I heard an old Tracy Chapman song a few days ago. It’s a song I have always loved for its simple message and heartfelt delivery. It could have been cheesy, but instead its simple beauty hits me like a slap to the face every time I hear it. Line after line of truth, followed by the repeated deeper truth of “all that you have is your soul.”
Just before I heard the song, I had heard a report on the local public radio station about a bill in New York that, if passed, would make New York the sixth state in the nation to allow terminally ill patients to end their own lives by taking a prescribed dose of lethal medicine. The reporter interviewed supporters and opponents of the bill and allowed each a few sentences to explain their positions.
If that reporter were to have asked me my opinion of the bill, I would have said New York State should adopt the bill immediately. For my reason I would simply sing the refrain from Tracy Chapman’s song: All that you have is your soul.
It is easy to go long stretches without considering the fact that you yourself will one day die. As a child the idea is so remote and unlikely as to be almost impossible to truly consider. At some point, someone close dies and if we are old enough when that happens for the first time, we can’t help but come around to the thought that one day we will also be dead. But then, if you are like most people, you shove that thought aside and get on with life.
Which is the right thing to do. Living in fear of death as a young person is unnatural.
But then you hit middle age. Maybe a friend dies young and you go to the funeral. Your own inevitable death looms a bit larger, but still you put those thoughts aside. You have work to do, a life to lead. Your own death might become something you start to plan for a bit—you write a will, you look into insurance—but still it is more hypothetical than immediate.
Maybe while lying in bed one night you broach the subject with your spouse. You talk a bit about your wishes—burial or cremation? Big memorial service or small gathering of close friends and family? Heroic measures or pull the plug? But again, you quickly make a light joke of it by calling dibs on getting to go first. Then you change the subject before turning out the light.
And then a parent dies. It knocks you flat. One, because your mother or father is gone forever. And two, (if you are honest) because your own unavoidable end rises up in front of you in a way you cannot deny. There will come a day when you will no longer be. And your children, if you have any, will feel as lost as you do in the aftermath. As far as we can tell, humans are the only species whose members carry with them an awareness of their own impending death.
Which means we also have the opportunity to plan ahead for our own death. Of course, many of us die in a way that does not allow for much planning. We have a heart attack; we have an accident; we have a stroke. But a fair number of people die of diseases that kill slowly and painfully over time. It is precisely circumstances like these that allow for us to have conversations with people we love about our exact wishes. People lie in bed in the dark side by side and say things like “If I ever get to the point where I am being kept alive by machines, I want you to pull the plug.”
And states throughout the country have recognized the power of these spoken wishes time and again. If we are beyond the help of modern medicine with no signs of conscious mental function and no likelihood of ever coming back to consciousness, our loved ones can ask that our wishes be honored and we be allowed to die.
But what if we are not that far gone? What if, instead, we have a fatal disease and we are taking inevitable steps toward our own death, but we are still conscious and able to feel pain? In five states you would have the option of asking a physician to help you die. In 45 states, you would be told the choice to live or die is not yours—it is the state’s.
And this is where I come back to Tracy Chapman and “All That You Have is Your Soul.” I believe that when you are born there is one thing you own and that is your own self. It can be easy to believe we own many other things as we grow up, fall in love, get jobs, have children, and accumulate people and things. The house we live in, the car we drive, the partner we marry, the children we have----all of these can come to feel like they are ours. But really, they are not. These things come and they go and in the end there is nothing you can do to stop them.
In the end, the only thing that is yours is your own soul. And if you are at the point where medical science is useless and you are tired of constant pain and the indignity of being unable to feed yourself or wash yourself or even get yourself to the toilet and you decide you are ready to die, you should be able to ask a doctor to prescribe you a lethal dose of medicine so you can have one least measure of control over your own life.
The Medical Aid in Dying Act was introduced in the New York State Legislature this week to provide for this very control. I will write to my state legislators right away to let them know I support this bill. In the end, whose life is it? Mine? Or New York States?