Realising oneself in life and in death

Meryl Streep in The Hours © Paramount Pictures

You have a “right” to choose when and how you die and, unless you have been incarcerated, it is not that easy to take the right away from you. Whether you use it wisely is another matter. Whether you manage to do it with grace and dignity may be a matter of skill, style, breeding and knowledge. But is it selfish?

Much well-documented work has been done on the immense opportunities for bonding with loved ones in the days before death occurs. There are moments of deep sincerity in which love is somehow communicated, pathways to the heart opened, and a deep meaningfulness achieved. Critics of self-euthanasia and assisted suicide argue that these moments are not to be tossed away lightly. Exit agrees, and has published much work on this theme, yet does it negate the idea of choosing the moment of one’s death? The importance and value of our loved ones, and meaningful moments shared, are things that can be rightly treasured. The self-willed person, planning euthanasia, may even value them more, and plan or discover them to an even greater degree. Studies suggest that rational suicide, such as at the end of a terminal illness, often brings healing and a sense of closure to those bereaved (but this is reversed in cases of irrational suicide.)

So how far should we live for others, stay alive for others? Is the purpose of your life to exist for others?

I’d like to share if I may two clips from an award-winning film, The Hours. Richard is a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet. His best friend, Clarissa (Meryl Streep), is throwing a party in his honour to celebrate. Richard is dying, slowly, of AIDS.

(apologies to our readers who found a large blank space here! … we weren’t aware that video embedding wasn’t allowed on wordpress blogs without a $99 subscription, so they were deleted after a day or so — do please just follow the links below, where they are shown legitimately – warning, these movie clips are quite graphic and some viewers may find them upsetting.)

1.   2.

In the first clip, he raises the question of his death with her and she responds as expected. He also takes her back to a moment they had shared many years ago, a moment of beauty that encapsulated (for them) the joy and meaning of being alive.

In the second clip, just before he ends his life, he takes her back to the moment again and lets her realise the depth of love he feels for her as his friend, a love she has always felt for him but never realised in totality. He brings her to an awareness that she has been living her life for him, just as much as he has been staying alive for her. He calls her “Mrs Dalloway,” a character from Virginia Woolf’s eponymous novel.

“Would you be angry if I died?”, he asks. She responds as you might expect.

” I think I’m only staying alive to satisfy you,” he continues.

She replies: “That is what we do, that is what people do, they stay alive for each other.”

On Richard’s death, she discovers that she also is now also released, she rediscovers her own life (not shown in the clip) and her love for her partner.

This is a fictitious drama with an intertextual play on the character of “Mrs Dalloway,” who, at the start of the novel, decides to “Buy the flowers herself” (presumably, rather than send one of the servants.) Flowers are here a symbol of love, and it is an action that Clarissa also decides on for the party. Yet she is living a character, trying to be someone for someone else. Richard uses his dying moment to free her from the illusion of living in character – in other words, for someone else.

The film makes no judgement on the rightness of wrongness of self-euthanasia (rational suicide); yet the rich emotion that it is possible to present in great fictitious works such as this enables us to access a depth that is hard to achieve in dry analysis alone.

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