One of the world’s gentlest, most thoughtful and consequential men is sick and dying but more importantly, suffering. After 85 years he has changed his mind: euthanasia is right.
Desmond Tutu, the revered Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Nobel Laureate and winner of countless other peace prizes including America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, is above all a deeply religious, non-violent man. His prolonged sickness broke his resolve against euthanasia two years ago when he wrote in an Op-Ed in the Guardian “I have been fortunate to spend my life working for dignity for the living. Now I wish to apply my mind to the issue of dignity for the dying.”
Tutu’s arguments are not religious ones, and that is what has attracted me to his thinking. His arguments are practical, political.
I encountered Tutu several times during my career in Africa, very briefly and usually at a distance. Perhaps it was all the notoriety surrounding those events, or the incredible consequences we all knew they would subsequently have, but Tutu moved through humanity at those times with an aura that absolutely distinguished him from everyone else.
It’s as if his rapid glance at you in a crowd of hundreds pulls you out as the special one. That’s kind of weird, religious and egotistical, and he himself has referred to this charisma as the inflated thoughts of the beholder, not a reflection of his character. Of course, he’s wrong.
You see it isn’t just because of all the selfless things he did for the world that attracts my unusual admiration for him. There are others in the world today who have attained this levels of accomplishment. Rather, it’s his mien, his interminable smile and his soft and gentle self that in an instant can explode with almost uncontrolled anger immediately then checked with a humble laugh and personal rebuke that I and many others see as the essence of a man who is singularly capable of leading so many different kinds of us all at once.
Tutu’s grappling with end-of-life issues is but one of hundreds, thousands of which he gives measured and poignant counsel. I consider among his top achievements the creation and shepherding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the first of its kind in the world, where a victorious politic forgave and mostly released from its punishment hundreds of evil-doers.
For the vast majority of his life, Tutu embraced the wholly religious concept that euthanasia defies the sanctity of life. This is his church’s doctrine, for one. Now as a individual of great physical suffering over a prolonged period he has changed his mind, and his defense is not religious – it can’t be – it’s political.
Tutu reflects on the angst each of us feels with repetitive hospitalization and he describes in heart-breaking detail how that effects his close family. He quickly points out that the wasted resources used prolonging a life – hospitalization, especially – start to seem immoral. Finally he returns to the philosophical, suggesting that the dignity of life is compromised when it ends in such travail.
Frankly I’m not sure how I personally feel. Almost anyone is capable of killing themselves, so why make this a public discourse?
Because Tutu above all others recognizes that the mechanisms governing civilized society are at least as important as the philosophical theories any individual holds. Dare I say it? Politics trumps religion. Tutu wants euthanasia, but until his government grants him the legal right to do so, he will continue to suffer.
Nor will he flee to California or Europe, places he often refers to with “good enough” mechanisms for euthanasia. He is South African. He struggled his whole life for a better South Africa. It’s where he wants his life to end.
So he will suffer. Not as any example or affirmation of the symbol of his deepest held spiritual beliefs, but because “his country” does not yet accept his view.
Each of us has a spiritual existence essentially personal to the point of meaningless but preeminent nonetheless. But we are inescapably part of the human race, the planet earth, a continent, a country, a community. We are part of our local soup kitchen, of the United Way, of the local Parent/Teacher Organization, of the Democratic Party. Without these community groups that bind us to one another across our spiritual predispositions we are nothing but loss souls.
Politics trumps religion. Thank you Desmond Tutu for once again leading us out of the wilderness.