The dilemma I have had a fun and interesting life. At times I have been enormously successful and surrounded by friends, money to do what I want and good times. At others I have been poor, alone and barely able to cope. I have a PhD from one of the world’s great universities and yet frequently feel like a total idiot. I have knownintense love and also intense loneliness. Now, at the age of 50, I look behind me and see a life that is not without its good and decent moments, but going forward I look forward to its ending. If I stop taking the medication I am on, it will probably take about three years. Is this stupid? Should I bow out from life when it has nothing more to offer?
Mariella replies How would you know? It’s exactly at the point when you decide there’s nothing left – when reasons to live evade you and the pull of terminal oblivion is as compelling as gravity – that a white rabbit pops out of a hat. It may not be brandishing a full bouquet of your desires, it could just be a few daisies ripped from someone else’s lawn, but there’s usually enough in such unprecedented moments to kick-start the momentum towards happier days. How would you feel if two years into giving up your medication (I presume past the point of no return), you finally found your real passion, whether for a person or a project? You’ll never know for sure and there’s every chance that the future holds something for you, so it’s a big leap to take without very careful consideration.
You’re asking me whether it’s OK to give up. That’s a very large responsibility to heap on the shoulders of a total stranger and there are plenty of people and organisations much better equipped to talk to you about such impulses (try your doctor, or call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90). However I’m working on the premise that you are exploring the prospect on a more tentative, conversational level and if so I’m happy to discuss. It’s the biggest choice you’ll ever make and I definitely can’t make it for you. Instead, you’re going to have to base it on nothing more reliable than your emotional state, and we all know what a roller coaster our emotions represent.
That’s not to say that there are endless reasons to be cheerful or that if your heart is set on a prearranged departure you haven’t got every right to choose your poison (as they still say in Putin’s Russia). You’ve written to the wrong person if you want a lecture on how stretching life out until the end is simply “your duty”. I was among the many disappointed when politicians recently voted with a big majority against the “assisted dying bill”. Isn’t it a basic human right to decide when you’ve had enough? Forcing someone to stay alive, through a web of tubes, or the strong arm of the law, seems to me inhuman. That said, I can see the other side. Once taking your own life becomes acceptable in cases of terminal illness or grave pain, there will be those who wouldn’t say no to giving some of their relatives, or even incapacitated strangers, a helping hand. Euthanasia has a lot more sinister a ring to it than “assisted death”, but if you halted progress on every advance that human beings could twist to abuse others, forward momentum would definitely be a thing of the past.
I’m gathering from your letter that you have lived a rich and full life, which to all intents and purposes you’ve enjoyed. Far from giving you more reason to end it now, it suggests to me that you might as well keep going. It’s not as if you’ve given it your best shot: you’re only half way round the track in terms of potential lifespan. You mention pills, so I’m also presuming that you have a life-threatening or certainly impairing illness. Yet you suggest that whatever your condition, your medication has it under control.
I know nothing, with certainty, about death, except that it will come to us all. As Clive James, the wonderfully funny bibliophile and media master told me recently, battling to squeeze out more time in defiance of his incurable cancer: “We’re all terminally ill”! As an atheist (again I’m guessing but presuming you rank among our number), I have extremely low expectations of the rest of eternity. That seems to me a very good reason not to rush into it. Life is a known quantity with ups and downs, happiness and sadness, textured, often surprising and liberally scattered with really sensational moments. Do you seriously think you’ve had your allotted share? I wouldn’t be so sure.
Legally you may have no right to end your life, but there’s an increasing fraternity determined to make that an individual choice rather than a crime. I’m not sure how far we’ll get if people like you, presently on the fence, start choosing eternal oblivion just because you imagine your best days are behind you. If you believe in a world where things are connected, even if simply as part of the food chain, then you have to believe that we each have a purpose.
None of us is indispensable, but each of us is totally unique, and as such until your last breath your contribution to this world is essential. Death, I’d argue, unless each day is merely suffering, actually has very little to offer when you compare it to the myriad possibilities of life.