Aging, chaplaincy, charles darwin snelling, Charles Snelling, david brooks, medical ethics, Murder-Suicide, psychology, Snelling
This continues from the previous post. Here is David Brook’s take on the elderly homicide/suicide referenced in the article shared in the previous post. I find his perspective quite insightful. What sticks out most to me is the intimate humanness of the particular case, for we have insight into the man who committed the act through his own life story.
Respect the Future
By DAVID BROOKS
Last fall I asked readers over 70 to send me “Life Reports” — essays evaluating their own lives. Charles Darwin Snelling responded with a remarkable 5,000-word reflection.
Snelling was a successful entrepreneur who spent decades serving his community. He was redeemed, he reported, six years ago when his beloved wife, Adrienne, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “She took care of me in every possible way she could for 55 years. The last six years have been my turn,” Snelling wrote.
“We continue to make a life together, living together in the full sense of the word; going about our life, hand in hand, with everyone lending a hand, as though nothing was wrong at all,” he continued.
He believed that caring for his wife made him a richer, fuller human being: “It’s not noble, it’s not sacrificial and it’s not painful. It’s just right in the scheme of things. … Sixty-one years ago, a partner to our marriage who knew how to nurture, nurtured a partner who needed nurturing. Now, 61 years later, a partner who is learning how to nurture is nurturing a partner who needs nurturing.”
On March 29, less than four months after we published his essay online, Snelling killed his wife and then himself.
The comments responding to Matt Flegenheimer’s news article on this event make for fascinating reading. The majority support or sympathize with Snelling’s double-killing.
Many of the correspondents have cared for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. “It is like a slow horror show,” a woman from Texas wrote. These writers felt nothing but sympathy for the pain and despair Snelling must have endured. Several argued that people in these circumstances should be able to end their spouse’s life legally, so they don’t then feel compelled to end their own.
Others were impressed by the Romeo-and-Juliet-style ending that Snelling created. “This was as fine an ending as the Snellings’ love story deserved,” a man from Virginia wrote. “Their bodies gave out — their hearts never did.”
This sentiment was echoed by the Snelling family, which released a statement that began, “This is a total shock to everyone in the family, but we know he acted out of deep devotion and profound love.”
Others, more likely women than men, were upset by Snelling’s decision. A woman from Canada who has spent 25 years nursing Alzheimer’s patients, argued that none of us have the right to decide that another person’s life is worthless. Some argued that the nurturing process at the end of life, like the nurturing process at the beginning, requires patience and that those who are desperate should seek help, not a firearm.
Everyone approaches this case with sadness and trepidation. But I can come to only one conclusion: Either Snelling was so overcome that he lost control of his faculties, or he made a lamentable mistake. I won’t rehearse the religious arguments against murder and suicide, many of which are based on the supposition that a life is a gift from God. Our job is not to determine who is worthy of life, but how to make the most of the life we have been given.
I would just refer you to the essay Snelling himself wrote. Only a few months ago, Snelling wrote that his life as his wife’s caretaker was rich and humanizing. By last week, he apparently no longer believed that.
But who is to say how Snelling would have felt four months from now? The fact is, we are all terrible at imagining how we will feel in the future. We exaggerate how much the future will be like the present. We underestimate the power of temperament to gradually pull us up from the lowest lows. And if our capacities for imagining the future are bad in normal times, they are horrible in moments of stress and suffering.
Given these weaknesses, it seems wrong to make a decision that will foreclose future thinking. It seems wrong to imagine that you have mastery over everything you will feel and believe. It’s better to respect the future, to remain humbly open to your own unfolding.
Furthermore, I bought the arguments that Snelling made in that essay: that his wife’s illness had become a call for him to exercise virtue and to serve as an example for others; that people are joined by suffering, and that the life of a community is enriched by the hard tasks placed before it; that dependency is the normal state of affairs.
If you look at life through the calculus of autonomy, then maybe Snelling made the right call. Maybe his moments of pain from here on out would have outnumbered his moments of pleasure. But if you look at a life as one element within a mysterious flow, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Charles and Adrienne Snelling still had a few ripples to create.
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