Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

If You Don't Like Your Right Hand, Cut It Off?

Envoy Magazine had a link to this MSNBC story about people who long to amputate their own healthy limbs. Not in the X-Files sense, either, though that's probably part of it.

(For the uninitiated, in the episode "Quagmire" by Kim Newton, Mulder and Scully's boat sinks while they're investigating an alleged monster in a Georgia lake. They get stuck on a rock talking about the death of Scully's dog Queequeg and the obvious parallels between Moby Dick and their lives. Scully tells Mulder he is Ahab, and Mulder replies, "You know, it's interesting you should say that, because I've always wanted a pegleg. It's a boyhood thing I never grew out of. Now I'm not being flippant. I mean, I've given this a lot of thought. If you have a pegleg or hooks for hands you know maybe it's enough to simply carry on living, bravely facing life with your disabilities. It's heroic just to survive. But without these things you're actually expected to make something of your life, achieve something -- earn a raise, wear a necktie. So, if anything, I'm the antithesis of Ahab, because if I did have a pegleg, I'd quite possibly be more happy and more content, and not feel the need to chase after these creatures of the unknown.")

The interesting thing is that this documentary treats these amputee wannabees with such total lack of judgmentalism or judgment. Couldn't your average five-year-old see that cutting off a healthy arm or leg is a crazy thing to do? Is it not glaringly obvious that these people need help not with getting amputations, but with resisting their impulses and learning to love their own bodies and selves? But nobody sees this. It's their own choice and they should be allowed to do what they want, yupyupyup. Most disturbingly, supposedly sane surgeons are willing to forget the basic principle of their profession ("First, do no harm.") and help these folks with their sick desires. Nobody seems to mention what happens when someone still feels bad after the first elective amputation. (I'm pretty confident Mulder would feel he wasn't a good enough amputee....)

I don't say this without some understanding. At least these folks only want to obliterate a limb. I, like many people, have struggled since childhood with the longing to kill myself. I've thought about different ways to do it, found good reasons for it, yearned for oblivion to get away from all this. But I've never done anything about it, and I try not to think about it. I know very well that there are places on the Web and in real life where I could have my "choice" validated by supposedly reputable psychologists and doctors, who would be entirely willing to help me leave this life. (Some of them wouldn't even make me pay for it.) But you know, I also have a small dose of common sense (and a large dose of religion) that tells me suicide is not the way.

More to the point at hand, I also have friends or readers who, if I was sitting here spouting off about killing myself being great, would be quick to persuade me against suicide or take steps to stop me and make me better. The filmmaker is not interested in doing anything but handing amputee wannabees the bone saw. (I think Jesus had something to say about false shepherds leading people astray, and it doesn't just apply to clergy....)


But in the end, we cannot always rely on others to tell us when we're on crack, drinking the Kool-Aid, or acting like idiots. We do have free will. We are responsible for looking after ourselves. Unless these poor folks really are beyond distinguishing right from wrong on this, they should be able to see that this is a stupid, crazy thing to do. (Even if the total lack of opposition to their plans makes them think even more that they were right about hating their own bodies, since everybody seems to agree the limbs should go.)

The truth is (oh, here comes an insight never reached before in the history of the human race!) that sometimes we desire to do things that are bad for us, just as sometimes we desire to do bad things to others. The correct, healthy thing to do in these cases is to resist that desire, not give into it in the vain hope of satisfaction. Throwing ourselves to our own wolves is nothing but self-betrayal.

If we believe in the individual, in human rights, in protecting the weak from hatred and prejudice, and in the dignity of all human beings, we must logically protect even our own weak selves from ourselves by resisting the temptation to hurt ourselves or do things that violate our own human dignity. If we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we must love ourselves at least a little. Enough not to give consent to doing things to ourselves that would get somebody else thrown in prison. Enough to say no to the darkness of our own hearts.


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