My wife has a deathly fear: blindness.
It is only natural. She’s been deaf all her life, and everything she’s ever learned has come to her through her eyes. Vision is everything.
She reads voraciously. She accessorizes with colorful scarves. She loves light: sunlight, Christmas lights, beautiful lamps, and tiny candles. She can lip-read, if she must, but greatly prefers the living, fluid beauty of sign language.
I was born hearing, but I’ve been losing it bit by bit over the years; the loss started in early childhood and continues today. I’ve noticed a similar fear of blindness as my dependence on visual communication increases. I own, for example, 5 sets of safety goggles for use when I am grinding metal or working on my woodlathe. Why 5 sets? I’m always concerned I’m going to lose a pair and be unable to work.
I know guys who wear tough aprons and leather gloves then they work, but I’ve never been one to use those things usually. But work without safety goggles, when a single sliver of metal or splinter of wood could cut off communication with my friends and my wife and my kids? Never.
For the deaf, blindness is more than simply a loss of vision. There’s the isolation from friends, of course. The tie that binds most deaf communities together – a unique language – is lost. The most common deaf past-time (socializing for hours on end) is over. The low literacy rates among many deaf communities worldwide mean that blindness cannot be overcome simply by shifting to the printed word (in Braille, of course). On an emotional level, I cannot imagine any other sensory loss with as great an impact. And if you’d like to try to convince me otherwise, don’t. I won’t believe you.
So when news reports out of Belgium indicated that two Deaf brothers opted for assisted suicide because of a progressive loss of vision, Stacy and I had the same response: tragic, unnecessary, contrary to God’s call….and pretty understandable.
According to the reports I’ve read, these were two intelligent, hard-working deaf brothers who shared a home, living without dependence on others. They communicated through sign language and enjoyed good jobs. Blindness, in their view, was the end of all of that. As they perceived it, their future held increasing isolation, severing of relationships, loss of everything they ever treasured, and eventual institutionalization. Stacy and I think they were right: that was their likely future.
Among my deaf contacts in the United States, I have seen two basic responses. The first response comes from deaf adults who have struggled with the same problem of increasing blindness. They have found coping mechanisms that often center on support centers and access to specialized equipment and personnel; even so, it is a long, hard, daily battle. The second response comes from deaf adults who perceive a hearing agenda at work in all of this; deaf people are broken, deaf people need hearing folks to make decisions for them, etc.
What is our response as Christians?
For starters, we can acknowledge the obvious: life is precious in God’s sight, and we lack the moral right to end it in such a fashion.
We cannot stop there, though. We must take the additional step of attempting to understand what drives people to end their lives. This case is about more than euthanasia. There were heart-broken, well-intentioned individuals involved who saw this as their best choice.
The next step in the process is to show that we have a great hope. This will make a greater difference in a hurting world than simply opposing euthanasia. For non-believers, “Cuz God said so…” is insufficient. For the average non-Christian, any God who might exist is far away and inaccessible, unaware of human agony. The only way of explaining our hope in hopeless situations is to show our hope.
How does this apply to these men?
I cannot fathom, even a little bit, the heartache of blindness when I rely on my eyes for so much. For these deaf brothers, united by shared experiences and a unique language, the horror of dependence and isolation was too much, and I cannot find it in my heart to condemn them too strongly. Even so, I do know they committed a terrible act.
I also know that Christians suffer at the same rate as non-believers. As I have already mentioned in other posts on this site, there is service to be found in our response to our circumstances. Milton wrote in a sonnet about his own blindness, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” These two men lacked an understanding that even in sitting, isolated, there is a chance to serve our God and His purposes.
Maybe there is a need to be just a tiny bit more transparent with the lost world around us. If people knew our pains and saw our struggles, they might have the chance to comprehend the strength that He gives us to go on even when there is nowhere to go. Perhaps they can only understand how great our hope if they see it triumphing over our deepest despair.