A Terror Way Beyond Falling

by Kevin D. Williamson
Some thoughts on a death in Switzerland

Anne’s story is a theoretically happy one with a terribly sad ending: an art teacher and a former engineer in the British Royal Navy, she led, by her own account, a wonderfully full life, with a great deal of adventure and satisfaction. But her life began in the middle 1920s, and at the age of 89 she found adapting to the modern world not only impossible but undesirable — she recoiled in horror from prepackaged dinners on sale at the grocery store, from fast food, from declining manners, from a culture dominated by television and the Internet, from vulgar consumerism, and from the atomization she perceived in society. “I have never had a television,” she told the Sunday Times. “People are becoming more and more remote. We are becoming robots. It is this lack of humanity.” The prospect of an extended decline in one of the United Kingdom’s nursing homes, the infamy of which is to the British reputation what U.S. prisons are to the American reputation, was unappealing. “They say adapt or die,” she said, and she chose the latter, traveling to a euthanasia facility outside Zurich to be put to death.

My own views on suicide, and assisted suicide, are roughly those of Hamlet: While I sometimes sympathize with the prince’s wish “that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ’gainst self-slaughter,” it is not merely a matter of Roman catechism that the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God are not subordinate to our convenience. But who has not felt as Hamlet feels? “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!” Anne’s story is only partly about how we die; it is in a more important sense about how we live. We can drag ourselves forward for years, but at the worst of times we are carried. Carried by whom? For Hamlet, endurance of his weary life was mainly a matter of the simple prohibition of suicide, along with an animating appetite for revenge. (The hope of revenge certainly has given countless otherwise despairing men a reason to go on living.) To the extent that he was carried by his faith, it was in a strictly negative sense, but others are carried in a deeper sense by their faith, in which they find love and community as well as duty. The reporting did not give any indication of Anne’s own religious inclinations, though presumably there were no scruples so strong as to keep her from her chosen course. A 2004 poll put the share of nonbelievers in Britain at about 40 percent.

Another traditional source of comfort as we settle into old age is family, but Anne had never married and had no children. She was not entirely without family — a niece took her to her death — but there is something inescapably sad about being a terminal branch on the family tree. People talk about the great joys of being grandparents, but one rarely hears about the great satisfaction of being a spinster aunt. So another possible avenue of consolation was closed to her.

It has been a very long time since categorical respect was accorded to the elderly, a cultural habit that survives in the modern world mainly in the East. For a person without the comfort of an immediate family, the compensation of social respect — the feeling that one is a person of some human consequence rather than a product past its expiration date — is accordingly more important. My experience of British society suggests that such regard for the aged has been dead in the mother country at least as long as it has here. So, cross that off the list, too.

The sort of alienation that Anne experienced is by no means limited to the elderly. But the young (and the merely younger) enjoy assuagements, many of them simply hedonistic, but the most important of them the possibility that things in the future will be better in important ways than they are now. Hope is a powerful argument for going on.

But Anne was 89 years old. For her, there was no question of a radically better life just around the corner, no new job or romance or adventure that would offer the transformation that many of us, and maybe all of us, secretly dream of. For her, the question was whether living in this world was worth it, and she answered, “No.” It is monstrous to denigrate the economic advances that underpin the world we live in, which is, from the point of view of most of the human beings who have ever lived, a very happy world indeed: In Britain and the United States, for an ordinary person to want for basic food or shelter — a condition that was a universal threat not very long ago — is a scandal. Tirades against “consumerism” are mainly a hobby for well-fed people, but they are not entirely without merit.

In the United States, the mobility and dynamism of our work force have led to higher standards of living for ordinary workers, but have diminished both community and family as we follow the division of labor across the country. Many of us are lucky to see our parents once or twice a year. And while the Buchananite Right and the Organic Co-op Left harbor a great diversity of stupidities between them — each implicitly believes that the ugliness that sometimes results from freedom can be mitigated by subtracting from freedom rather than from ugliness — there is something to the revulsion that they feel for what they perceive as decadence and capitalism, respectively. Our public spaces are brutal and ugly; our families are fractured and perverted;  some of our most hideous buildings are churches and public monuments; the emergence of the shopping mall as the new agora was not entirely an improvement; Walmart may be a magic lantern for the prejudices of high-toned liberals, but walking through one suggests that those prejudices are not without some merit; not a day goes by when what passes for discourse in this the world’s most successful republic does not fill me with disgust. If this were all there is, then I couldn’​t blame Anne for not wanting to endure much more of it.

The novelist David Foster Wallace, by any standard a wildly successful man who nonetheless took his own life before finishing out his 40s, understood the urge to end one’s own life, and that it is not, contrary to what we so often are told, the coward’s way out:

The so-called “psychotically depressed” person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote “hopelessness” or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling “Don’t!” and “Hang on!,” can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

But Anne was not trapped between the flames and the chasm. She was trapped in a perplexing world, one that is a little less humane than it should be, one that is a good deal more cruel than it needs to be, and one that reserves the very worst of itself for the old and the sick, as though age and sickness were insufficient miseries, wanting the supplements of indignity and loneliness. In such a condition, “Is this it?” is a bleak question indeed.

But ugliness and cruelty is not all there is — not by a long shot. There is much that is good and fine, in truth more of what is good and fine than there probably ever has been. If that has the effect of throwing into sharp relief the brutal and blasphemous aspects of the 21st century, perhaps that is inevitable. Anne’s life ended with an irony: Despairing of a materialistic and consumerist culture, she ended her life in a facility that epitomizes that inhumane culture more perfectly than any McDonald’s or Starbucks ever could.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.