Shortly after my wife had given birth to our first son, I held my little boy and was immediately struck by his helplessness. Before that moment, I may have had some idea of how dependent a child is on others, but it became very real when my wife handed him to me on that sweltering summer day in Washington, D.C. Those moments at the beginning of life, as well as at its end, show us in a vivid way one of the deepest truths about being human: we are radically dependent on others.
We know that “no man is an island.” We are all interdependent, and our actions affect others. But in much of our culture, we glorify the idea of total independence and self-sufficiency. Dr. Seuss’s character from the The Lorax, the Once-ler, puts it well when he says, “I have my rights, sir, and I’m telling you, I intend to go on doing just what I do.” The independent woman. The self-made man. The myth of the self-sufficient individual can be seductive, but it is false.
This individualistic idea of the human person comes to the fore in debates about assisted suicide. Proponents talk as if the suffering patient were the only person involved. To be sure, in these discussions, we want to focus on people who are suffering. At the same time, we cannot forget that a suicide is a death in a family, a wound to a community. It leaves others behind who must pick up the pieces. In fact, a recent study in Switzerland, where this practice is legal, found that one out of six friends or family members who are present at an assisted suicide suffer afterward from clinical depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. It seems assisted suicide doesn’t end suffering. Rather, it transfers suffering to others. This is a profoundly communal issue, and we must see it as such.
We tend to hear about the family, friends, and community who surround the elderly or terminally ill when the one contemplating suicide says that she doesn’t want to be a burden on those she loves. In a culture formed from the myth of the autonomous individual, we struggle with the thought of being a burden. We feel that our dignity is eroded when we depend on others to care for us. This is cause for lament. Receiving the gift of support from loved ones as we approach the end of life is part of being human. Indeed, the truth of the matter is this: we are all, at all times, dependent on others.
The myth of the self-made, independent individual clouds our vision, leading all too many of us to view society as divided between those who are strong and those who can be cast aside. However, our dependency is one of the beautiful aspects of human life. We depend on mothers and fathers to nurture us. We depend on family and friends to put up with our imperfections. A successful community requires the cooperation of everyone. The story of a human life is replete with acts of giving and receiving care. These acts are seeds of a culture of life, a culture that flourishes when we, dependent creatures that we are, allow ourselves to rest in our humanness.
Aaron Matthew Weldon is a staff assistant for the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. He is also a Ph.D. Candidate in Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America and a former intern for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. For more on promoting a culture of life, visit the Secretariat’s Life Issues Forum.