One of the biggest existential questions I’ve had to ask in the last couple of years was raised by a counselor I was working with. This occurred during a period where my physical and mental health were rapidly deteriorating to the point where I would likely soon be incapable of caring for myself.
He encouraged me to ask the question:
“What gives life value? If you were unable to give anything to the world, would your life still matter?”
I wanted him to answer the question for me, to tell me whether my life would still matter if I couldn’t stand up on my own, but he wouldn’t answer it. “You need to decide that for yourself.”
So I continued to ask questions. At what point does a life cease to be of value? Does it matter if one is able to reach a certain standard of performance? For example, does a person’s life matter until they’re unable to walk on their own? If that were the case, I suppose we would consider the lives of the elderly, the physically disabled, and even babies not worthy of being taken care of. How about if someone can’t breathe on their own? Does a life matter then?
And when does a human life stop (or start) being human? When one can no longer think clearly and do what one loves? When they no longer have a personality? When they can no longer interact with the world in a meaningful way, or are no longer aware of the external world?
This conversation can lead in a variety of directions, but for me in this moment, the most fascinating and charged one is euthanasia. I recently read an article about a woman in the UK who went to the Netherlands to receive medical assistance in dying. She had suffered sexual abuse for years earlier in her life, and although she was only in her 20s, she was bed-bound by severe depression and anorexia, among other things. Her doctors felt there was nothing more they could do to help her and that she had little hope of ever recovering, so they signed off on her death.
I understand that situation well because, although I have not suffered sexual abuse or dealt with an eating disorder, I do know what it’s like to be bed-bound with seemingly little hope for recovery. I know what it’s like to attempt to manage intractable and crushing mental forces like depression, anxiety, and worse while my body seems to fight against me at every turn. I know what it’s like to try — for over a decade — to heal, and at the end of all that struggle, be worse off than ever.
And I know there is a point at which I would want to be assisted in dying. I walked the edge of that line for a while, where my quality of life was bad enough that in a country or state where assisted suicide was an option, I might have opted for it. Thankfully that didn’t come up, though, because I have managed to recover enough to restore hope and make great strides in healing. I think my recovery will extend all the way to joyful wellness and full living soon enough.
I can’t judge that woman’s decision, nor her doctor’s, because it was her choice to make for herself. She must have asked the same existential questions I did, and came to the conclusion that she had passed the point where her life mattered anymore. I don’t know what was going on in her mind and heart.
The conclusion I ultimately came to on this matter was twofold: objectively, all life has value; but subjectively, each life, if it has the capacity for introspection (as nearly all humans do), must determine whether its own life is worth living. If it cannot, my hope is that those who care for that life (whether “it” is a baby, an elderly person with dementia, a cow, whatever) will see the highest potential for that life.
For some, a life worth living may entail being able to enjoy “simple” pleasures: reading a book, savoring good food, hugging people they love, even the in and out of their breath. For others, anything less than full enjoyment of all that the world has to offer is unacceptable. I used to operate, unforgivingly, from the latter perspective, and have worked hard to adopt the former.
It’s hard for me to say for sure, since I’m still working on loving my own self better, but I feel in my heart that any life can be worth living — it may simply a matter of loving oneself deeply enough.
Although you may feel my own heart and convictions in this conversation, my point in sharing this is to invite you to the ask the question: What gives life value?
When you find the answers for yourself, you’ll find yourself there too.