Last week a world-famous scientist made a major decision: to willingly end his life. Dr. David Goodall, who was 104 years old, left his homeland of Australia to travel to Switzerland to take part in state-sanctioned assisted suicide.
While not terminally ill, he repeatedly declared that his quality of life had declined to the point that he no longer wanted to live. Since euthanasia is illegal in Australia, Goodall used this final act to advocate for his government to reverse their policy.
In the midst of a busy news cycle, I was somewhat surprised that the general response to this move was either enthusiasm or indifference. In the United States, we had some passionate conversations about assisted suicide in the 1990’s, but it now seems that most people no longer care. But there’s something tangible here for us to explore.
While chewing on this topic, I couldn’t help but consider another trend I’ve seen increase in recent years: life planning. I know people in the coaching/consultative realm that get paid to help people craft a “life plan," a written, strategic program to guide their lives. The thinking is that knowing WHY you’re here on earth, should be used to determine your PURPOSE, so you can be fully effective. So generally, if you want a life plan, you employ a coach who spends a couple of days with you crafting a plan upon which you can base your future efforts.
While these two topics seem disconnected, I’d suggest that both euthanasia and life plans share a commonality—namely, our desire is to define our lives by certain narratives.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell identified a narrative he called “the hero’s journey.” Campbell felt that many of the world’s best stories adhered to this pattern. From the story of Jesus in the Gospels, to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Campbell believed that the hero's journey loomed large in the human psyche. which is why stories modeled after it are so compelling. While I don’t accept all of his assertions (specifically, that Jesus was merely a mythology), he rightly identified the immense influence of well-told stories. Economist Robert Shiller explains that, “there is a narrative basis for much of the human thought process, that the human mind stores facts around narratives, stories with a beginning and an end that have an emotional resonance.”
Shiller would say that we humans don't just enjoy stories, we structure our entire lives around them. When I declare myself an animal-lover, a bike-enthusiast, or a musician, I’m choosing to align my existince to a certain narrative and that will impact my values and decisions. A personal example: I love to view myself as a gritty underdog so, whenever challenges come my way, I perceive it as just another unfair obstacle I’m forced to overcome. And while I could outline a life’s story that confirms my underdog-ness, I’m not sure it would be as impressive when compared to an impoverished refugee from a first-world country. Story is in the eye of the beholder.
It’s not that these narratives are evil. But sacrificing influence to story can negatively impact our lives. And, from a theological perspective, it can actually be idolatrous.
When Stories Fail Us
Stories aren’t supposed to change; they’re expected to remain consistent. But while stories should be static, our tastes, desires, and aspirations are not. Four decades of living has confirmed that I change my mind far more than I ever care to admit. Things I once enjoyed, I now find repugnant and that which I once despised, I now embrace. This is true for both major and minor beliefs I’ve held at various points of my life.
I used to hate all things avocado. Now I'm a guacamole connoisseur.
An individual organizing a life plan and a person considering assisted suicide are both evaluating their lives by the measurement of stories they’ve sold to themselves. And while they might be true, the could very well be false.
At 104 years-old, Dr. Goodall was convinced that his best was firmly behind him. And I believe the reason he wasn’t critiqued for such an analysis is that he made it to triple-digits. Since so very few of us can relate to the life of a 100 year-old, we just assume that Goodall must have been right. But later last week, the American media featured the story of a 111 year old veteran that is loving his life. If Dr Goodall would’ve lived naturally to 120, he very well could have discovered a passion that he never knew existed. But he was so certain of his story that he felt living was no longer worth it.
The question that must be addressed is at what age can one realistically determine that the best is behind them? 100? 90? 80? 30? Despite what you’ve heard, this isn’t about dignity—a subjective term that is a lazy defense for a false story. If I claim I need to die with dignity, what implications does it thrust upon those around the globe who live lesser lives?
Similarly, if I seek to craft a life plan—a blueprint by which I’ll structure my professional and private life—my starting point will be self-defined story. Sure, I might get some colleagues and friends to chime in on who they think I am, but chances are that those people have adopted the story I already crafted for myself. The life-plan itself yields to my story. At its most confrontational, a life plan will challenge me to better account for my time but rarely would it tell me to hit reset on my entire career.
Controlling Our Story
So why do we celebrate Goodall and why do we invest in life plans? Because of the most alluring false narrative: that we are in control over our lives. It’s all about control. We're too perspectival to acknowledge that we have no control and that there are two parts to our story that truly defines them:
1. God’s story
For my non-Christian friends, you might not see this as compelling, but I offer it because I see many people of faith falling for this trap. Trace our story of control back to the Garden of Eden. We discover that humans continually long to control the knowledge and the power of God. We chase after the tree but even after sampling its fruit, we realize that it never filled us. Instead of living under God’s story, we create our own and ask God to bless them, regardless of whether they're kingdom-minded.
2. Our collective story
We never pause to consider if there's such a thing as "my story." The Lin Manuel Miranda line from Hamilton rings true: "you have no control . . . who tells your story.” We minimize or eliminate the role of others in our narratives. I want my life plan to work for me, but is that how life really unfolds? I want to die with dignity, but how does that impact those around me? It’s egocentric for me to seek control over my story when I actually share it with others.
I’m not entirely sure. This post is sorely underdeveloped, so there's plenty of room for critique . I posted this anyway because I think it’s worth some thought. Our digitized, highly-personalized society is becoming more and more fascinated with life-hacking; we have the science (knowledge) so we want the control that accompanies it. Living in such an era means we will either lean into this desire or rebel against it.
Until I revisit this, I’d simply encourage you to contemplate how much control you expect over your life. What stories are you telling yourself? Are they true? Are you leaving space to submit to God and others?