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Recognizing "courage" where it exists

It’s not really the content of the column, nor the story in it, but rather the tone of John Hill’s piece that leaves one a little unnerved.

I don’t know what Fox McKeithen’s religious affiliation was, but from the Catholic perspective his situation fell into an area of ambivalence, where, depending upon several factors, either the decision to continue to live or to bring upon death are moral. This is, one the one hand, opposed to murder/suicide, the kind of death visited upon the protagonist in the film Million Dollar Baby, where she merely objected to having to live paralyzed and her death was engineered through lethal injection.

On the other hand, in either the movie protagonist’s or McKeithen’s case, neither were in a persistent vegetative state. Had they been in persistent vegetative states with bodies that would cease to stay alive without some care beyond nutrition and hydration, Catholic doctrine would suggest they should be kept alive. However, if it were a matter of them requiring any life support beyond nutrition and hydration, it would constitute a clear case where those entrusted with this person’s life could reasonably anticipate that they should allow the person’s soul to take its next step according to God’s plan: maintaining life or declining to death on their own.

With McKeithen’s case, a lot of contingencies existed. One could go into minutiae here, but to draw a very general, broad distinction, McKeithen chose to die where there are many who contribute less to society than he did and he potentially could have, and who have far fewer resources to draw upon to sustain their lives, who chose and continue to choose to this day to live.

So when one reads that McKeithen wanted to “die with dignity,” and that his “final legacy is to show us all how to face our own deaths”, quite unintentionally it comes across as a kind of endorsement of his action in all cases, that perhaps anybody who is paralyzed and on mechanical ventilation ought to opt for the same, in order to be “dignified” and courageously “face our own deaths.” Obviously, some do not choose death, a few famous, most not. As I have argued elsewhere, it would be unfortunate if a global attitude emerged to discourage people in this condition from wanting to live or, more perniciously, made others feel excused from an obligation to provide the extra assistance these people would need to stay alive in a dignified fashion.

Hopefully, the one thing that people do not get out of John Hill’s column is that the horrible incident showed “courage.” Facing one’s limitations and mortality in and of itself does not connote courage; it’s the response to recognizing those conditions that demonstrate it. When I think of the decision made by McKeithen and his family, “understandable,” “difficult,” “hard,” and “painful” all come to mind precisely because I see courage in these kinds of lives. And it’s important to be a purist when it comes to defining such a word this way in this situation because otherwise it can become debased very quickly. That is what is so insidious about Million Dollar Baby, where somehow the act of killing the protagonist becomes accepted by many as “courageous” (even “loving”) when in fact they erroneously make it a synonym of “convenient.”

In a world where too many deny there is right and wrong, where some wage a constant campaign to make gray the division between black and white, we must be vigilant to pay heed to and to recognize the true meaning of things in order to properly understand the moral implications that proceed from them.

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