Disputing Suicide Advocacy for the Sickly: A Model Essay in Developmental English Textbooks, by JD Meyer

“The Right to Die,” by Norman Cousins: Published by Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Cengage

Originally published by Joffre (JD) Meyer, Yahoo Contributor Network Nov 7, 2011. Voices.yahoo will end tomorrow; a footnote was added.

Wordsmith-a Developmental English/Writing textbook by Pamela Arlov at Pearson Higher Education-includes “The Right to Die,” by Norman Cousins as one of its model essays in the Argument (Persuasive)/Social Issues categories. This essay is about the suicide of Dr. Henry Van Dusen and his wife, Elizabeth. They had become increasingly feeble over the years and felt that their lives were being prolonged artificially beyond human dignity. Importantly, Dr. Van Dusen had been the president of Union Theological Seminary; he was a famous voice in American Protestant ethics for over a quarter century-hardly your typical case for suicide advocacy. The caption under the article’s title states, “Suicide is traditionally considered a tragedy, even a sin. Under certain circumstances, can it be considered a triumph over a slow and painful death?”

An Internet search shows how popular this article has become. McGraw-Hill offers the essay through Primis On-Line and Cornerstones. The Familiar Essay, by Mark R. Christensen includes “The Right to Die also through Cengage. Cyberessays reports that the states of Washington and Montana passed a Right to Die law in 2009.

Dr. Van Dusen left behind a brief note asking if the individual has the obligation to go on living when all beauty, meaning, and power of life are gone. Isn’t it a misuse of medical technology to keep the terminally ill alive when there are so many hungry mouths to feed? What if there’s nothing left to give or receive from life? Why should an unnatural form of living be considered better than an unnatural way of dying?

Exercising free will can mean suicide, according to Dr. Van Dusen. A call for the exercise of free will is quite common in philosophical and theological literature, and Dr. Van Dusen wrote on free will extensively during his career. Despair and pain weren’t given as reasons for The Van Dusens’ justifying of suicide.

Importantly, Norman Cousins admits that suicide is alien to the theological tradition of the Van Dusens, as it is in most cultures. However, no comment was made in this article about the kamikaze phase in World War II Japan or the current Islamic extremists. The Van Dusens regretted that their children and grandchildren may be saddened and not accept their decision. Yet Dr. Van Dusen believed that theologians and all of us should debate his case for suicide for the terminally sickly.

In concluding, Cousins asserts, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live. The unbearable tragedy is to live without dignity or sensitivity.”

My initial reaction to this essay was shock that assisted suicide for the sickly would be a topic in a Developmental English or College Composition course, as opposed to maybe an advanced medical ethics or philosophy course. I wouldn’t risk the appearance of trying to euthanize the grandparents of remedial students. Having a disability for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) myself makes me a bit squeamish when I hear a call for suicide of the chronically ill.

Once suicide is approved under these circumstances, the cases for acceptable suicide could become extended. What if one felt he or she was too poor to have a dignified existence? The extremely poor can earn as much as $1000/month. Maybe the chronically unemployed or those with a flawed background check could make a case for their own death too. An elderly neighbor feels that there are two unforgivable sins: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and suicide. Fortunately, the former seems like the most unlikely and esoteric possible form of swearing. My neighbor’s views are probably considerably more common than advocacy for suicide of the sickly.

On another note, adding mullein leaves (gordolobo) to my coffee pot this morning has helped my breathing far more than traditional medicine over the past week–including albuterol for my nebulizer, generic Mucinex, and prednisone. There were also some eucalyptus leaves and whole garlic pieces in that odd drip coffee bin, which had been ineffectual without the gordolobo. At least in Texas, you can buy a package of gordolobo or eucalyptus leaves for $1 each in the Mexican spice and herb section of the grocery store.

Later I stumbled upon a story about the later life of Norman Cousins (1915-1990) at http://www.happinessandlaughter.com/ Norman Cousins was the longtime editor of the Saturday Review and had received hundreds of wards, including the United Nations Peace Medal and nearly fifty honorary doctorate degrees. But in 1965, Cousins became very ill with ankylosing spondylitis, “a degenerative disease causing the breakdown of collagen.” It was believed that the writer would die within a few months, and he was almost completely paralyzed. But Cousins found a way to cure himself, not kill himself; he checked out of the hospital and started taking massive amounts of Vitamin C and watching funny movies! Cousins regained the use of his limbs and he returned to his full-time job at the Saturday Review. Cousins later wrote a book on his ordeal, Anatomy of an Illness in 1979. Thus Cousins chose life over suicide unlike Dr. Van Dusen. I’m glad that Earvin “Magic” Johnson chose life, as today is the twentieth anniversary of his announcement of retiring from pro basketball due to contracting the HIV virus.

Footnote: Originally, I wrote this article for Voices.yahoo, which is discontinuing its services as a citizen journalism website on July 31, 2014. At final count, my 38 articles gained 23,869 reads in roughly six years. This article represents revenge for being told never to disagree with anything in the textbook by a couple of short-lived bosses, as well as not to teach subject-verb agreement for indefinite plural pronouns (others, both, many, few, several) because Wordsmith omitted them. However, a few months before writing this article in early November 2011, I had sent an op-ed to a news station called, “Could Assisted Suicide Lower the Unemployment Rate?”
Fortunately, I changed my mind and have since gotten on Medicare & Medicaid–together with receiving housing assistance. Lately, I go to food banks instead of receiving Meals-on-Wheels. My Subject-Verb Agreement chapter section has received well over 9000 reads through Connexions of Rice University and my Academia.edu website. I’m a Twitter fanatic @bohemiotx with over 1400 followers and a member of two community organizations: East TX Human Needs Network (ETHNN)and the Community Health Worker (CHW) coalition…and hoping for a second career. I’ve never had more wonderful friends, and most of us see each other at Stanley’s Famous Bar-B-Q of Tyler–a regionally known place just two doors down from my apartment in the Hospital District, also known as Midtown.

College Composition Topics–Give Regional a Chance, an Issue of Sustainability–You Matter

Sustainability in composition marks the biggest paradigm shift in curriculum and instruction for composition since the multicultural revolution. Yet rather than supplant multiculturalism, sustainability links it to other movements, such as environmentalism–but with a broader meaning than is traditional. This op-ed will look at sustainability as concern for the students’ immediate environment. This means students and book authors can write about what matters to them in their environment; the “too regional” critique would no longer have merit. Note the subtitle, “Give Regional a Chance.” Yes, that’s a take-off of John Lennon’s famous song, “Give Peace a Chance.” Edited student essays can catch the public’s eye by expanding the range of model essays that answer the instructor/author’s prompts. I can personally attest to the new worlds that my students opened for me.

Derek Owens on Sustainability

Derek Owens (2001) expanded the definition of sustainability in his book, Composition and Sustainability–published by the Refiguring English Studies of the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE). Check out the blog The Bookfish by Steve Mentz to read Owens’s book online. http://www.stevementz.com/blog/?p=355 Furthermore, ERIC provides a fine abstract for Composition and Sustainability too.

The Refiguring English Series “examines the role English should play in larger society and public policy.” https://secure.ncte.org/store/books/series/refiguring Sustainability has an inherent interdisciplinary style, such as public policy and sociology or marketing and philosophy. Among other things, it should expand the already wide range in human interest stories while maintaining relevance.

In the “Chameleon Vision” chapter, Owens defines sustainability as “meeting today’s needs without jeopardizing the well-being of future generations.” We collaborate with our environment and depend upon it. Therefore, sustainability includes simply allowing students to write about their environment–whether it’s that barbecue restaurant on the next block, their favorite rap or duranguense band, a hope for a gospel concert to come to town, or their favorite job as a tank driver. As you can see, the political connotations could be liberal,conservative, centrist or none at all. Owens asserts to let students think about stories that belong to them and want to preserve. Could he be asking our faculty, students, and textbook authors to think like anthropologists?

Here’s a chance to bring real students’ interests to the desk through fairness in topic choice. Check this website for a wide range of exciting essay prompts http://www.goodessaytopics.com/ This can mean no less than the difference between passing and failing in developmental courses. A boring or irrelevant cluster of composition prompts can alienate students–especially the marginal ones. English faculty function as “gatekeepers and catalysts,” according to Owens. Owens proclaims it’s time to get away from anthologies that remind one of a “greenhouse or wax museum for the same small number of species…Move outside the safety zone and bring in the outsider.” The freedom inherent in composition topic choice could lead to provocative inquiry and inspiration.

Maybe the composition or developmental English instructor would feel free to share their pop culture interests in such a liberated environment. In my case, I might start with the many careers of Bruce Dickinson, the Iron Maiden singer who flies commercial jets for a British airline, the Iron Maiden jet. He has written novels, hosted a BBC radio talk show, and did a documentary on tanks. Dickinson is a top fencer who has a line of fencing equipment. Most recently, Dickinson started his own brand of mail-order beer called “The Trooper” after the famous song. Lately, I’ve noticed that many of my model sentences are amusing–a factor that can increase textbook engagement.

On Branding

The state of brands and how they affect well-being was measured by media consultancy Havas Media. The study examined how people interact with businesses in a world full of crumbling institutions; a brand will stand apart from the crowd if it makes people’s lives better and more meaningful. Branding research has insights relevant to the sustainability in composition topic movement.

“What’s the trick to making a brand meaningful? Focus on outcomes, not outputs. The criteria, says Haque, are simple: “Did this brand make you fitter, wiser, smarter, closer? Did it improve your personal outcomes? Did it improve your community outcomes? Did it pollute the environment? We’re trying to get beyond “did this company make a slightly better product” to the more resonant, meaningful question: Did this brand actually impact your life in a tangible, lasting, and positive way?” http://www.fastcoexist.com/1678768/the-brands-that-survive-will-be-the-brands-that-make-life-better?partner=best_of_newsletter

#You Matter

Finally, Angela Maiers is a leader among educators on Twitter, and we have been mutual followers of each other for some time. Ms. Maiers of Iowa has introduced the hashtag #YouMatter to dialogue on education. What could show a student or an aspiring author that they matter more than allowing flexibility on topic choice? Plenty of essay prompts and the ensuing essays have the chance of making someone angry, whether teacher, student, or administrator. It could be due to political views, love or disdain for contemporary culture, appreciation or distaste for multicultural or regional topics, and “too controversial” to name a few. It’s really important for an instructor to provide a choice of essay prompts for the student. She is also a member of General Leadership, an e-journal founded by General John Michel–another Twitter associate.

Summary

To conclude, Owens notes the unique position of the composition instructor because of the freedom to explore. According to John Langan, the dean of Developmental English and Reading instructors, the purpose of writing is to inform, persuade, and entertain.The vast majority of courses have a set body of knowledge that the instructor must cover. Let’s allow our Composition and Developmental English/Writing students to report their world to their instructor and college itself. Branding research confirms the common sense observation that people want a meaningful product. Angela Maiers has developed #YouMatter into a philosophy of education through the primacy of acceptance–a close relative of sustainability. The arguments against regional topics appear more like censorship than a quest for a generic national prompt list.