Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn
In the third episode of Weeds Season 4, the incomparable Andy Botwin (Justin Kirk, Animal Practice, Modern Family) and his nephews Silas (Hunter Parrish, The Following, The Good Wife) and Shane Botwin (Alexander Gould), are in the back of a van, arguing whether or not to mercy-kill Bubbie, their dying foremother. The latter is in a semi-coma and had a moment of consciousness the day before, during which she said in Yiddish: “Kill me”.
ANDY: Uh, there… There’s really… There’s really no easy way to say this.
SILAS: You want to kill Bubbie.
ANDY: No. Well…, yes, but no. I mean… yes. And also no. Mostly yes. Like an incredibly humane, merciful, dignified “yes”, up here in the foreground with this deeply felt, sorrowful, tinged-with-regret-and-guilt-about-the-big-fat-“yes” “no” back there a ways.
SHANE: I think it’s the right thing to do.
SILAS: Of course you do. You… talk to dead people.
SHANE: It’s what Bubbie wants. What’s your problem?
SILAS: We don’t have a whole lot of family. Do we really want to kill one off?
ANDY: That in there, that’s as good as it gets for Bubbie. There’s no recovery. There’s just pain and more pain and wanting that pain to end.
SILAS: So let’s just kill her?
ANDY: Let’s help her find peace.
SILAS: By killing her.
ANDY: I wish you wouldn’t make “killing her” sound so much like “killing her.”
SHANE: [to Silas] Show some balls.
ANDY: That’s the spirit!
SILAS: Yeah, sure. Death is no big deal. Because life is just… blah, blah, blah.
ANDY: Look, Silas. Life is just blah, blah, blah. You hope for Blah, and sometimes you find it, but mostly it’s blah. And waiting for blah. And hoping you were right about the blahs you made. And then, just when you think you’ve got the whole blah damn thing figured out, and you’re surrounded by the ones you blah, death shows up. And blah, blah, blah.
SILAS: [sighs] Alright. Let’s do this.
SHANE: [to Andy] That was good.
ANDY: I have my moments.
Of course, I could focus on the existential question of life, its definition, its meaning and its purpose, but I prefer not to. I will focus on the fact that Bubbie said “Kill me” and that her grandson is seriously thinking about it. She has been ill for a very long time and she is not getting any better. She is in a lot of pain and allegedly cannot take the agony any longer. But isn’t this permanent suffering what proves her that she is still alive? The question is provocative, but seriously, could she ever feel more alive without this pain? Existentialists would say “I suffer therefore I am“.
By the way, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) actually wrote it and defended in Philosophy of the Will (1950) the idea that there are two types of intensities in the sense of being alive: there is the intensity that emanates from enjoyment and the second intensity emanates from suffering. For Ricoeur, the intensity one feels when suffering is the intensity of loneliness. The person that suffers is isolated in their own body and mind and this isolation is untenable, which makes the intensity of the sense of living short-lasting.
David Le Breton, a contemporary French anthropologist and sociologist, says in Experiences of Pain (2010) that sometimes, mental suffering is such that it silences pain – and he gives the example of homeless people whose mouths are full of cavities but who cannot feel them anymore. In a certain way, it means that you have to love life to be able to actually feel pain. Yet another French writer, Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), wrote the following verses as a praise of sickness called The Sick People and The Doctors:
The disease is a condition.
Health is only one other, more ugly.
I mean more cowardly and petty.
No patient who has grown.
Not healthy that will ever betrayed,
not wanting to be sick,
such as doctors I suffered.
I was sick all my life and I only ask to continue. (…)
Cure a disease is a crime.
This is bruise the head of a kid much less stingy than life.
The ugly con-rings.
The beautiful rots.
But ill, is not doped with opium, cocaine or morphine.
And you must love the charterer fevers,
jaundice and perfidy much more than any euphoria.
Then the fever, high fever my head –
because I am in a state of high fever
for the last fifty years that I’m alive
But “Suffering is not pain“, says Paul Ricoeur. While pain is just about the body and the messages nociceptors send to the brain, suffering entails “affects opened on reflexivity, language, relations to oneself and to others, and relationship to meaning and questioning”. This is how we can distinguish pain from the suffering that emanates from grief or from depression. Some people decide to end their suffering by committing suicide: they choose death over suffering, because life under those conditions is not acceptable anymore. But suffering is something so intimate, so private that no words can explain it or describe it accurately:
“Indeed, the most intense feeling we know of, intense to the point of blotting out all other experiences, namely, the experience of great bodily pain, is at the same time the most private and least communicable of all. Not only is it perhaps the only experience which we are unable to transform into a shape fit for public appearance, it actually deprives us of our feeling for reality to such an extent that we can forget it more quickly and easily than anything else.” (Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958) So how can doctors and relatives know how much a patient does suffer, if there are no words to put it and no machine to measure it?
Whose right is it to decide whether or not a sick patient should live on? Who has the right to make the decision of life for them? Who established the worth or the sanctity of life? During wars, the life of a human being does not seem to provoke so much fuss. When an airplane disappears with hundreds of unknown Asians in it, people even make jokes on Twitter about it. However, if life was just “blah blah blah”, the questions of euthanasia and assisted suicide would not even have been raised as actual issues. The following extract of Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004) will have the last word:
MAGGIE (Hilary Swank, as an ex boxing champion, agonizing in a hospital bed): I got a favor to ask you, boss.
FRANKIE (Clint Eastwood, as her coach, sits by her bedside): Sure. Anything you want.
MAGGIE: Remember what my daddy did for Axel?
FRANKIE: Don’t even think about that.
MAGGIE: I can’t be like this, Frankie. Not after what I done. I seen the world. People chanted my name. Well… not my name, some damn name you gave me. But they were chanting for me. I was in magazines. You think I ever dreamed that’d happen? I was born two pounds, one-and-a-half ounces. Daddy used to tell me I fought to get into this world… and I’d fight my way out. That’s all I want to do, Frankie. I just don’t wanna fight you to do it. I got what I needed. I got it all. Don’t let ’em keep taking it away from me. Don’t let me lie here till I can’t hear those people chanting no more.
FRANKIE: I can’t. Please. Please don’t ask me.
MAGGIE: I’m askin’.
FRANKIE: I can’t.
In the middle of the night Maggie’d found her own solution. She’d bit her tongue. (…) Nearly bled to death before they stitched her up. She came round and ripped ’em out before Frankie even got there. They stitched her up again, padded the tongue so she couldn’t bite.
FATHER HORVAK (Brian F. O’Byrne): You can’t do it. You know that.
FRANKIE: I do, Father. But you don’t know how thick she is, how hard it was to train her. Other fighters’d do exactly what you say to ’em and… and she’d ask why this and why that and then do it her own way, anyway. How she fought for the title, I… It wasn’t by anything… Well, it wasn’t by listening to me.
FATHER HORVAK: But that…
FRANKIE: But now she wants to die, and I just want to keep her with me.
FATHER HORVAK: Oh.
FRANKIE: And I swear to God, Father, it’s… it’s committing a sin by doing it. By keeping her alive, I’m killing her. Know what I mean? How do I get around that?
FATHER HORVAK: You don’t. You step aside, Frankie. You leave her with God.
FRANKIE: She’s not asking for God’s help; she’s asking for mine.
FATHER HORVAK: Frankie, I’ve seen you at Mass almost every day for 23 years. The only person comes to church that much is the kind who can’t forgive himself for something. Whatever sins you’re carrying, they’re nothing compared to this. Forget about God… or Heaven and Hell. If you do this thing, you’ll be lost… somewhere so deep… you’ll never find yourself again.
FRANKIE: I think I did it already.