Bioethics,  Catholic Spirituality,  Culture of Death,  euthanasia,  Pro Life,  relativism

The unsexiness of death (or what ‘Me Before You’ is missing)

One of these days I’m going to write a nice, fluffy post aaaaaaall about my favorite organic non-hormone disrupting eco-friendly non-GMO spray sunscreen. Or something like that.

Today is not that day.

This weekend marks the opening of Hollywood’s latest offering in the relatively new genre of “death porn,” and it’s a doozie.

I haven’t (and probably won’t) see the movie, because I prefer to remember Finnick losing his life in a heroic act of self sacrifice in the fetid sewers beneath the Capitol, not (spoiler alert) committing suicide while his approving-yet-heartbroken girlfriend holds his hand, and the bottle of pills.

But I did read the book.

And this story, this little love-story-that-actually-wasn’t, is, I think, more dangerous than some of Hollywood’s earlier attempts. Million Dollar Baby sent a depressing message about the value of an elite athlete’s life post-major-trauma, but the confused message of “loving someone enough to kill them” at least wasn’t mixed in with romantic love. It’s a small “at least,” but a notable one, I think, for our culture which has sexual love on a perilous pedestal indeed.

This story is a little different, because the main character is already paralyzed and clinically depressed when he meets his would-be lover and eventual suicide accomplice. It wasn’t a tale of knowing the man before the profoundly life-altering trauma, but knowing – and falling in love with – only the man he was afterwards: the crippled man in the power chair.

So it’s possible, then, to fall in love with a human being who has been profoundly damaged by disease or accident. Because his essence, his intrinsic value, is unchanged. But what this movie gets so wrong is it’s seminal manifestation of love. The climax in this love story isn’t a sex scene, but a suicide scene.

Hollywood has sex pretty backwards, as it is, but things take a complicated cultural turn when we move from letting our feelings be the sole barometer for our sexuality (check) to letting our feelings be the criterion against which we measure the goodness of our continued existence.

Do I feel like I’d be better off dead? Do I have a plan for how I’d like to make this happen? Could I get my loved ones to endorse and even participate in this plan? (This used to be called clinical depression with suicidal ideation, and I’m pretty sure it’s still in the DSM. For now.) Great! Cue next major Social Movement of Great Significance, which you’d better get behind or else you might be a Bigot with a capital-B.

Eons ago, the year before last, Brittany Maynard was catapulted into global fame for her own battle for “death with dignity.” Physician-assisted suicide enthusiasts “Compassion and Choices” jumped onto her bandwagon and road it hard and fast to her eventual suicide death, on November 1st, 2014. It was, by that point, such a Truman Show-esque spectacle, one wonders whether she was able to exercise complete freedom, in the end, or if the intensity of nearly worldwide scrutiny and a nasty public debate signed her death certificate months before the actual event. It was a tragedy.

Telling clinically depressed, chronically ill, and paralyzed people that their lives are not worth living is a tragedy.

Inviting millions of viewers into the complicated, imaginary love triangle between Lou, Will, and his quadriplegia and driving home the message the the charitable, noble, and humane solution to his suffering is death, is a tragedy.

I hope this movie’s legacy is that it gets people talking about the chilling double standard which exists between disabled people – cripples, as one feisty wheelchair-user prefers we call her – as opposed to us able bodied “regular” folks.

Is a human life only as valuable as the sum of a body’s working parts? To the extent that it’s wanted? The right color? The preferred age, weight and gender?

Either all human life is valuable, or none of our lives have value. Not yours, not mine, not Barack Obama’s or Pope Francis’ or Taylor Swift’s.

Our value does not fluctuate with age. Ability. Wealth. Employment status. Health.

Stand up for life this weekend by having a conversation with someone about this movie, and about the idea that a person with a disability is somehow exempt from being assessed against the same mental health criterion as an able-bodied being. Be prepared for some discomfort. But don’t be surprised if, 5 years from now, we’re not watching romantic dramas about euthanasia between consenting adults, but about parents dispatching terminally ill children “out of love.”

Ever read The Giver?

Things always sounds crazy and far-fetched until suddenly they start to sound a little more like common sense. Maybe because we’ve heard them repeated loudly, and frequently, enough.

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16 Comments

  • AnneMarie

    Great post! I like how you mention how seemingly crazy things suddenly start to seem like common sense if we just keep repeating them-I think this definitely has been happening so much in our society! I grew up on old movies, and just thinking about it now, a lot of them at one point or another would have a character contemplating jumping off a bridge or falling into despair…and the reaction of the other characters and the viewer was always one of compassion, love, concern, and “Don’t kill yourself, life is worth living!” But now, just decades-mere decades!-later, Hollywood (and authors) are trying to make us rethink this stance. Very scary, and very unfortunate.

  • M.T.

    Great post. I read this book without knowing what it was about and was loving the characters and the story until I realized that it was going horribly wrong. And then I was furious! I had been duped into thinking it was a real love story!
    I couldn’t believe ultimately how much of a selfish jerk he was! “I love you but I love my proud and selfish self more.” The “love story” is so insidious and twisted, and pulls at such deep emotions that I do agree that it’s a dangerous movie and book for our confused world

  • jeanette

    My philosophy professor, who also was my academic advisor, was injured at a young age from a diving accident and was wheelchair bound with very limited use of her hands and no use of her legs. She couldn’t write , but could use a pen in her mouth. She earned her doctorate in philosophy without the benefit of computers, and was a well-respected member of the faculty and beloved by her students. Even though you could see that she had limitations, it was such a small part in how one encountered her, as if the physical limitations did not exist because of how she lived her life and thrived in spite of those limitations.

    There is a very definite psychological element to any physical limitation, whether temporary or permanent, and it is a challenge to face it and allow oneself to step beyond the apparent limits. It helps, and is even critical at times, to have people in your life who love and support you in your efforts. Simply offering death as a viable alternative is to turn one’s back on the real meaning of our humanity and is most certainly not an expression of love or mercy. But yes, our society thinks that if it just keeps saying something over and over again it will suddenly become truth. It is actually more of a social brainwashing technique.

  • Remi

    Well done Jenny. Perceptive, as usual.
    It was interesting that the Guardian, a left-leaning British paper, had an outraged article yesterday about this. The disabled community are up in arms about promoting this solution to their problems.
    This tendency needs to be denounced from the rooftops before they begin canonised Kevorkian and others.
    But the logic is so similar to the abortion industry’s, the economic (short term) benefit of killing the disabled rather than caring for them is so great that it is going to be a battle.

  • Rosalia

    This is such a great article!
    First of all, I hate to admit that I was one of the young adult girls who thought this story was so “compelling” because of its movie trailer. So naturally I rushed to read it before this Friday. Halfway through I realized that this book was “so interesting” because it was going to turn around and give people an insight to the quality of life especially for handicapped. I could relate to it as I witness many people in my life, in particular my uncle, who were/are ina wheelchair…. I WAS EXTREMELY DISAPPOINTED with the whole book I couldn’t read the last chapters! It not only showed that people in wheelchairs had no purpose, but also had no faith, hope, or love. Which is completely UNTRUE! I am so very disgusted with the author and the makers of this movie. I WILL not be going to see this!

  • Gen

    Wow, thanks for this! I had no idea it was going to end that way! That’s sad. I was planning to watch it in the cinema, after watching the trailer. From the trailer, I thought it was a beautiful romance movie. Darn. :/ Definitely skipping.

  • Rebecca K

    So….. once a week, post your favorite cookie recipe or “Here’s a family favorite recipe that actually WORKS!” I get ya.We know you’re not all curmudgeonly all the time, but thanks for speaking out, nonetheless. Better to process those thoughts out and, perhaps, help others to think as well.

  • Bob Glover

    Thanks for your comments. I cannot begin to articulate the growth and change that has come into my life when my wife was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The thought of ending her life “out of love” does not compute. To understand love is to know how inside out that string of words is. My wife’s value actually has increased in my heart since I began seeing to her needs. My faith has increased and our love for each other has increased. If the family is the building block of society, then anything that increases the strength of the family should be honored and valued. My children have an example of what love, commitment, and marriage is in the Christian family. That has value in and of itself, but it will have value to our society as well as they leave the home.

    • jeanette

      Beautiful example to your children and everyone who knows you of what it means to live out your marriage vows to their fullest. May God continue to bless your family with the joy of witnessing love.

  • Máire Ní Bhroin

    Great post! Thx for shining the light of truth on the horrible lie perpetrated by this movie which suggests that people who have disabilities are better off dead and the deeply misguided propoganda that people who love them should participate in their Euthanasia. How refreshing that both you and most, if not all of your readers know & believe that we all have a spiritual purpose and value that apparently the writer of the novel ‘Me Before You’ and the makers of the movie based on this book, cannot appreciate nor understand.

  • David Freitag

    I hated the reviews of this movie. I never, ever want to watch it. This is basically saying to those who feel they are a blot of evil that should be eliminated from the earth, “You’re right. Go ahead and die, we’ll be better off without you.” This directly contradicts God’s message of mercy and love, that a human’s a human even if they are disabled or unborn.

  • Adrienne Thorne

    Great post, and very relevant currently with the premiere of the another popular installment of “death porn” in Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why.” It’s very disappointing to see these trends in our entertainment industry. On a positive note, though, ABC’s sitcom “Speechless” is actually a wonderful look at the dignity of the human person, handicapped or not (and it happens to be hilarious!). It’s definitely worth watching, especially when we start to feel dismal about the rising popularity of the culture of death in our viewing material.

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