From the Edge of the Golden Gate Bridge

To the heart of the culture of life

By Michele Szekely

A recent headline in a San Francisco paper was about adding a barrier to the Golden Gate Bridge to stop people from jumping to their death. Every month, an average of one or two people commit suicide by jumping off the bridge. The grieving families of those who have died in this way have testified about their loss, their pain and their anguish.

Hearing about this makes most of us feel a cringe of sorrow inside ourselves. We do not know the details of the suffering experienced by those who jumped (and every story is a heart-wrenching story), but we all understand that they were suffering and wish we could have stopped them. The barrier will cost around $2 million and will take a couple of years to build.

As a devout, devoted Catholic, I hold life to be sacred — a gift from God. Thus, I can only presume that anyone who would make such a decision as to jump off the Bridge must be greatly suffering, in a state of hopelessness and confusion, riddled with a sense of failure and viewing their life as a mess. It is good for the City to take any additional precaution possible to prevent such tragic events.

Within the last couple of weeks, a bill was introduced in Sacramento, called “California Compassionate Choice Act”; it is about assisted suicide: procuring deadly drugs for terminal patients who wish to end their lives. I hold this bill to be ethically wrong. It is wrong to help anyone to commit suicide, whether or not we know the details of their sufferings and whether or not we are witnessing their hopelessness and their confusion, their sense of uselessness. Such requests are actually a cry for help. What we need to do is to help them with managing pain and help them cope with loneliness and fear. We need to find ways to assist them in alleviating their sense of being a burden, of feeling useless, of having no hope. Around terminally ill patients, we should also invest millions of dollars to build a “virtual barrier” that will protect them from any tragic move; it would be a good decision to spend the time and resources needed to accomplish this as well.

In this particular issue, it looks like my stand on waiting for death to come naturally is not as common as it used to be in the popular culture. There is a definitive tendency to flirt with euthanasia lately.

Which bring us to this interesting paradox: If I am standing on the bridge and see someone about to jump, and if I say, “Let me help you — let me push you over,” I will be harshly judged (and rightly so) by most people – and I could go to jail. But if the person somehow survives the fall (and a few of them have done so), and if that person ends up as a quadriplegic in a hospital bed, begging to end it all, then if I inject the person with a killing drug, it would be considered a ‘compassionate choice’?

O Lord, save us from our self-imposed confusion! Help us see through wicked delusion and sort out all the deceptions.

Faith is a wonderful guide in these difficult issues dealing with death. Our wonderful Pope has very astutely defined all these issues as the struggle of the culture of life vs. the culture of death. The wisdom of the Church is here to help us along the way. We should also be able to articulate our positions to the non-Christians around us and show them the truth of such positions, helping them understand it is for the common good of society.

The “California Compassionate Choice” bill mentioned earlier is misleading and we should say so. We need to point out that every request to commit suicide is actually a cry for help; that euthanasia, assisted suicide, eugenics are all slippery stones on the worst slippery slope one can imagine…. If killing is justified in our consciences in some cases, it will eventually become easier to justify it in more and more different cases. First it’s the sick that will go, but then also the handicapped, the weak, the useless ones, the ugly ones, the unwanted ones … We can never forget that getting rid of the ‘unwanted’ ones was the basic premise of the whole Nazi disaster.

There is quite a stir right now regarding the Million Dollar Baby movie and whether or not there is a message promoting assisted suicide tucked into it. Without having seen the movie, but from reviews I have read, one can only say that this movie seems not to promote the culture of life. I remember the movie, “My Left Foot” of a few years back, and how one felt uplifted and inspired at the end of it, because it helped us see beyond the physical limitations of someone; it allowed us to grasp the core of greatness of that person. The movie helped us see with the eyes of the heart and was very life-affirming.

John Paul II, who wrote extensively on the choices for life, is himself the subject of debate right now in the media. Due to his great age, illness and frailty, there is a growing consensus that he should resign. This way of looking at it (this utilitarian world view where man is at the center of things rather than God), however, is missing the main point: the Pontiff is not holding a job which can be measured by what he does, but, rather, he is father to his flock which is a completely different matter. A father is still a father even when weak and sick because of who he is, not because of what he can do.

The media’s concern with him is a positive thing in many ways: they care about him, about his powerful presence, about the fact that he is known in every continent and that the story of his life has been intertwined with our recent world history. Thus, I’m not saying the media are getting it all wrong, but they often see only part of the picture, and it is up to us to keep correcting this lack and help point them in the right direction. The culture of death focuses on what is useful or what is the easiest way out, or what works for “me” first and foremost. But there is another approach that looks at the good of my neighbor as my own good, and sees beyond the material — holds every life to be precious. That is true compassion.

John Paul II is like a grand “test case” himself, right now, for all of us to see, for the whole world to watch. The pictures of his illness and old age are easily captured and passed around by our modern technology. But his endurance, his patience and his peace are still able to shine through every report. As Christians, we have an approach to suffering and death which is both puzzling and startling to anyone else. (We don’t always grasp it fully ourselves!) But it is of utmost importance and our Pope is serving as a lightning rod for its importance, right now, in the public square of our global village. He is pointing us to what truly matters, he is asking for our own patience. He needs our prayers, he is teaching us to “choose life” against all odds, to always reach out in care and compassion rather than resorting to whatever can speed up the death process.

So although it is difficult, we are a given quite a window of opportunity right now to articulate and promote the culture of life, to spread the gospel of forgiveness and love, and finally to “teach to observe all that He has commanded us.”