Germany

Death Is Not Defeat: The Courage Not To Fight A Fatal Disease

We have a tendency to extol our late loved ones for having "fought" against the illnesses that struck them. But those who peacefully succumb to terminal disease are no less brave.

Bravery, too
Bravery, too
Uwe Schmitt

-Essay-

BERLIN — "He fought to the end..." So read last month's obituary of former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who died after a battle against the ravages of leukemia. His husband agreed, and he's the only one who has a right to do so.

But no one seems to be disturbed by the latent implication of this deferential praise. It's as if to suggest that Westerwelle was defeated by cancer when he died. It also implies that a terminally ill person who doesn't try to fend off death, but rather accepts it as a part of his being, is essentially a coward — that he did not love life enough to fight.

But is it really any less brave to submit to the inevitable without a struggle, with composure and peaceful dignity? Does it really demonstrate courage for patients to expose themselves to the enormous agonies of long-shot treatments?

The fight against death is always, ultimately, a futile one, and the entirety of the world is a giant hospice. Only the wise among us live by the credo carpe diem, or "seize the day." Others follows the motto of Spanish philosopher Seneca: "To live is to fight." Or German poet Bertolt Brecht's: "Those who fight may lose, but those who don't fight have already lost."

This may apply to people like Westerwelle and everyone else who strives for political change, but it doesn't necessarily apply to people who are terminally ill. It would be more respectful to allow people to choose for themselves whether they want to expend every effort to live or whether they want to succumb to their illness without such a struggle.

It's not the intention of this article to condemn orthodox or alternative medical practices as interfering with God's work. It's about the freedom for people to choose their own approaches to illness and death, not about sanctioning these choices with moral judgments.

Siddhartha Gautama taught us that the greatest fighters aren't those who conquer a thousand enemies but those who conquer themselves. His Buddhism teaches us to "learn to let go, as this is the key to happiness." And for some ill people, letting go may be the key to a peaceful death.

Cancer never wins. Sometimes it simply doesn't respond to the treatment that's supposed to eradicate it. Those who die don't lose. The dying aren't less courageous or less happy than those who continue living after successful treatment.

We are now able to express our chosen manner of dying through legally binding documents, such as living wills, and it therefore seems only fair to spare the terminally ill and those who have died our admiring celebrations of their bravery. Let's save these for athletes and soldiers and celebrate their victories instead.

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