Several things this year have had me thinking about what it means to be human.
Back in January I heard of identical twin brothers Marc and Eddy Verbessem of Putte, Belgium, born deaf in 1967, who worked as cobblers and shared a room in their parents’ home before taking an apartment together. Inseparable all their lives, they also suffered from an incurable illness, and at age 45, learned they would go blind.
Unable to bear the thought of never communicating again except by touch, they chose to end their lives via lethal injection, administered by a physician.
Belgium is one of only three countries to allow euthanasia in cases of non-terminal illness, and currently the only one that lists “mental suffering” in its law as grounds for the act. Dr. David Dufour, who treated the twins and presided over their case, described their decision as being undertaken “in full conscience,” and the brothers’ “separation from their parents and brother”as serene and beautiful, with “a little wave of their hands” just before the end.
I had several reactions upon hearing this story. The first was a tinge of horror at what I regarded as legalized murder, followed quickly by the question, “But what would YOU do in their case?”
And I began to picture my life if I suddenly became deaf-blind. Unable to watch television or do needlework, to see colors, to read people’s faces, hear the voices of my family…to work and earn a living…to enjoy music, except for what I could remember in my head.
I saw myself sitting in a chair, staring blankly into space, alert for any cues of smell or vibration or air stirring to know when someone entered a room. Unable to read, unless I somehow learned Braille without audible instruction. Unable to shop for necessities or cook for my family.
I pictured myself groping for the bathroom, feeling for shampoo and soap containers, a toothbrush. Trying to dress…I could probably recognize much of my clothing by touch. Feeling cartons in the refrigerator and discerning their contents by smell.
Where would I go in the outside world, unable to drive or to communicate with the majority of it? My mother is elderly, my brother works. Would I have to enter an assisted living facility? How would it be paid for, and how would I protect myself from those who might take advantage of me?
Would I still be able to write? Could I ever read my own work again?
The most frightening question of all: Would I have outlived my usefulness?
I don’t know if the Verbessem brothers or their relatives asked any or all of these types of questions. But I did know one thing: Christian faith aside, still intact although I have not attended church regularly for over a decade, I felt certain that, facing such a diagnosis myself, I would entertain serious thoughts of purchasing a handgun.
You see, it didn’t matter that I still considered both human euthanasia and suicide wrong. My faith would lead me to pray for healing…but what if it did not come? I knew from even a cursory Internet search that the deaf-blind still married, had children, went to college, lived their lives.
But I had difficulty picturing my life far beyond that chair, waiting for someone to guide me from one room to the next, to hand me clean clothes, to put a fork in my hand…all in silence. I certainly understood the temptation of suicide while ability remained.
Because I am only human.
* * * * *
The Verbessem brothers’ sad fate had largely faded from my mind when I recently sat down to watch a marathon of the first few seasons of the AMC network’s hit TV series, “The Walking Dead.” I’d never caught much more than the first episode, which I enjoyed so much I’d already watched it twice. A weekend marathon was a good time to find out what the fuss was about.
I ended up glued to a chair not made for 12 hours of consecutive sitting, unable to tear myself away for much other than food and bathroom breaks. I rarely watch even half that amount of TV in a month. I had to tell myself I’d just rent the third season on DVD in order to get anything done at all, because in no time the only thing that could have torn me away from those characters was a smoke-filled house and the fire department at the front door. And as I watched, I began thinking, again, about humanity.
Not just the question of what would you do? but the concept of usefulness, and “outliving” it, and the value we place on humans based on what they can contribute.
Of course, the spirit of honesty compels me to admit that these deeper questions were preceded by thoughts of Oh my God, how awful I’d look with no hair color, contact lenses or makeup and hairy legs and armpits and let’s not forget that unfortunate mustache and I’d have to hide a pair of tweezers somewhere for my scraggly eyebrows, not to mention those maddening neck and chin hairs…hell, I wouldn’t look a whole lot better than one of the undead, after a while…I sure wouldn’t look anything like Lori or Andrea or Beth or even Carol. Put dirt on THEM and they still look decent, especially Andrea. Does Lori ever have greasy hair?
And then there’s food. Rations are short in spite of the fact that the number of survivors is rapidly dwindling, and while there would be one benefit in that I would at last lose weight, this would also mean that my clothes would get too big and uncomfortable, and have I mentioned furthermore that these people are dirty? Especially the men, who pull off the look better, and the men, at least, are sweating like pigs because it’s apparently summertime when the series begins, and I don’t tolerate heat well even if I am from the South, plus I can get cranky when I’m hungry, and am a personal hygiene fanatic with a disconcertingly over-developed sense of smell…
I think you can tell by this time that within a relatively short period of little to no bathing facilities, air conditioning, or regular meals, I would be almost as unpleasant to be around as any “walker” – if I could muster up the necessary energy.
As the marathon went on, bigger questions started to arrive. In a post-apocalyptic world, what happens to the ill and elderly? The animals left behind to starve or scavenge? No mail, no mass media. Waste left to rot in the streets.
No doubt you want to gently remind me that this is only television. I haven’t forgotten, nor do I anticipate a zombie apocalypse, but I became so caught up in the challenges and decisions and suffering of the characters that I couldn’t help repeatedly identifying with them, wondering how long it would take before I found myself regarding others in the light of weakest versus strongest links, or when I would be willing to vote in favor of executing a 20-year-old man whom it was feared would lead a dangerous element of his group to mine, if he was not “put down.”
Not least of my questions was the role religious faith would – or would not – play. For most of my life I’d considered mine ironclad. But put me in a post-apocalyptic world like the one dreamed up by the show’s creators, and I fear it would take one hell of a blow.
My imagination began to take me through the stages I thought I would pass in the shoes of any “Walking Dead” character. First, disbelief, followed by assurance that Armageddon was nigh. Wave after wave of this can’t be happening, as the military bombed cities and shot civilians in hospitals, newscasts went off the air, mass exodus was followed by mass death. Had God unleashed a judgment on mankind, and if so, what I had done (or failed to do) to be a part of it? Millions would flock to houses of worship in desperate need of assurance that God still existed. At some point, I would probably suspect that I had actually died, and this was hell. But there are clouds overhead, and a blue sky, and trees…no living thing like that could possibly exist in hell…
For me at least, I feared it would be an all too short step to agnosticism at best. What would be the purpose of survival? I found myself repeatedly wondering how most of the characters kept enough hope to keep searching for sanctuary when (spoiler alert!) even they were infected.
But of course that’s what both of the above stories come down to in the end: hope. Frankly, I’m not sure how I would preserve it in a world of mass destruction, or one of darkness and silence. Yet some do, finding moments of peace, of joy, even value.
Because, real or fictional, they are only human.
* * * * *
How about you? What kind of choices do you think you might make if faced with the above situations? Was the Belgian government justified in its action? I want to hear from you.
And I hope you’ll join me here again next week, as I have more to say in We’re Only Human, Part II: Of Synthetic Love and Electronic Psychology. See you then.