Out of Control

The Meaning of Suffering

In a recent New York Times column (“A Heartfelt Appeal for a Graceful Exit,” February 5), Jane E. Brody argued the case for suicide. In an earlier column, she wrote about preventing geriatric suicide. In response, she received a letter from a woman in her nineties who was not depressed but simply tired of suffering and wanted to die. Brody asks, “What is the point of living so long if you can no longer enjoy living? What is the point of living until your mind turns to marshmallow and you are reduced to an existence that is less than human?” This question, she says, “cannot be lightly dismissed”—and it should not be.

Years ago I read an interview with Rex Stout, the author of the Nero Wolfe mysteries. Stout was a Quaker, an old man, and tired of living. He said something to the effect that he would like to kill himself, not because he was depressed, but simply because he was tired of living. He didn’t do so, he said, because people he loved would not understand it.

As a pastor I have seen people whose lives really were at the far end of what most people would consider tolerable agony, if you can speak of such a thing. We shouldn’t assume that people who want to die are depressed, though many of them may be. The question here is suffering itself, and what it means to be human within the context of...

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About the Author

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.