Among my hobbies these days is attending a bioethics book club every two weeks on O. Carter Snead’s new book What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics. The book is about how the dominant view in our time of persons as expressive individualists contradicts the lived experience of our embodied reality. Snead analyzes why we go astray in our public bioethics when we do not account for the realities of vulnerability and mutual dependence in and throughout our lives.
Most recently the study group finished reading the chapter on Death and Dying. In it, Snead notes: “By far the most common rationales cited for seeking assisted suicide were concerns about ‘losing autonomy’ (92 percent) and being ‘less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable’ (91 percent).”
Since there are many reasons why we can lose autonomy and the ability to engage in activities that make life enjoyable, it is worth scrutinizing these ideas of “freedom” – the loss of which risks rendering life seemingly not worth living.
I am reminded of Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky’s reflections. In Sculpting in Time, he says: “And the longer I lived in the West the more curious and equivocal freedom seems to me. Freedom to take drugs? To kill? To commit suicide?”
He goes on:
I cannot imagine my life being so free that I could do what I wanted; I have to do what seems most important and necessary at any given stage. And it’s only possible to communicate with the audience if one ignores the eighty per cent of people who for some reason have got it into their heads that we are supposed to entertain them. At the same time we have ceased to respect that eighty per cent to such an extent that we are prepared to entertain them, because we depend on them for money and for our next production. A grim look-out!
However, to return to that minority audience who do still look for real aesthetic impressions: that ideal audience in whom every artist unconsciously puts his hope–they will only respond wholeheartedly to a picture when it expresses what the author has lived and suffered. I respect them too much to want–or indeed to be able–to deceive them: I trust in them, which is why I dare to tell of what is most important and precious to me.”
What a contrast these words are to the one who finds life meaningless if it is without autonomy or enjoyable activities.
The filmmaker’s reflections are apt because they testify to the fact that autonomy offers no real drama. A plot that was only a series of fortunate events would, ironically, be arid and weak.
Losing autonomy and enjoyment need not make life grim, but it takes having someone willing to listen to what is important and precious in order to make the story that is lived and suffered into something meaningful after all.