When you see pictures of Tony Nicholson’s sad and pain racked face your heart bleeds and it must provoke the question: surely in a humane society should we not allow such a sad person to end his sad life? Yet I’m wondering whether there is a prior question that we might ask. As it happens I knew a lady called Liz Welsh who was unfortunate enough to be in just Tony Nicholson’s condition. She was completely paralyzed in body and had had both legs cut off. Yet Liz was unremittingly cheerful and happy and a cause of great cheerfulness in all around her. I’ve never met anybody who was so inspiring. Perhaps this was just a matter of temperament, but I don’t think so. Her Christian faith meant a tremendous amount to her and I believe it made a tremendous difference, although, like most really committed Catholics, she raged impotently against the Church, as we all do, from her wheelchair. I’m abstracting totally, and I really want to emphasize this, from any questions as to whether Christianity is true or not, but simply looking at it from an anthropological point of view.
Aristotle tells us that human beings are essentially mimetic and I think he was right. We are inspired to think what we think and do what we do by imitating others. I can’t find any character in literature whose humanity inspires me so much, and whose example I want more to imitate, as that of Christ. You read about Schweitzer and wonderful people who go to Syria to help. But there is no literary account to communicate their humanity to you as directly as the New Testament does. I’m not trying to argue, anyway at this point, that it was all true. Only that the humanity of Christ is so moving, so charismatic, so arresting, his example really is a great help when it comes either to being Liz or looking after Liz. If God didn’t become man to share our human condition with all its joys and sorrows it’s certainly a great story.
The other thing is that it really helps if you think that this present life is but a preparation for a greater life to come. In this case, whatever happens, you are always moving forward, always preparing both through suffering and happiness, both sorrow and joy, for the life to come. Whereas as if you think that death is the absolute end then you are always fighting a losing battle, trying to salvage what you can from the human wreck that a previously strong and happy person has now become. There is then – but who are we to pontificate about such a brave man as Tony Nicholson’s options? – absolutely no point in continuing a life so full of suffering. You can only stand in awe at his courage and, I’m sure, the great love and care which those who look after him show. I just think it’s a whole lot easier, for purely anthropological reasons if no other, if you’re a Christian. Liz’s last days were wonderful. No-one who participated in this great feast of life and hope and cheerfulness, albeit so much suffering , would have wanted not to be there, and I’m quite sure this applied to her too.
So I want to ask the prior question: is it possible for another way of being to enter into the whole structure of the life of somebody with so terrible a terminal condition, which transforms everything? I think so. But in a post-Christian society there is no other possibility but to end such a person’s life as painlessly as possible. Yet having known Liz, I’m just wondering whether it is sometimes a possibility that such situations are wonderful opportunities missed.