Up Front and Personal

We Do Not Choose the Hour of Our Death

by Annmarie McLaughlin

I recently read Jojo Moyes’ “Me Before You,” which is now a major motion picture. Will Traynor, who became paralyzed in a motorcycle accident moments after leaving the bed of his gorgeous fiancée, has given his family six months to savor his presence before he heads off to an assisted-suicide clinic in Switzerland. His wealthy family hires Louisa Clark to care for him and persuade him that his life is worth living. Predictably, in the course of the six months, they fall in love.

The novel is gradually peppered with the kind of propaganda one would expect from a seasoned Hollywood liberal, not a breakout novelist. Statements like, “It’s his choice,” “there is a point where we have to let him decide,” and “I can’t judge him for what he wants to do” slip out of the mouths of those who care for Will as though they were planted there by Dr. Kevorkian himself. Louisa is unable to persuade him not to end his life. On his deathbed, Will tells her that the past six months have been the best of his life, but that “this is the first thing I’ve been in control of since the accident,” echoing the sentiment he had expressed earlier in the book: if he can’t live his life the way he wants, he doesn’t want to live it at all.

Louisa’s approach and reaction adequately convey the effect of Will’s decision on his loved ones. Louisa’s mother is the hard-liner in the book, telling Louisa that if she goes to Switzerland to support Will’s decision, “she needn’t come back” and that “this is no better than murder.” So while the book clearly struggles to address both sides of this issue, ultimately the ending is disappointing and disturbing. I do not presume to know Jojo Moyes’ beliefs about assisted suicide, but if she believes it is wrong – as do many of her characters – then she has missed an opportunity to challenge her readers to believe it as well. Instead, one is left with a depressing sense of inevitability.

The life of NYPD Detective Steven McDonald highlights the inadequacy of this viewpoint. His life surely did not turn out the way he originally imagined it, yet he set an example that has impacted countless people and challenged each of us to put Jesus’ injunction to forgive “seventy-seven times” (Matt 18:22) into real practice.

Society will continue to attempt to convince us that allowing others to express their “right to choose” is a selfless act. Yet the challenge to accept God’s right to choose when we die is much more difficult. Steven McDonald has proven that God’s notions of what we can achieve far exceed the limits of what we may envision for ourselves. Graciously submitting to God’s will makes us Christ-like in a way that transforms us into our truest and best selves.

Hopefully, the example of Steven McDonald will eventually overshadow that of Will Traynor, even as Will makes his way across movie screens throughout the country.

McLaughlin is a professor of writing and research at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, and chairperson of the Brooklyn Diocesan Pastoral Council.