Letter from the Editor: Recognizing beauty, goodness, dignity in life’s weaknesses

Olivia Sielaff
Olivia Sielaff


You might have heard the controversy surrounding the recent death of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old who ended her life Nov. 1, by taking an aid-in-dying medication.

Maynard was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor and was given six months to live. Within that time she would quickly degenerate and suffer from debilitating headaches and seizures.

Maynard said that suffering from brain cancer is a horrible way to die. She did not wish to die, but the cancer was killing her, she said.

“The thought that I can spare myself the physical and emotional lengthy pain of that, as well as my family, is a huge relief,” Maynard said in an NBC News interview.

Under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act – one of five states with assisted suicide laws – Maynard chose when and how to end her life.

I do not wish to debate Maynard’s choice, because doing so would detract from the loss of her life – planned or not. The suffering and death of this young woman is tragic and heart-rending.

Her death has reminded us of fragility and suffering in life. But it’s also brought to my mind the human search for beauty and goodness amid life’s agonies.

In an article from “Verily” magazine, Sophie Caldecott wrote of her father’s suffering and death from prostate cancer.

She said she lived through a similar situation as Maynard’s family, “in all it’s grim reality,” watching her father painfully pass away, but without an aid-in-dying medication.

“Despite his bleak diagnosis,” she wrote, “there was never a good moment for my father to die. During his last years he suffered, yes, but he also wrote books, enjoyed a blissful family holiday in Italy, and danced on his daughter’s wedding day, among countless more mundane moments, lovely for all their simplicity.”

But it is still difficult to see the goodness in life’s suffering.

At “The Power of Beauty” conference held Oct. 24-25 at Franciscan University, Teresa Farnan argued a case for including disabled persons in our definition of beauty.

She said that cultural expectations have created a barrier to seeing beauty in all persons – especially the disabled. In doing so, beauty has been separated from goodness.

Farnan was speaking specifically of those who are disabled from birth – like a child with Down Syndrome.

But I think disability can be applied more broadly to those who have become disabled, or more vulnerable, through illness and tragedy.

If we are to see the beauty of life, we must also see the goodness of it.

Assisted suicide, for instance, separates goodness from life. It says that a particular debilitation takes away from the value of life. It echoes that death is a greater good than life.

Caldecott learned from her father that even in the midst of suffering, there is still beauty and goodness in life.

“I know with more certainty than I have ever known anything,” she wrote, “that if he were still here he would tell you it was worth living every last drop of life…”

Ultimately, we must remember that this is not a matter of rhetoric and philosophy or of laws and politics. It is a matter of a person’s life – even a life lived in weakness until its last breath.

“To call vulnerability undignified,” Caldecott concluded, “is to allow ourselves to lose sight of the fact that there is beauty – and yes, dignity – even in extreme weakness, in the whole imperfect, messy, and glorious business of being alive.”

Yes, there is beauty, dignity and goodness in the weakness and vulnerability of life. This is a truth our world so desperately needs to hear.