I remember the date because it was the fourth of July weekend, 2014: the day that Dad called me to let me know that he was dying. I immediately booked a flight back to Ohio, and stayed there for the rest of the summer and into the first weeks of fall: a period of time that forever transformed my life. Those painful months solidified the reality that loss of any kind of transformative. One cannot witness the profound suffering of another, especially someone they love, and walk away unchanged.
So it’s with some frustration and morbid curiosity that I’m sitting at my computer at almost midnight, drinking tea and reading the first dozen articles that pop up on Google about Christian author and blogger Kara Tippetts, who died yesterday of breast cancer. I own Tippetts’ book, The Hardest Peace, about finding grace from God in the midst of suffering. It’s a powerful book, but I never would have heard of it if Tippetts didn’t write a blog post that went viral, urging right-to-die advocate Brittany Maynard not to end her life by euthanasia after having been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
I’m frustrated because the phrase “death with dignity” gets tossed about so casually in debates about the ethics of choosing to die, completely disregarding the reality that suffering, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I share Kara’s belief that suffering does not have to be a wasted experience, but a redemptive one: it can not only point to what matters most in life, but often leaves the afflicted with conviction and a calling. I know a few people who found their life’s calling after suffering unspeakable tragedies. They are people who choose to travel to other countries to help provide medical care that is otherwise inaccessible; they are people who entered the mental health profession and are counseling teens who suffer from depression. They are transforming lives around them because of what they suffered, and there is much that is beautiful about that.
Some people would say that a disease that can cause a complete lack of control of one’s body and indescribable agony is not a ‘dignified’ way to keep living. But as human beings, we are already dignified: I believe we are born with dignity, and therefore we die with it as well. So underneath the heated debates, the religious and political agendas, the manipulation of people like Maynard as a means of promoting Obamacare, we are missing a valid point: how a person lives matters more than how they die.
The real legacy of people like Kara Tippetts, Brittany Maynard, and my father David Caplin is not in how they died, but how they lived before that. So please, let’s stop the pitting of one woman against the other, praising one as “brave” and the vilifying the other as “selfish” or “cowardly.” I’m staying out of the heated discussion of whether people I’ll never meet should be allowed to make their own educated decisions about life and death. But I do firmly believe that to live in a world full of uncertainty and any kind of suffering at all is brave. Place your focus where it counts most: on life as we know it, right now.
See also: What does it mean to die with dignity?