Living in a culture of death with all its ugly trappings can tempt us to sink into what John Bunyon, in his allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, called the “slough of despond” or what others describe as the swamp of sadness and despair. Abortion, euthanasia, suicide (including assisted suicide), and all the other depressing moral evils of our day dance around humanity pounding us with the message that life is meaningless and not worth living. It is, of course, a lie, but one that seduces many souls already fighting mental illness, guilt, depression, or hopelessness.
One sad sign of the state of the culture, is the increasing number of suicides, particularly among the young. A leading cause of death in those 15 to 29 is suicide. Young women attempt it more often, but young men more often succeed as did my precious 18-year-old grandson who killed himself on May 2nd.
Brendan was being treated for depression and, because of some recent events, felt like a failure. I believe his suicide was less a decision than an impulsive act trying to escape a blackness that was suffocating him. And now all of us are engulfed in a grief, the like of which I’ve never experienced even in the darkest moments of my life.
His mom, our daughter, shared on Facebook recently that Brendan “binge watched” the Neflix-produced TV series, 13 Reasons Why in the weeks before he took his life which they discovered when they examined his viewing history. I won’t watch the show, but I’ve read several articles describing its dark and hopeless message. One, by Mary Beth Bonacci at the Denver Catholic was particularly disturbing. Here’s how she described the show and her three reasons for urging people not to watch:
First, the series suddenly got very explicit….[by] the 5th episode, I had already seen way more porn use, masturbation, homosexual experimentation, etc. than I cared to see. Thanks to the...heads up, I knew to fast forward through graphic depictions of not one but two sexual assaults, and then the suicide itself. But I saw enough to know that nobody, of any age, should be allowing those images into their heads….graphic sexual and violent depictions…have tremendous power. Our brains are wired to react strongly to them. When put in our heads , they tend to stay in our heads. They “imprint.” Especially for children and teenagers who are still relatively innocent, this can be extremely disturbing.1
While few speak these days about “custody of the eyes,” I immediately thought of it when I read this. The devil cannot assault us directly through our reason. Yes, he can attack us with lies and false arguments trying to muddle our thinking, but that’s rocky terrain for him. The imagination, on the other hand, gives him the high ground in the assault. He can conjure up past vile images from pornography, movies and TV shows, violent video games, etc. that are like tanks, fighter jets, and bazookas in his arsenal. All of us need to aggressively control access to our imagination.
Bonacci went on to make her other points:
Second, the series took me to a very dark place, very quickly. It’s hard to describe, except to say that it was very ugly. I wanted to take a shower — with holy water. It lasted the entire weekend, whether I was watching the show or not. If I felt that way as an adult woman, how would the same show impact young, impressionable kids?
And third, I have zero doubt that this show is going to lead to far more suicides than it prevents. In fact, school districts are already reporting an uptick in suicide threats among elementary and middle school students since the series debuted.
Bonacci’s conclusions are frightening:
Hannah’s tapes [Hannah is the “heroine” who kills herself.] are a great literary device. They also, unfortunately, offer the perfect “suicide as revenge” fantasy. In life, Hannah was overlooked. Boys (well, most boys) saw her as an object. Girls saw her as an annoyance, or a competitor. But in death, she becomes the star of the school. Her locker becomes a shrine. Her life and death become the school’s sole topic of conversation. She is suddenly “popular.”
Bonacci describes witnessing a spontaneous rally for a high school student who killed himself and the outpouring of attention to his memory. She asks what impact that has on vulnerable kids who may be bullied, shamed, disliked, or feel like outsiders. Will they be tempted to claim their moment in the spotlight despite the high cost involved?
Research consistently shows that one person’s suicide can reinforce a vulnerable person’s motivation to join them. And when those at-risk kids see that person’s status elevated from high school loser to posthumous celebrity, it intensifies that effect. Couple that with a dramatic depiction of successful post-mortem revenge and all the discussion in the world won’t override suicide’s seductive appeal.
Fr. Stephen Imbarrato of Priests for Life whose adopted son, an adult, killed himself four years ago, commented on Facebook about the suicide of celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain, writing, “Two things sad about this. 1. That he took his own life. 2. How his suicide is being depicted. Suicide has now become a completely nature [sic] form of death just like any other way of dying! Very subtle way of saying, ‘nothing shocking here, nothing to see here!’”
I never heard of Bourdain before his suicide, but I agree with Fr. Imbarrato’s criticism of the articles about his suicide. CNN which sponsored his show wrote that it, “brought us closer together” as if his suicide were a blessing to the community.
I was personally shocked when a Catholic woman asked me if my grandson “had a good reason” for killing himself. Is that even possible? And then there was the volunteer coordinator of a mental health organization I contacted for information about support groups who emailed me writing:
I am so very sorry for your loss. My nephew killed himself 3 years ago. He was 32….Depression is hard and even harder when someone gets swallowed in that dark place. I pray he has found the peace that eluded him. Some people say suicide is a sign of weakness. I personally disagree. It took great courage for him to end his life.
Clearly she meant this to be consoling. Perhaps the idea consoled her in her own grief, but, as a Catholic I found it horrifying. Courage is a virtue, one we all need. Are we redefining suicide as a virtue? I think the answer in the light of actions by the euthanasia and assisted suicide lobby is absolutely yes! All we have to do is look at the media hoopla surrounding the tragic case of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman with an aggressive brain tumor who moved to Oregon for doctor-assisted suicide. She killed herself November 1, 2014 right on schedule. Did she know it was All Saints Day? Or was that date the inspiration of Satan, mocking the holy day? Does he have an “all demons day” in hell? We can’t know where Brittany is now, but we know the impact of her decision – scandal and big advances for the death lobby.
Compassion and Choices (C&C), the former Hemlock Society, used her as their poster girl to expand legalization of active euthanasia and she actively participated in the scandal. Brittany recorded videos about her “choice.” Because she was young, beautiful, and articulate she was the perfect vehicle for their campaign and they’ve continued to exploit her since her suicide. In October 2015 one day after California Governor Jerry Brown signed a “death with dignity” bill, C&C issued a press release and video with this message:
“Brittany came on the scene and set in motion a chain of events leading to the passage of an aid-in-dying bill through the California legislature less than one year after her death. We had been trying to do that since 1991,” says Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee, who coauthored the Oregon death-with-dignity law. “In 2014, there were aid-in-dying bills in four states. Immediately after Brittany’s emergence on the scene, lawmakers in 25 jurisdictions, plus the District of Columbia, introduced bills.”2
C&C had to make sure Brittany took her own life before her cancer killed her. A natural death was no use to them. When she began rethinking her decision because she was still enjoying life, the lobby moved in like wolves to defend the kill. Brittany was only useful as a tool to advance their agenda if she died by her own hand. And she did, right on schedule. The media portrayed her as courageous and noble, her parents described what she did as a “gift to the world,” rather than the sad scandal it really was. Brittany essentially starred in her own virtual reality death show glamorizing suicide!
But the truth is that suicide is evil. Objectively it is a serious sin. It is never a moral good, much less an act showing the virtue of courage. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear on this:
2280 …We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of. 2281…Suicide is contrary to love for the living God. 2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-cooperation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.3
At Fatima Mary told the children many souls go to hell because they have no one to pray for them. I urge readers to pray for Brittany Maynard. Her family certainly won’t. Why should they since her act was a “gift to the world.” Jesus said we will know people by their fruits. Brittany’s are frightening as C&C’s press release shows. She is the lovely mask disguising an ugly, diabolical “choice” and it chills the heart to read the comments on articles describing her tragic end. Most affirm her decision saying they intend to imitate her if and when the time comes. Is it any wonder suicide is exploding? Brittany was terminally ill and suffering, but are psychological and emotional suffering any less painful than physical suffering? Why not end it all for a “good reason” or 13 “good reasons?”
Jesus said we will know people by their fruits. Brittany’s are frightening as C&C’s press release shows. She is the lovely mask disguising an ugly, diabolical “choice” and it chills the heart to read the comments on articles describing her tragic end. Most affirm her decision saying they intend to imitate her if and when the time comes. Is it any wonder suicide is exploding? Brittany was terminally ill and suffering, but are psychological and emotional suffering any less painful than physical suffering? Why not end it all for a “good reason” or 13 “good reasons?”
There was a time when canon law allowed priests, in specific circumstances, to deny Catholic burial for suicides. The purpose was NOT to punish the suicide victim, but to protect the faithful from scandal. Others could also be denied a Christian burial: unrepentant heretics, apostates, and even those who died in duels. Clearly, the Church, a good mother, did not want people concluding that these acts weren’t seriously wrong. The specific reference to suicide no longer appears in the revised code presumably because, as the catechism states, we can’t know how responsible the suffering soul who takes that desperate act really is:
2282 …Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.
Not surprisingly when you consider life’s challenges, temptation to suicide affects even saints. Therese of Liseux suffered so excruciatingly near the end, that she begged the mother superior saying, “Watch carefully, Mother, when you will have patients a prey to violent pains; don’t leave near them any medicines that are poisonous. I assure you, it needs only a second when one suffers intensely to lose one’s reason. Then one would easily poison oneself.” Three days before her death, in a “strangled sort of voice” she told the sister tending her in the infirmary, “If I didn’t have faith, I could never bear such suffering. I am surprised that there aren’t more suicides among atheists.”
Therese died in 1897. While control of physical pain is more effective today, mental and spiritual pain seem to be exploding and spiraling out of control! Many people don’t seem to have the strength to bear it. And our culture of nihilism with its constant mantra that life is not worth living continuously assaults weak souls. Suicide, especially when it’s portrayed as a courageous way out, has, as Bonacci says, a “seductive appeal.”
What is our response as Catholics? It must always be evangelization about God’s love. It is love and the deep penetrating knowledge of God’s love, that makes life, with all its suffering, worth living. God Who created us loves us so much He took on all the suffering of the world. If we unite our suffering to His and ask for His help, He always gives us the grace to soldier through it. And in fact, as St. Paul says, our suffering makes up for “what’s lacking in the suffering of Christ.” What could possibly be lacking? Our free will acceptance of pain and suffering for the sake of our own souls and to advance the kingdom of God.
Suffering is never wasted if we accept it as God’s will! Jesus told His apostles that some demons could only be driven out by prayer and fasting and one form of fasting is suffering. We fast from pleasure and enjoyment when we suffer. It isn’t a fast we choose. Who would? While we don’t choose it, none of us can escape it. We can, however,make it a voluntary fast by offering up the joy and pleasure we would prefer for the pain and suffering God allows. How many souls can we help to save by that free-will act?
I’ll close with 13 reasons why life is worth living: Mary and the 12 apostles. They show us what lives dedicated to God can do for our fallen world. They lead an army of holy men and women totally dedicated to God’s will.
Yes, God has a purpose for each person’s life, a vocation only that person can fulfill. The call is always personal. Saying yes fills the soul with joy – even (with gritted teeth) in suffering. Often the joy only comes after a Good Friday of suffering. But Easter is on the horizon and if we watch for it with patience, we will see the Son rise.
1 Mary Beth Bonacci, Denver Catholic, 13 Reasons Why Not, May 17, 2017, http://denvercatholic.org/13-reasons-not/.
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2280-2083.