Here’s a question. There’s no right answers, just the less wrong one to you.
Would you rather be dead, or completely paralyzed from the neck down? You take a hard fall. A centimeter one way is an immediate, painless death. A centimeter the other way is a lifetime without recovery, but a lifetime all the same. Which outcome is your choice?
Welcome to WholesomeRage. This is going to be the first article on this website that’s in the audio, rather than the written format.
I’ll give you a moment now to think about your answer, but for most of you this was a pretty snap judgement.
The interesting point to this question is that it seems that two to one seem to choose death over paralysis, which is interesting, isn’t it?
It comes into the question of what makes life worth living for you. What are your meaningful metrics, and why would you choose the way you do? Why would others disagree on your choice?
It’s interesting, because what we come down to a disagreement not on the meaning of life, but the meaning of living. What do you value? And from that, it makes it easier to understand why your other values might build off of that more.
Very few people I asked answered in a way that made the loss of a physical body in and of itself the reason to choose death. I was surprised so few people answered something as simple as; “I’d miss sex too much”.
What struck me as the most important reason for a lot of people was the loss of agency. The feeling that you have meaningful control of your life and your choices. The loss of movement, of freedom of movement, is an important part of our self-identity. It’s hard to imagine wanting to live as a diminished form of ourselves.
It’s not that people aren’t aware they still have choices and decisions they could make, and still be a person they’d want to be. But they’re very aware of how many choices become closed off to them. We don’t just value having a good life; What we value is the amount of control we have to choose it for ourselves. And without a functioning body, we feel trapped in a far narrower set of options.
The next most common was a feeling of societal burden. This is the utility angle. If a loss of agency is the feeling of no longer being able to make meaningful decisions, then this is about loss of value. The idea of utility is the intangible value you put into the world; The happiness you give, the satisfaction, the comfort. The idea of whether you improve or detract from the lives around you.
Many feel that being unable to work would make them a serious financial burden. Their state would make them a time and emotional burden as well. They picture themselves in that state and they think they’d just make the lives of the people that cared most about them worse. They feel like without the ability to help themselves, they’re a net loss of happiness to the people they’re closest to. They don’t want to be a source of more pain than happiness.
A general feeling behind these answers too, though, is the sudden loss of identity. When they think of themselves in this situation they see everything they’re going to lose about themselves, the sharp and immediate negatives. They don’t try to focus on what they could do to rebuild themselves from that position. Some pay lip service to waiting for medical advances, but that’s just putting the idea that their ‘self’ is preserved, just in stasis for this ordeal.
Not that a new self-identity could be remade from that situation.
These people are also the most likely to say they’d choose paralysis over death if they had the option of euthenasia, but they don’t believe they do. I think this is critically important because of that loss of agency; The freedom to believe you can kill yourself at any time is an important one that a lot of people need, whether others agree with that or not.
It’s not because we want to die, mind you. It’s because we want to believe, no matter what, we have that choice, that freedom.
Losing the right to make the most powerful, important decision you could make — the freedom to die — makes the situation more unbearable; it emphasises just how total your loss of agency, of self-power, can be.
For that reason, a lot of people are right when they choose death. These are core, deeply personal values that are lost; To these people, it’s worse than nothing. It’s being alive only to be in a state of existential torture.
Who chose paralysis then, had a very fundamentally different mindset.
The most common thread among the people I find who would choose paralysis over death are people who have experienced dependance before, who know what it’s like to need to lean on others for help. Not only do they have less qualms with being put into that situation, it means there’s less self-identity that they’d feel would be lost to them. It’s not a meaningful thing to them to lose.
Others don’t find the loss of body freedom meaningful to lose. They think about everything they could still do first, rather than everything they could lose. They think of what their mind is capable of, their education. I would still have made this just the same with only my voice, or typed it far more slowly with cheek and tongue muscles.
It’s not about the total loss of identity to these people. It’s about what they maintain, and what’s still worth holding onto.
Here we see that they value agency, utility and self-identity just as much as the people who choose to die. But the thought processes are somewhat different. Self-identity is malleable, and I can adapt. I am more than my body, and I can still contribute and bring happiness in that capacity — though many still hate the financial burden. And I can make meaningful choices towards my own happiness even then.
I think far more people are capable of this mindset than currently believe of themselves. I also think they’ve never been put into a situation where they’ve needed to test that.
Here we get to another consideration; Mental illness.
The paralysis thought process here is so compelling because it’s immediately imaginable. You can picture it. Mental illness is much harder to contemplate; Try to think how you’d think if your brain was damaged. If your emotions were wrong. If you didn’t have the same tools a healthy brain does to course-correct.
The reasons these people are driven to suicide usually comes down to reasons very similar to the core principles of why a healthy person would choose death over paralysis.
For these people there is the loss of agency — they don’t have control over their own thoughts and feelings. They can’t make meaningful choices because their attempts are sabotaged by their own minds.
There is the loss of utility — they can be depressing to be around. Their own sadness and anxiety brings sadness and anxiety to others. Some adapt by playing a role, forcing themselves to show feelings they can’t feel, but that again leads them to feel their own self-identity is a complete lie, and that the ‘real’ them is to painful to be around others.
There is the loss of self-identity, because their self-identity is so tangled up with their illness that they can’t see their personality past their diagnosis. It’s hard because of how all-consuming it is.
I think, then, that the paralysis question is helpful when trying to talk to a person who is finding it hard to deal with their mental illness. If you haven’t experienced it yourself the problems can seem alien. You try to relate it to your own experiences but doing so can just seem either inadequate or outright offensive.
You can feel absolutely helpless to help.
I think thinking of it from the context of these issues though should put you on a much stronger understanding of what it is a person in this situation needs to feel their life is meaningful to live.
The sadness is a painful symptom, certainly. But the loss of control, the subsumation of identity, and the feeling of having no value are far worse. Too many people focus on what is immediately understandable to them; the sadness itself, the depression aspect of depression.
And to those of you listening who feel dominated by their mental illness; You are more than your diagnosis. Do things that make you feel you have value, until you can believe others when they tell you that you do. And don’t let the feeling of a need for control lead you to make bad choices just to prove to yourself you have the freedom to make those bad choices. That loan is never worth the interest.
Here’s hoping this one brought you more wholesome than rage. Go say hi to someone you’ve been meaning to talk to for a while, they’d probably appreciate it.