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One man’s philosophy on living and dying

Opinion

Salisbury parishioner and retired teacher Arthur Nankivell has been providing ‘technical support’ to musicians at St Augustine’s Church for many years. Diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease three years ago, he continues to actively participate in the parish, preparing the Powerpoint presentation and operating the overhead projector each Sunday. Arthur was heavily involved in community service with Lions for 40 years and named Citizen of the Year at the Salisbury City Council Australia Day Awards in 2015. In what he describes as ‘ramblings’ on living and dying, ARTHUR NANKIVELL writes of the importance of serving others – even in his dying days – and his personal rejection of euthanasia.

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From very early in life, I understood that all living things eventually die. Being brought up on a farm on the Yorke Peninsula, where we lived as much as possible on farm resources by gathering and hunting, reinforced the notion.

In 2015, at 67 years of age, I was diagnosed as having Motor Neurone Disease, a degenerative disease where there are no documented cases of anyone managing to reverse the degeneration process. The prognosis was basic: statistically, I would live from three to five years, and during that time I would progressively lose control of more and more muscles until I could no longer do anything for myself.

My initial reaction was one of mild shock. I thought I had won a prize, but in the wrong lottery. Then I looked at things pragmatically. I am lucky in many ways. Firstly, I had already had the privilege of 67 years of generally good health, and had used that time in ways which make me feel proud. My mind was already attuned to the acceptance of death, and I had started the necessary preparations to lighten the load on my family if that was to suddenly happen. Most importantly, I was given the opportunity to reflect on issues related to living and dying.

The body is the temple of the soul. It is the earthly home of the spirit. Respect for the body is important. The temple is beginning to look a little shabby, but it is never going to be better. Over three years, I have gradually lost strength and control of my legs, to the point where I can no longer walk at all, and can barely stand long enough to shift from one chair to another. If it wasn’t for the strength in my arms, I would immediately fall upon standing. Nonetheless, I am still lucky. The key functions of the body, eating (swallowing), speaking and breathing, are only minutely affected at the moment. Thankfully, sight, hearing and bowel function are rarely affected.

Life is for living. It is my belief that, for a person to really live, it is necessary to recognise community and to work for the benefit of that community. Selfishness and greed, and their negative associated behaviours such as theft, cheating and lying for personal gain, are not ‘living’. One can be alive, yet not truly living. Unless life is accompanied by a spirit of caring and sharing, unless life is truly ‘lived’, the whole community is weaker.

My temple is falling down, and it is difficult to adjust. It is difficult to change my role from an active physical contributor in family duties to that of a negative contributor in relation to the increasing load on the rest of the family. It is hard to accept that my loss of muscular strength diminishes my ability to live in the community as I would like; I have to transition from a physical contributor in the community to a role as supporter.

The situation stimulates thoughts about dying, and leads into issues such as voluntary euthanasia and ecological impact. Euthanasia is a complex issue, and I am torn in many directions. I can understand people wishing to die rather than spend day after day focusing on the negatives in their lives and wanting them to cease. I can understand a wish to reduce the load on those loved ones who feel obliged to work hard to maintain a high quality of care.

From an ecological sense, it is quite clear that maintaining a life because it can be, simply doesn’t consider the environmental resources required. Our world has limited resources, and effective distribution of such resources is critical.

From an animal husbandry viewpoint, it makes sense to “cull”. When natural predators are kept from performing their environmental role, populations quickly become nonviable and destroy an environment.

From a purely pragmatic and logical viewpoint, it seems quite reasonable to allow an individual to choose euthanasia if specific conditions are met. However, two scenarios are already apparent: the right of an individual to choose death, and the right of sections of society to encourage, perhaps forcefully, an individual to choose death. The transition from personal decision to coerced persuasion can happen too easily and is very difficult to monitor, blurring the boundaries even further.

Personally, I reject euthanasia. As much as I do not wish to have my temple crumble completely and leave me with no movement or speech, and, as much as I do not wish to burden my loved ones with taking care of me, I do not feel I have the right to demand my own timing of death.

Everybody has a right to life. Nobody has the right to deliberately take a human life.

In rejecting voluntary euthanasia/assisted suicide, I accept that I have responsibilities. For as long as I am alive, I must continue to keep living; I must continue to see life from a positive perspective and continue to find ways to benefit the community. I expect to be challenged. If all I can manage is to create a sense of peace with a smile and friendly eyes, that is what I will try to achieve.

My prayer is that I will be granted the strength to maintain this.

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