Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Me Inside

Tonight I went to see The Sea Inside by Chilean-Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar, the true story of Ramón Sampedro, who after living nearly three decades as a quadraplegic decides he wants to take his own life.

When I was purchasing my ticket, the lady behind me asked, "The Sea Inside. What's that about?"

I said, "I believe it's about a man who becomes a quadraplegic and decides he doesn't want to live any more."

"Oh, and in the end, he finds a reason to live?"

"I don't think so," I said.

"Oh, well, I don't want to see that then."

It wouldn't be fair to draw a direct comparison between that lady's reaction to The Sea Inside and to some people's thoughts about Terri Schiavo's situation because the details of Terri's story are certainly not the same as Sampedro's. But it is interesting to think about how many people want, no, demand a happy ending to the stories they're told--without considering the thoughts and feelings of those for whom they are deciding.
Your Honours, Political and Religious Authorities: After watching the images you have just seen, of a person taking care of an atrophied and deformed body - mine - I ask you: what does dignity means to you? Whatever your consciences' answer is, for me, this is not dignity … I, along with some judges, and the majority of people who love life and freedom, think that living is a right, not an obligation. Nevertheless, I have been obligated to tolerate this pitiful situation for 29 years, 4 months, and several days. I refuse to continue doing it any longer! --from the will of Ramón Sampedro
Thinking about both Sampedro and Terri Schiavo today, I was reminded of Jean-Dominique Bauby, whose book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly I reviewed several years ago:
The book chronicles how Bauby used his imagination to rescue himself from depression. Rather than dwelling on the fact that he probably would never eat a solid meal again, he created extravagant meals for himself in his mind, enjoying them with voluptuous relish. He revisited distant lands and traveled to others that he had never visited before. All in his mind. And perhaps most incredibly, he composed this memoir in lovely, precise prose, editing and memorizing the text until he could communicate it by blinking on appropriate letters as they were recited to him in an agreed upon order by his assistant Claude Mendibil.

During his more sober moments, Bauby reminds the reader of the enormous frustration of his situation. "For now," he writes, "I would be the happiest of men if I could just swallow the overflow of saliva that endlessly floods my mouth." Even so, his story is surprisingly free of bitterness, anger, or surrender, and he consistently returns with good humor and hope. After insisting upon wearing his clothes rather than hospital garb, he explains, "If I must drool, I may as well drool on cashmere."
Both Bauby and Sampedro harnessed their imaginations to free themselves from their damaged bodies. Bauby died of heart failure in 1997 two days after the publication of his book. Sampedro died in 1998 after 11 friends help him prepare and ingest a lethal dose of cyanide. They both chose how to end their own lives.

Here's a compelling review of The Sea Inside by Jeff Shannon, a writer, who also happens to be "a quadriplegic who's never considered suicide as an attractive alternative." Shannon asks director Amenábar to share his personal thoughts about Sampedro's decision:
"When I first saw Ramón on television," he said, "I asked myself what I would do if I was in his condition. I decided for myself that I would get over it somehow, that I would move on. But I also couldn't help thinking that Ramón was right — that the decision to live or die must be one's own. I thought that if I'd ever met him I would try to cheer him up and talk him out of it, as others had. But I also thought that could be a nightmare — to want to die, surrounded by people trying to cheer you up, in a society that says 'Your life doesn't belong to you.' "
I think that's what it comes down to. As Shannon seems to understand, even if you've lived a life similar to someone else's, you still can't possibly say you've walked a mile in their shoes. You can't ever completely understand their particular and idiosyncratic mindset, their strengths and weaknesses, their predispositions and their private turmoils. So how can you pretend to make a decision about their life that contradicts their expressed wishes? Certainly, if someone in such an extreme condition has expressed suicidal thoughts, it only seems appropriate to offer them all the help and encouragement one can afford. But, ultimately, the decision as to whether any such individual chooses to embrace death or stave it off has be his or her own.

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