"Come and Give Until It Hurts"
Fr. Vincent looks at the Dobbs decision in light of his experience as a hospital chaplain
I was raised by two feminists who impressed upon me the vital importance that access to abortion has for women’s autonomy, freedom, and thus, it is reasoned, for their dignity and happiness. And throughout my life I have certainly come face to face with many abortion stories, not a few of which filled me with anguish and compassion for the plight faced by the women involved. Some had to do with a woman’s burden of poverty, others were facing abandonment or abuse by family, still others were experiencing their own desperate sense of not being able to cope with a child’s arrival in their chaotic and hectic lives.
One tale particularly struck me. A young woman became pregnant during her year abroad in Paris. Not only was she far away from her family and other supportive relationships, and thus overwhelmed by a sense of vulnerability, but she also felt anguished by the thought of failing in her ambitions to be a writer. She felt a burning hatred for the new life in her womb, inasmuch as this little being threatened her visions of success and fulfillment.
Not surprisingly the dramatic news of the Supreme Court overturning the 1973 Roe vs Wade decision - thus annulling the declaration that abortion is a constitutional right - brought to mind many of these women’s stories and faces. And, despite my very solid judgment about the unjust and violent nature of an abortion, I felt a strong tug of concern about women who are experiencing desperate emotions when faced which challenging circumstances around a pregnancy. And I said to myself, worried, “What happens now?”
Then I was struck by the realization that this chain of thought closely parallels the reactions I witness on a daily basis with regards to the issue of assisted suicide. I am a chaplain for a private foundation that takes care of people with grave illnesses, handicaps, or injuries for which there is no reasonable hope of recovery. I spend my days with many people who are terminally or chronically ill. I also accompany people with psychiatric problems. The foundation has often sent me to meet people precisely because they were considering assisted suicide. Many of them are also in far-from-ideal family or social situations.
Stefano is a young man, 31 years old. Six years ago, he was a professional DJ and while returning very late from a gig he had an accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. In the hospital a medical error meant that he has to live with a tracheotomy that makes it difficult and painful to speak. He lives alone with his mother who feels overwhelmed, abandoned, and inadequate to face this challenge. There is also Marisa. At 70 years old, she is an ex-high school teacher, divorced, and estranged from her two children. She is sick with ALS, has had a stroke that makes it impossible to speak, and lives alone in a run-down apartment with her hired caregiver. Both Stefano and Marisa have received official authorization for assisted suicide. Stefano has put his suicide on hold and Marisa has definitively renounced this step. Why? Because they have discovered that there are people willing to walk alongside them.
When I speak of these people, the reactions of my interlocutors are often anguish and horror. And more than a few times I have witnessed men and women of mature faith say to me, with pain written upon their faces, “But wouldn’t it be better for them to put an end to it all? Those poor things! They are suffering!” Imagining other people’s painful circumstances fills us with anguish, an emotion that demands an immediate resolution.
My experience over the last seven years has led me to understand that anguish comes to us when we perceive the dramatic limitations on life which present to us the loss and defeat of death with no clear sense of how this can be an occasion of life’s victory. It is unbearable as much for the people who come to consider these circumstances as for the people directly affected by them. One feels the irresistible need to resolve this problem and put an end to the torment!
Killing seems like a reasonable step to stop the anguish that pulls our soul towards the abyss. The campaigns promoting assisted suicide seek to provoke maximum anguish so that people will vote for putting the means of getting rid of the problem into the hands of people in difficult circumstances. We vote for assisted suicide for the same reasons we want abortion to be legal. We feel hopeless and helpless and just want to get rid of the problem. We want it to just go away.
But are we so hopeless? Are we so helpless?
I have found that an answer to this anguish that is life affirming is possible. Everything depends on whether the person finds that he or she is accompanied, is sharing this experience with others who open themselves up to the drama taking place. Marvelous changes take place when others look together with them at their lives with a sense of curiosity, ready to discover an unexpected yet undeniable value in living these circumstances.
But there is more. I have invited volunteers to help me stay close to people in seemingly desperate situations. I remind the volunteers that they are not there to solve the problems, but to share this mysterious road with these people, asking God to reveal to them what He is doing, and to show how this road can be worthwhile. What these volunteers report to me again and again is that they experience in these people a freedom from their anguish because they discover that there is life there.
So, I come back to the Supreme Court’s decision. We can imagine and are in touch with the varying situations in which women are rocked by the serious challenges that bringing a new life into the world means. And we ourselves are filled with anguish. But is the answer putting the power to legally kill into the hands of others?
The anguish of others is a call to us to come close, to make ourselves available, and to offer to walk with them and look at these circumstances together. If accepted, the experience of companionship opens a person’s eyes to positive possibilities that would otherwise be invisible. Desiring to legalize killing in order to get rid of anguishing problems is a way for us, who hear of these things, to avoid the insistent call to come together and to come close. Our willingness to look at the drama together with an entreaty and thus a positive hypothesis is a road of sure hope. In many dozens of cases I have never seen it fail. And we too are freed from anguish.
Stefano, a quadriplegic, put off his assisted suicide because one day a visiting bishop heard about him and insisted on being taken to his bedside where he spent two hours getting to know him. When I arrived the next day, I started off the conversation with some words that made it clear that I understood his deep sadness. He looked at me and managed to say, “Thank you for understanding, Vincent.” He never brought up killing himself again. Marisa renounced the possibility presented to her to legally have herself killed. When I asked her why, she was silent for a few moments then tilted her head towards the other room where her Philippine caregiver was. Then, with her electronic device, she said, “My caregiver loves me.”
The reversal of Roe vs. Wade has served the ball into our court with the challenge of sacrificing ourselves to discover the joy of love. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, when asked how other people could experience her joy, answered, “Come and give until it hurts. Then you discover true and lasting joy.” This is our opportunity to discover lasting joy and to be companions to women and couples facing unplanned pregnancies. This is a moment where we can help each other move beyond our helplessness and hopelessness, and to act together entreating God’s mercy and free ourselves from anguish, and thus from the attraction of Satan’s solution to our problems. For succumbing to such ‘solutions’ risks casting all of us into a desperation that confirms our being left alone, unable to expect any companionship to draw us back from the abyss.
Fr. Vincent Nagle