberty to die
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant Singh"WHY does God make the personís exit from life so painful?" I asked in a letter to my longtime friend Jaya Thadani who lives half the year in the US, and the other half in London. I havenít seen her for 40 years but we write to each other every week. She is a devout, practising Roman Catholic; I am an equally devout agnostic. Like all devoutly religious people she is very touchy about questions relating to God, ritual and life hereafter. Whenever I tread on her corns, she hits back and demands an apology. I readily express regret and ask to be forgiven. However, she was pleased to receive my question and answered it at some length, enclosing an article based on the late Pope John Paulís thoughts on the subject.

Pope Paul II was in poor health for some years before he died a few months ago. In 1984 he put down his views on suffering in an apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris. I quote the first two paragraphs: "Suffering seems inseparable from manís earthly existence. Suffering evokes compassion. It evokes respect but it also intimidates. At the basis of all suffering, there is the question; why? The inevitability of that question is precisely what makes suffering distinctively human. Pain is everywhere in the animal world. But only the suffering human being wonders why he is suffering. And he suffers in a still deeper way if he does not find a satisfactory answer to that question.

"Men put the question of ĎWhy is there suffering?í not to the world, but to God. And whereas the existence of the world opens the eyes of human souls to the existence of God ó to His wisdom, power and greatness ó evil and suffering seem to obscure His image, especially during the daily drama of so many cases of undeserved suffering, and of so many faults without proper punishment."

He goes on to the story of Job, a good, God-fearing man who had done no harm to anyone in his life. He was prosperous with farm-lands, herds of cattle and a large family of sons and daughters. God took on a bet with Satan that no matter what Satan did, Job would remain firm in his faith in God. So Satan deprived him of his wealth, his family and finally inflicted his body with sores. Job remained unflinching in his faith. So, evidently, God won the bet.

Nobody is quite sure what Jobís story is meant to convey. I find it totally amoral. Pope Paul found its meaning in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ ó a man who besides harming no one cured hundreds suffering from blindness, leprosy and other diseases. Christís last appeal when nailed on the Cross was a cry of anguish. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

The Pope and all devout Catholics find the answer to suffering in the crucifixion of Christ. He goes on to say: "In suffering there is a concealed power which draws a person close to Christ. When his body is gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and the person is almost incapable of living and acting, all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident.

"All suffering is, in itself, the experience of evil. But Christ has made suffering the firmest basis for the definitive good of eternal salvation. Man hears Christís saving answer as he himself gradually becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ. It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. In suffering, a man discovers himself ó his own humanity, his own dignity, his own mission".

I found this explanation beyond my comprehension and unacceptable. My explanation of suffering and pain in the last phases of oneís life is utterly mundane. As one gets older, nature deprives one of the means of enjoying life: oneís vision is impaired, teeth gone, hearing defective, joys of eating and drinking reduced. Then come old-age ailments like arthritis, backaches, inability to walk, and so on. It is nature which compels one to come to the conclusion that one canít bear pain and suffering any longer and you say to yourself: "I canít take this any more; enough is enough. It is time for me to go." That is why I believe a person has the right to end his or her life when fun has gone out of living.

Final exit

About 10 years ago, I met and befriended an American lady, Dee Morgan, in Washington. She had many Indian friends, organised a public meeting for me and gave me a lavish farewell party when I left. We keep in touch through letters and exchange of books. She is evidently a lady of substance as she moves from one villa to another on the Californian coast. She heard about my Death at my Doorstep and approved of the right of every person to end his or her life when they felt they could not take any more because of terminal illness or unbearable pain. She sent me Final Exit by Derek Humphrey (Delta), founder of the Hemlock Society which propagates the right to die with dignity.

Humphrey was on the staff of Londonís Sunday Times. He migrated to the US and joined Los Angeles Times. His first wife, 22-year-old Jean, got cancer, which was both extremely painful and incurable. They consulted a few doctors before they found one willing to help her die. By then her bones had begun to snap and she was in agony. One morning in 1975, she begged her husband to let her go. They sat talking to each other of their happier days. He mixed the lethal drug the doctor had prescribed in a cup of coffee and helped her drink it up. She went into a coma and died peacefully 50 minutes later.

Humphrey wrote about it. No publisher would accept his manuscript. So he published it at his own expense through the Hemlock Society. It made the top of The New York Timesí bestseller list for 18 weeks, raking in over a million dollars in royalties for its author and his society. Its success proved that millions of people are interested in finding out what is the least painful way to go.

Final exit is a practical guide on how to do yourself in. It deals with methods that have tried: cyanide capsules, overdose of sleeping pills, shooting in the head or heart, injecting air-bubbles in veins, hanging, drowning, crashing into trains, etc. All very gruesome. He ends with listing drugs which make the exit much easier and less messy.

Suicide can never be a cheerful topic. But there are moments in everyoneís life when he or she would like to fade away into oblivion. To wit John Keatís immortal lines in his Ode to the Nightingale:

Darkling I listen; and for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful death

Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain."


Santa: "We get electricity 24x7."

Banta: "You are very lucky."

Santa: "Not really. We get electricity 24 days in a month, 7 hours a day."

(Contributed by Rajeshwari Singh, Delhi)