“Suicide Tourism” and the Meaning of Suffering

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Thursday, October 2, 2014

“Suicide Tourism” and the Meaning of Suffering

Close friends of ours want us to join them going to Switzerland, that is, going to the country of Switzerland to see the sights, hike, eat chocolate, and come home alive. The clarification is necessary since Switzerland is such a “suicide tourism” destination that in England the phrase “going to Switzerland” has come to mean committing assisted suicide.

According to a report in The Atlantic, a recent study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics found that from 2009 to 2012, suicide tourism to Switzerland doubled with between 150 and 200 traveling annually to end their lives. Nearly half are from Germany with many from the U.K. and France. Ages ranged from 23 to 97 and three out of five are women.

While many of the suicide tourists are terminal, non-fatal diseases drive the increase. According to The New Scientist, “Neurological diseases, only some of which are fatal, were given as the reason for 47 per cent of assisted suicides…. Rheumatic or connective tissue diseases, generally considered non-fatal, such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis, accounted for 25 per cent of cases in the new study.” 

That is, a lot of people experiencing what they perceive as “useless” suffering have given up on life. As St. John Paul II observed in Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering), “This feeling [of the uselessness of suffering] not only consumes the person interiorly but seems to make him a burden to others. The person feels condemned to receive help and assistance from others and at the same time seems useless to himself.” And “going to Switzerland” can seem an improvement.

The same day I read about suicide tourism, I finished a book and received an email. 

In Less than a Minute to Go: The Secret to World-Class Performance in Sport, Business, and Everyday Life Bill Thierfelder, a sports psychologist and president of Belmont Abbey College, talks about “Playing Hurt.”

“[P]ain without purpose is intolerable,” he writes, “That is why it’s so important to reflect on the question, ‘What is my purpose? What is a sufficiently compelling reason that would enable me to take the pain and sacrifice that I will be faced with in life?’ If the answer isn’t clear to you, you won’t be able to take it when it comes. And it’s coming!”

Thierfelder makes it clear that the center of our purpose is to know and love God. Life is short; eternity is long. Purpose in life that is not rooted in eternity will dry up and blow away when adversity arrives. But if our purpose is united with God and his Great Purpose of salvation, then, as St. Paul wrote, “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).

Which brings me to the email. A friend has been sending me periodic updates since the 2004 automobile accident that resulted in trauma to his brain. He lives with family, uses a walker, can’t drive, and, by the worldly standards of success all around us, has limited prospects.

He has struggled a great deal in ten years as one problem after another has surfaced. Nonetheless, he writes, “I am learning so much that these fleeting painful moments make the whole experience truly worthwhile. You know through the accident of 2004 I have been progressively learning how much teaching takes place in suffering. They are places we would never voluntarily enter.” 

Yet into those places we will go sooner or later. In this life, we have no choice.

If we enter without an eternal purpose and without faith in God’s providence and love, amusement, anesthetics, or “going to Switzerland” are all we’ll have left.

But if, like my friend, we enter the places of suffering with our eyes on heaven and on the God who loves us, shares our suffering, and invites us to share his suffering and, in the end, his joy, it is possible to have peace and contentment no matter what. 

In Salvifici Doloris, John Paul II went on to explain that, for the Christian, suffering “is a vocation.” Rather than explaining our suffering, he wrote, Jesus says to us, “ ‘Follow me!’ Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering!”

Regarding those in such pain that they contemplate “going to Switzerland,” St. Paul told us that God, “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” The assumptions are (1) that troubles will come and (2) that as Christians we accept suffering and trust in God. Only then can we comfort those around us who suffer without hope.

Jim Tonkowich is a writer, commentator, and speaker focusing on the role of religion in our public life. His new book, The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today is available from St. Benedict Press and other online retailers. 

Publication date: October 2, 2014