There Is Nothing More Dignified Than Living a Painful Life

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Wednesday night, I went for a run by the river, and for the first time in awhile, I found myself seriously thinking about the meaning of life. I was really weighed down by it, to be honest.   

What if I’m only here for one purpose? What if we were all given one gigantic task and life is about finding it? I thought. What if that purpose is something so incredibly difficult, that if I saw it from where I stand now, I’d be tempted to abandon living? 
As I ran, music streaming through my ears, my mind was haunted by what ifs, choppy like the water below. On summer weekends, that water swirls with reflected light from overlooking houses, a living van Gogh painting. On an autumn weeknight like Wednesday, however, it’s dead. Still. Bottomless. Beneath the movement and life of my muscles, I felt like I was in that river, sinking.  
None of these thoughts, I suppose, would have been prompted had I not read the story of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old newlywed who’s in the news this week because she’s picked the day when she will die. That’s her wedding picture up there. Back in January, she learned she had brain cancer. In April, doctors told her she would not live past six months. Now she’s chosen to medicate herself to death, essentially, two days after her husband’s birthday. It brings her peace, she says, to know that she will not be dying in the horrific way she’s been told her cancer will take her, that she’ll “die with dignity” with her loved ones nearby, not having to deal with the long, hard battle ahead. Most people are applauding her for her bravery.

Me? I’m not that certain nor that congratulatory.

I don’t know Brittany Maynard. I don’t understand the horrors of cancer. I don’t realize, entirely, the thought process or the agony behind making such a huge decision. But as I ran last night, I realized that I know one simple thing:

Life is excruciating, and it is worth every painful second to keep living and fighting. 

Being a human being is and never has been about control or ease. Being human is about being vulnerable and breakable. It’s about cracking yourself open to love other people, risking security and peace of mind, fighting heartbreak and failure and depression. It’s about battling physical limitations, doing what everyone else tells you is impossible merely because they have no faith in what your body is capable of. It’s not about being in perfect health all the time, having the perfect body, coming from the perfect family, or being the perfect individual. It’s about being dog sick, dog tired, and dog miserable some days or every day. It’s about living past the horrors of abuse and broken homes and destructive relationships. It’s about being weak and struggling to progress and dealing with issues of self-worth. It’s about being a chaotic mess sometimes.

To be human is to be that little boy with autism whose soul is a beautiful, glittering thing that few people care to see. To be human is to be that 13-year-old girl who goes to bed in tears every night because she feels like nobody would miss her if she was gone. To be human is to be that 19-year-old boy who thinks he’s disappointed everybody in his life, including himself. To be human is to be that middle-aged, preteen, twenty something, elderly man or woman who feels unlovable, undesirable, misunderstood, overweight, un-fixable, ugly, or ashamed.

To be human is to struggle in almost every single way, but, most importantly, it’s to keep fighting, to rise above the things that hurt you, to realize that sometimes, that gigantic purpose we stress about simply comes down to one thing: living on.

Doing that, living on always requires us to push through extreme difficulties. Michelangelo, in his misery, painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I am not in the right place. I am not a painter, he often lamented, a refrain echoed by many of us today.

I am a girl, not a fighter. 
I am a man, not a hero. 
I am disabled, not powerful. 
I am a victim, not a survivor. 

The results of his most miserable moments now inspire millions of people every year who flock to see what the great Michelangelo did with what he was given, something he struggled with the whole time he worked on it.  
Even van Gogh, whose paintings I see in the swirl of the river and the sky, only created Starry Night in the midst of severe mental and emotional distress. He would write to his brother during this time, 

I myself am also trying to do as well as I can, but I will not conceal from you that I hardly dare count on always being in good health. And if my disease returns, you would forgive me. I still love art and life very much…”

Van Gogh, whose popularity and renown only peaked after his death, is not remembered for dying, but for what he did when he lived. How he loved.

It’s what we do while we are living that matters, and to choose to live for as long as we can is to give extension to the ripples we create, the number of people who wake up each day, look at the stars, and see art there simply because we saw art there. Life is important, not just because it is so fleeting, but because one life is connected to billions of lives. Take one away, and you take away something that can never be replaced. Cut yours short, and you cut peace away from countless individuals who desperately needed to see your fight to sustain their own.  

Today, we treat that life like a commodity we have too much of and a burden we don’t want to carry. We live in a world that touts population control, because one more life is less important than satisfaction and stability for the rest of us. We live in a country that celebrates snapping, uprooting, and weeding out children as a means for life to be easy and free of consequences for us all-knowing adults who clamor for the freedom to do whatever we’d like with our bodies. We live in a society that has deluded itself into thinking that if a child will be born with disabilities, the best thing to do for that child is to snuff out his or her opportunity to live, as if a sick or disabled life is a worthless one. We live in a society that condemns mothers of five or more children for being selfish instead of for gifting a future to five or more individuals who may one day extend a needed hand to someone hurting, change national or international policy, or march down their city streets demanding positive change for the sake of their generation. We tell young women with the potential to inspire others to fight that they are courageous for ending that fight before it has begun.

Do we not see the tragedy we are creating? The van Goghs and Michelangelos, the Martin Luther King Jr.s and Abraham Lincolns and Steve Jobses, the Rosa Parkses, Eleanor Roosevelts, Helen Kellers, and Mother Thereseas we are eliminating from this world because we feel life is too hard and not worth it for them? We are killing our heroes one by one on the premise that death is dignity.

Dignity, I’ll suggest, is not having everything in control, but rising above chaos, doing as much as you can with your life and letting it go at its own pace, having hope and faith that things will be better, because they will. Dignity is living in pain, braving what is ugly because of who it makes you and the people you inspire.  
Brittany Maynard has decided her legacy. To strangers like me, she’ll be known as the woman who chose to die, not the woman who chose to live. I can only hope that the girls who needed her example of strength, the girls who feel like they are sinking won’t choose to die, too.

We need them, we need Brittany, and we need you. Don’t quit. Choose to live.  

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