This Sunday I visited a Van Gogh exhibit. Of all the pieces on display, I was particularly struck by “The Suffering Old Man,” an oil on canvas painting (1890), depicting a weak, elderly man. His position implies a tragic situation, full of suffering and devastation, a helpless condition in the face of his own pain.
Surely the painting’s resonance in my soul has to do with my own life: I have been caring for disabled patients in the Congregation Daughters of St. Mary of Providence. So as I was looking at the painting, I couldn’t help but recall some of the names that made headlines in Italy since 2000 for having been lost to the ordeal of pain – people who have resorted to euthanasia amid media clamor: Stefano di Carlo, Emilio Vesce, Piergio Welby, Giovanni Nuvoli, Eluana Englaro, Mario Monicelli, Lucio Magri, Piera Franchina, Carlo Lizzani, Walter Piludu, Dj Fabo, Davide Trentini, Loris Bertocco, Patrizia Cocco, Federico Carboni, Elena “Adelina”.
Not only does the topic of euthanasia periodically return to fore in public debate, polarizing those who defend the “right to death” from those who support life, but it remains ever-latent “unfinished business” because it concerns not only legislative bills and referendums, but above all, actual people – heartbreaking situations. And it affects all of us.
But can dying really be a free choice? Usually, end-of-life controversies typically have to do with the question, “Does a suffering person have the right to choose to die?” Instead, the issue should, in my opinion, be framed from a life-oriented perspective. So, the questions we should be asking first are: “Why do they want to die?” and “What can we do to prevent this?”
The profound value of human life
There are certain factors that may limit one’s ability to grasp the profound value of all human life. The first is equating a “worthy death” with “quality of life.” This principle considers life as “worthy” only if it has an acceptable level of quality, in terms of the presence or absence of certain mental or physical functions – often cited at the mere presence of psychological distress. According to this approach, when one’s quality of life seems to be poor, it is not worth continuing. Thus, the person’s life has lost its inherent value.
A second obstacle is a misunderstanding of what is means to be compassionate. In order to keep a person from suffering, some think it is better to help the patient die through euthanasia or assisted suicide. In reality, human compassion is not about causing death, but about embracing a person who is ailing, supporting him within through his difficulties, and offering him affection, attention, and the means to alleviate suffering.
Finally, a third factor is the growing trend of individualism, which causes one to see others as a limitation and threat to one’s freedom. Underlying such an attitude is the individual’s claim to save himself from the limitations of his body, especially when frail and sick. But we must find meaning in suffering and illness and never forget that fragility is what makes us valuable.
The real disease of modern society: loneliness
Individualism is at the root of what is considered the most widespread disease of modern times: loneliness. The underlying idea is that those who are dependent on others are cared for by virtue of a favor. Thus, the good is reduced to being the result of a social arrangement: each person receives the care and assistance that social and economic gain allow for or render convenient. The result is an impoverishment of interpersonal relationships, which become fragile, lacking the human solidarity and social support necessary to face the most difficult moments and decisions of our existence.
It is necessary to overcome the individualistic view of the issue, to place it in the much broader context of social relationships, involving everyone: family, nurses, doctors, etc., called to faithfully accompany the sick through all phases of illness, and particularly in the most painful phases of existence, like Jesus the Good Samaritan, who respects, defends, loves, and gives life to every human being.
One who cares for another person in a critical health condition must “know how to be there” for him, to watch over someone who is suffering the anguish of dying, to console him. They should know how to be there for another in their solitude, holding on to hope, because “hopeless” isn’t synonymous with “incurable.”
As I looked at the Van Gogh painting I mentioned before, I thought of each of those names and their pain, an eloquent manifestation of a humanity that yearns for an encounter with the Lord of life, the only one capable of pouring out the oil of consolation on our wounds and wine of hope.