A Private Tragedy, A Public Controversy: The Premature Death Of A Teen
Life, on balance and in accordance with the ancient Buddhist precept, is nothing more than suffering. Agreeably terse and axiomatic, as is the Buddhist’s wont to be, suffering is all, and that’s all there is to know. It’s everywhere around us, and thus impossible to avoid. What’s more, one can’t hope to escape what one can’t help to see. Yet we feel it all the same. It’s everything within us, and thus completely natural. It’s the original disposition of the disquieted man.
Indeed, through the duration of our fleeting seven-decades of life—each one shorter-lived than the last—suffering is the one permanence of which we can be assured. The faculty of reflection, should the mind be sound, will always bear this out. Practitioners of Buddhism, of that allegedly pacific faith, have found it appropriate to call this universal sentiment from which there’s no ready escape dukkha. As is the case with most words of esoteric origin brought forward to modernity through a long passage of time, dukkha doesn’t exactly translate well into our Anglican tongue. It’s unconducive to a modern English diction that appears to shrink year after year. Perhaps more accurately, from a philological if not a practical sense, the word dukkha means an absence, usually of an acutely painful type, of satisfaction in one’s life. It’s the feeling of being frustrated, saddened, and generally and lamentably unfulfilled.
The fact that life is suffering (and most verily, it is a fact with which we must, in all humility, resign ourselves to agree) was the cheerless insight of the now princely, now beggarly Indian sage. The idea was spawned in the mind of the historic figure Siddatha Gotama, whose later sobriquet of Buddha meant the “enlightened one”. Such illumination he was to find beneath the shade of a peculiar Asiatic tree, but that would come later in life. Before then, he was a royal born of noble pedigree and reared in epicurean delights. After having indulged in every passion of antiquity and sixth-century vice, he was encumbered by three observations made outside of his family’s palatial walls. In sequence, he witnessed an elderly man, a sickly man, and a man to whom death had come.
For all he knew, Gotama was to live as an untarnished and ageless ephebe. He was happily and insouciantly to live forever beautiful and young. However, this triune of revelation (of ailment, age, and death), discoverable just beyond his own isolation, stirred him to move. Actually, it stirred him to the most productive instance of inactivity known to man, hence his cross-legged posture beneath the Bodhi Tree. There he sat a full seven weeks until, in a state of physical repose but mental exuberance, he encountered the enlightenment for which he’d set his course.
Though the historicity of the Buddha’s life is in many ways dubious, the potency of his teaching strikes us as being quite real. What better measure of reality is there than that which impacts and sustains us through the ages? We know that suffering is the one human experience of which we’re bound to have no shortage throughout our nonage and dotage—throughout our briefly-lived life. It will persist and, as the equally-enlightened George Orwell made note, “only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise”.
Often, these two groups tend to overlap, as being without years is akin to being without sense. Being myself not very young, but at times exceedingly foolish, I feel as though I can comment with some authority on that idea. But in the case of the seventeen-year-old Dutch girl who recently took her own life, neither juvenescence nor foolishness availed her. More than anyone of whom I’ve lately taken note, she was made to suffer in the most unremitting of ways. She was abused sexually on multiple occasions. The first happened before the age of twelve. Adding redundancy to tragedy, this same thing happened again when she was more firmly entrenched in her early teens. Incapable of coping with the trauma visited upon her as a consequence of these heinous attacks, she became depressed and anorexic. Denying herself sustenance, it was by refusing to eat that she ultimately died. So insatiable was her hunger to depart of this world that she sought professional medical assistance. She did so with the hope that it would aid her in her end. However, finding the authorities moribundly unavailing, she took matters and morals into her own hands. Perhaps as a measure of palliation, a hospital bed was given her in which she might slowly succumb to the absence of food.
Succumb she did. At the under-ripe age of seventeen, her life was no more. Unsurprisingly, within a day, this private tragedy was made into a public controversy by which the world was outraged and intrigued. It was alleged that the state had aided the girl in the fulfillment of her premature death. A society with the deepest sympathies for those of its citizens who profess themselves mired in anguish, the Dutch have a reputation for their approach to the dying process. Euphemistically, they defend their approach as the gentle application of euthanasia. The employment of a dysphemism, however, will lead you to calling theirs a culture of death.
Viewed through this lens, unavoidably moribund though it may be, we impose upon the Dutch no clear verdict. It would be difficult, indeed peremptory for us to say. In that state, in whose liberal bosom both Erasmus and Spinoza lived, the combined voices of biology, theology, and philosophy continue their endless quarrel. They fight in the labs, in the pews, and in the streets over the right to die or the requirement to live.
That answer is not so clear. Personally, my inclination bends toward the German thinker Immanuel Kant (who argued for the sanctity of the self and his preservation as an end and not a means) but my deep-held philosophy might not conduce with public policy at large.
What’s certain is that this young woman suffered with a severity incommensurate with her years. She wasn’t so fortunate to be sprung from her troubles as was the Buddha beneath his tree. She wasn’t able to put the requisite distance between herself and her insuperable dukkha. Lamentably, it seems to be the case that there was no further resource to which she could’ve turned in helping her to do just that. Ultimately, she’s made the escape in which she invested all of her desire. What should’ve been a long future and what doubtless was a troubled past have at present become an unblinking darkness.
In the concluding words of Montaigne, life is but a slavery if the freedom to die is present not. This girl was not only fettered by her suffering, but because of her pain, truly unfree. Upon her epitaph, we inscribe the famous Frenchman’s words (however much we might debate their consequence). For everyone else, we prescribe a more salutary way. Heed Kant and Gotama and will yourself free.