Have you ever attended the viewing or funeral of a loved one or friend and heard the words “What a waste of a life. They suffered terribly.” exchanged between two people? Perhaps the individual died due to a drug overdose, a prolonged battle with cancer, a life long struggle with a mental illness, the person was born with Down Syndrome or perhaps lived with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Is their life, however, a waste? I think not.
First of all, everyone who takes a breath struggles. Whether it was the very first struggle to be born, to learn to use a spoon, to learn to crawl or walk or to learn to use a wheelchair or to learn to live despite being paralyzed – life is a struggle to one degree or another. Though it does seem that some people live charmed lives and appear not to have any struggle or problem in their individual lives.
But struggling is not a waste, no matter the cause of the struggle. It is not our right to judge whether someone’s life was waste. It is only God’s right because He is the Creator in the first place. Every person has a choice on how they will live their life. They can choose to accept what life brings and wrestle around with it – whatever “it” so happens to be.
This issue has come to mind because of the recent repose of a close acquaintance. In order to protect the innocent, I will not mention who the person is, only that the person was a female. This dear woman suffered with paranoid schizophrenia, a devastating mental illness. I use the word devastating because it not only affected the individual but also the immediate family and immediate community in which the person lived.
The woman about whom I write suffered from age 12 with this illness. For the last 15 or 20 years, this female was unable to live alone in a setting that was not a protected environment. This was due to many factors, not the least of which was her multiple attempts on her own life. Can one blame her desire to be shed of a life that was a living hell? A member of her family felt it best to file a legal order to have her committed to a mental health facility for her own protection. In many ways, the courage of said family member saved this woman’s life.
The mental illness progressed, pushing this woman into delusions that were frightening to her, thus to others around her. Yelling and screaming at invisible people who were trying to get to her through the heating ducts was not unusual. She often spoke to the wall or to those long dead. She verbally, and sometimes physically, attacked another person. More than a few years were spent living on the streets of a large city. Can you imagine the fear in this dear woman’s heart and soul and mind?
Eventually the woman developed other physical illnesses which may or may not have contributed to her death. She lived in a county nursing facility for 15 or 20 years, eventually ending up unable to walk or talk, care for her own physical needs, feed herself, or engage in any kind of social activity. I can only imagine that her days were filled with uncomprehendingly staring at a wall or a television set.
These are the stories of this woman when the schizophrenia held her mind in its icy grip. However, I have it on good authority that when she was “well” she was a kind, gentle, humble and forgiving woman. She was a contributing member of society, holding down a regular job, attending social events, participating in family gatherings, cooking, cleaning, etc. According to one of her family members, she was a faithful woman, prayed her rosary regularly and was wholly devoted to the Holy Theotokos – enough that she changed her middle name to “Mary” in our Holy Mother’s honor.
Who is anyone to judge that this woman’s life was a waste? Who am I to make a blanket suggestion, and therefore judge, that her days were filled with uncomprehension of that which went on around her? Can any of us look into the heart of another person and judge whether what they are doing or not doing, what they are capable of or not capable of, constitutes a “waste of a life”? Do we know if they are praying? What makes a life NOT a waste? Working? Having a McMansion? Owning all the newest electrical gadgets? Being married? Having children? Frankly, I find my judgment of this woman and other’s judgment of her to be offensive to my core.
God created each individual in His own Image. What that Image is incased in, be it a body contorted by Lou Gehrig’s disease with a brilliant mind like Steven Hawking or a mind that is trapped in the delusion of schizophrenia and a healthy body, does not matter. The soul, the heart, which contains the Image still keeps its imprint of God.
This dear woman’s life was not a waste by any stretch of the imagination. Every day of her life was a day in hell being tormented by demons that whispered evil things in her ear. Her gentle and forgiving spirit, which was the core of her being, went untouched because it always shone forth when she was free of the icy grip. Thus when she was free from the torment, even for those brief moments, days or weeks, the Light of God shone forth from her. It is my firm belief that the Holy Theotokos protected her.
It was said by someone, “She was so good, she’ll go straight to heaven. And if she does not, then there is no heaven.”
A waste of a life? I think not.