By Richard Doerflinger
I was waiting for a plane one recent morning when messages of hope started jumping out at me.
I had brought two newspapers to read at the airport. The local paper had a front-page story about a surprise 50th birthday party for a man who had been paralyzed from the chest down for over three decades. Doctors had expected Greg Chambers to die before he was 30, and he has been close to death more than once. But he finished high school, took college courses, and has done computer work for a business. “There’s no room for pessimism. It’s just a downer,” he says. “I live a pretty normal lifestyle, except for I just can’t scratch my own nose” (South Bend Tribune).
Then the national paper featured the story of Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, two women who were held captive and sexually abused for a decade by a kidnapper and rapist. They fell into such despair during their captivity that they wanted to kill themselves. But now they have co-authored a book titled Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland. Reaching out to any woman in similar dire circumstances, Ms. Berry says: “Stay strong and stay positive, and never give up hope” (USA Today).
Finally, in the airport bookstore I came across the new paperback edition of Ghost Boy. It is the personal account of Martin Pistorius, who fell ill when he was 12 years old and spent many years in what everyone thought was a “vegetative state.” For years he was unable to communicate but fully conscious. He could even hear his own mother say it would really be better for him to die. Mr. Pistorius’ condition continued to improve and he now lives in England, a happily married bestselling author. He has forgiven his mother for her moment of despair, saying: “None of us knows what we can bear until we’re asked.”
Why am I so taken with this Trifecta of hope? Because the message our culture increasingly seems to promote is one of despair. We are so attached to our comfort and security, our powers of mind and body, that on hearing about people who lose these we tend to say: “If that happened to me I’d rather be dead.”
I think of reactions to Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old California woman whose very public decision to make use of Oregon’s assisted suicide law was exploited by euthanasia advocates to promote such laws across the country. Some people said they were inspired by Ms. Maynard’s courage in “taking control” of her death. But what she spoke of was fear: Fear of pain, of indignities, of being a “burden” on her family. She lost hope that the rest of her life could have meaning.
Her personal story was sad. What some legislators have made of it is alarming: They are legislating despair for everyone in similar circumstances. Once people are told they may have only six months to live, they will know that the government thinks their suicides need to be “assisted” rather than prevented like everyone else’s. That does not serve personal freedom. It heavily biases the choice between hope and despair. Society is saying: Hope is for other people. All you have left is death.
The hope embodied in the stories I read is not hope of freedom from illness, pain and hardship. It is hope in life and love beyond those challenges, hope that each life has meaning and the human spirit can prevail. Even the government cannot legislate away hope. The tragedy is that it would try.
Editor’s note. Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This appeared on the Life Issues Forum.