Brittany Maynard Isn’t Brave, But These People Are

Courtesy of Brittany Maynard

Courtesy of Brittany Maynard

On November 1, 2014 Brittany Maynard ended her life with a lethal dose of medication prescribed to her by her doctor. She was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor, a stage 4 glioblastoma.

She is being heralded as brave for making this choice, and for publicizing it weeks in advance. But she isn’t brave.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not jumping into the fray with my opinion on whether physician-assisted suicide for terminal cases should be legal, or whether it’s ethical, or even if I agree with it. Honestly, I don’t know what I would do if I had a terminal cancer and no hope of healing.

I am only talking about bravery. And Brittany Maynard didn’t have it, because bravery doesn’t quit, and bravery never thinks of only itself. If you remember nothing else from this article remember this:

Bravery doesn’t quit.

Bravery is selfless.

(You can tweet that)

Some Truly Brave Men and Women

I know a woman who left an abusive, alcoholic man after seventeen years of marriage. She left because she wanted a better life for her son, and she saw him taking after his father. She had the courage to travel 2,185.3 miles to get away from her husband, even while knowing he would probably follow her and threaten her. But she left anyway, and she didn’t go back. That woman was brave, because bravery doesn’t quit and bravery is selfless.

(Thanks Mom for being the best example of bravery I have ever seen, and inspiring me to live a courageous life).

I know a man who has bipolar disorder, and has struggled for years to find his center. He has been on multiple different medications, but none had seemed to work. During these attempts to find a good space to live in, he never hid in a corner. Instead, he shared his ups and downs, his job losses and feelings of inadequacy, with the world on his blog. He understands bravery, because he never stopped pushing to find the way to his best life. The whole time, he was motivated to give his family the best life possible, by being the best possible person he could be.

I know Colleen English. Her daughter Claire has Rett Syndrome, which means Claire is not able to walk or talk, and she has seizures regularly. Colleen could have quit. She could have decided nothing could save her daughter, because right now there is no cure. But she didn’t do that, because she understands what it means to be brave. She started Rettland Foundation, and is locking arms with families across the world to find a cure. More than that, she is fundraising to help other families afford the clinical trials. Collen shows the world what bravery looks like, because she refuses to quit or to wallow in her (legitimate) sorrow.

My wife works as a pediatric cancer nurse. Every day, she meets kindergarteners who know they have cancer, but choose to laugh anyway. She cares for teenage boys who understand they are terminal, but make it their quest in the short time they have left to inspire other cancer kids to stay strong, to stay positive, and to make the best of the time they have left. These children are pillars of bravery, because they refuse to drown in their own mortality.

I don’t know who I admire more, these kids…or the nurses who take care of them. My wife has seen “her kids” (yes, they are her kids, as much as our own children are her kids, because she cares THAT much) die. She has had to struggle with whether she has the strength to go to the funerals of these kids she loves. That is heroism. That is bravery.

And, by the way, why does physical suffering equate to bravery, while mental illnesses are still viewed as if there is something wrong with us? We don’t choose mental illness any more than Britney chose cancer.

I know men who plan their careers around being at home to care for epileptic wives. I know women with transgender children, who don’t shrink back from the social stigma that creates, but lean instead lean into their children with love and acceptance, no matter what. I know those who suffer from ME or fibromyalgia, where some days just getting downstairs is an accomplishment; yet they are parent, grandparents, wives, poets, photographers. These people, these mighty resilient wonderful people, know what it means to be brave.

Brittany Maynard knows nothing of this brand of bravery. She did not taste the organic richness of a life lived fully, of a never-quit attitude, or of a selfless life until the end. So let’s not call her brave. Instead, let’s admire and lift high the truly brave, the quietly heroic, the mighty who are hiding in plain sight.

Balance is Hard When You Have More Priorities Than Appendages

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Photo by M. Rehemtulla for QUOI Media Group (Creative Commons)

I remember the days when I only had one project to work on at a time. I zeroed in one thing and stayed focused until it was done. Whether a book draft, an analysis for my job, or a blog post, I could stay in my sweet spot until it was done. I was overreacting to the myth of multitasking (did you know multitasking causes a temporary loss of IQ greater than smoking marijuana?).

Somewhere over the past year though, I lost that ability to have a single-minded pursuit of any one thing.

Boy am I glad.

I recently discovered that this insane focus has actually been rooted in fear. I assumed I would fail, so pursuing one thing at a time limited the breadth of my failures. But in reality I was putting a cap on my possibilities. My presumptive failure was keeping me from tasting both success and the joy of stretching to complete a challenge.

It also lent itself to a completely unbalanced life. When in the midst of a project, I was unwilling and almost physically unable to pull away for anything. I would eat weird meals at strange times. I would do my best to ignore “the outside world”, which I defined as anything but my project and me. I would allow anger to arise in me when my kids had the audacity to want to talk to me.  It was terrible. I was terrible.

Really, it came down to one question: Do I want to be brilliant at one thing, or would I rather live a life where my family and friends find joy in my presence?

I’m not saying it is black-and-white for everyone. Probably most are able to be absolutely amazing at something and still be decent. Not this guy. Too easily, I begin to expect perfection from myself, and this high standard requires my all. Something is triggered in me when the call to brilliance comes to my mind, and I feel like I have to give every waking moment, every spare bit of energy, every-single-thing to it.

I am learning to have a balanced and prioritized life, instead of pursuing brilliance in all things. I definitely don’t consider myself an expert at balance – you might say I am a neophyte at it. But I have figured a few things out.

People first, every time

No project should ever take priority over the people in my life. And let me make one thing absolutely clear. There is a clear distinction between the hypothetical people who might read the words I write and the actual physical people in my daily life.

My first call in life is to be a godly husband to my wife, learning together with her how to honor Christ with our lives. Then I am ordained by God to be a father to my children, to light the path of the righteous life for them, that they might walk it. Then, I am to be a burden-lifter, prayer-giver, laugh-bringer, hope-inspiring friend to those who trust me. Whenever I forget this, I lose my balance in life.

Most things are not emergencies

I do from time to time have urgent work projects, and life does throw curve balls at me that require immediate attention. This is not the nature of most things in my life. Most have moderate deadlines, or no deadlines at all. I am learning to experience my life at less than breakneck speed, and to enjoy the process.

There is no shame is having a lazy afternoon, or even [gasp] a lazy weekend. The truth is, it is often in the unplanned parts of life where we most readily find our comfort and joy. Somewhere in my faith journey, I picked up the idea that even a relaxing moment is somehow wasted in God’s eyes. I am learning the truth that God seeks to bring joy to us, in the busy and the slow seasons.

Too many ideas is proof of a creative mind

I used to feel the pressure of needing to DO SOMETHING with every idea that crossed my mind. This is one of the reasons I focused so intently on one concept at a time, because it prevented me from having any new creative thoughts. I am slow, but I finally get it. Having an idea does not put any responsibility on me to execute it immediately, or at all.

Now, I recognize a new idea exactly for what it is…an idea. Now, I have lots of ideas about how I can parent better, how I might replace the income from my “day job”, what my next book might be. I have no idea which of these will actually work, or even how many of these I will execute. But giving them space in my imagination to ruminate reminds me I am alive, and I am not done growing and changing.

Where Does This Leave Me?

For one thing, it gives me more potential priorities than appendages. I don’t have a chance of implementing even half of the ideas I have now. It also leaves me with a greater capacity for joy and rest in my life. It even increases the chances that I succeed at those things which matter most, regardless of what my net worth or books sold might communicate about me to others. In short, it leaves me healthy.

Depression and Heavy Water Create a Warrior

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Photo by Puccaso (Creative Commons)

The cursor won’t stop blinking.

Even when I don’t look at it, I know it’s there.

Mocking me for the empty page in front of me.

I know every page starts empty, but I feel the mockery nonetheless.

The lack of words proves the whispers in my ear – You have NOTHING to offer.

This is what it feels like for me when I am depressed

I don’t often struggle with writer’s block.

Unless I am depressed.

Then, even crafting one sentence is almost physically painful.

And a full coherent essay means hours of work.

For example, the 100 words or so above took me about three hours.

But I don’t want to hide behind my sorrows any longer.

Heavy Water

I struggle with cyclical depression. Twice a year, usually in March and November, things get difficult for me. At first, I can shoulder the burden. I feel tired most of the day. I go to sleep earlier. I play with the kids less. But I cope.

Until things stop working.

It is as if I fall into a deep pool of heavy water. Water that weighs more than I do, and holds me down. The more I struggle, the more entangled I become. Eventually, it takes all my effort to rise up above the surface for a breath. I have strength for one desperate gasp before I am pulled back under the ugly blinding mess of my depression.

I don’t hide it well

I do my best to cover up the pain I don’t understand and can’t explain. I put my best fake smile on and try to emulate the Chris people are accustomed to interacting with.

It never works.

Anyone who knows me even a little sees that something is wrong. They mention that I seem a little off and wait to see if I will engage them. I usually hide behind a lie, saying I am tired or having a tough day.

The ones who care even more press me. They want to know how to help. But I have no answers. How do you help a person drowning in water that outweighs them? If I knew, I would already be out of the pit already.

When prayers seem lame

At the end of the conversation, everyone offers to pray for me. Even those who won’t normally pray, because they know my faith matters to me. For some reason, it always seems apologetic, even sad. “Wish I could do something. Guess I will just pray.”

I want to correct them for that simple word, “just.” I want to tell them it’s never “just praying.” Connecting with the Creator of the idea of jumping and neurons and tomatoes – the most imaginative Being in the entire universe – should never be “just” anything.

But when I am being overcome by unnaturally weighty water, I connect with the just. I am just praying too. And most of the time, it just seems lame.

I know God is moving. I know He is good, every day, all the time. Some days, it’s harder to see. Especially when you are gasping for breath and blinded by sorrows. That’s where the guilt comes in.

Here Come the Voices

I have friends who struggle with depression like this, and I never judge them when they are down and out. Yet when the darkness comes upon me, condemnation is a screaming horde.

You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Look at your life – why in the world are you sad?

Has God not blessed you enough?

You have serious issues, Chris!

You have no right to lead anyone – your family, your readers, nobody.

Are you seriously trying to get a book published about a successful life?

You suck.

If I am not careful, these accusations can quickly escalate (though it’s been many years since I’ve entertained them):

Nobody cares.

Why even bother moving forward in life?

Your family would be happier without you.

Just end it.

The cacophony of lies streaming at me become hard to manage. These thoughts refuse to listen to me. They won’t line up one by one, so I can deal with them all in due course. I am not very good at pushing through. I spend a lot of time cursing the dark. But one thought keeps me from wandering too far.

There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

I wish this verse would melt the water and free me from the grip of depression. But it doesn’t.

It gives me something to cling to. It keeps me from moving so deep under the muck that I cannot come back up.

In time, I am able to conquer this depression. I don’t know how it happens really. Sometimes, I use anti-depressants and I recover. Other times, the meds do nothing. And sometimes I do just fine after a brief bout with this cyclical depression with no medication at all. There is no rhyme or reason to its end.

A Warrior Arises from the Water

I am trying to view these bouts with depression differently now. Not as a proof of failure, but as a history of battles won. I am learning to see myself as a warrior, a veteran of many battles.

I have scars.

I limp.

I see the world through different eyes.

But I have fought my enemy many times, and each time I have been victorious.

So it is with each of us who are fighting depression.

Our very fighting proves our mettle.

We are warriors.