Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 73(1) February 2023

Loneliness, Euthanasia and the Wholeness of Human Personhood: Part III of III:
Meaning and Word

Francis Etheredge

Lady in wheelchair

In this final piece, there is a word which has the possibility of re-opening the pursuit of meaning.

A Question of Meaning (III)

In the words of Mother Teresa:

We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love’[1].

Here, then, it is not about what we have done to ourselves, whether through attempted suicide, the unforgiving of others or living a life unconscious of ourselves or other people – so much as being a person who is ‘dying for a little love’.

There was once a man who had lost his legs and lived, as it were, for a cigarette, who rarely spoke and exuded depression. A young man came to the house to decorate the flat in which he and his wife lived and, it transpired, although this man had children, they never visited him. The young man started coming round to take the man out, either to his workshop to be with him outside, with a cigarette, or to go on bumpy walks through the lanes in his wheelchair. The older man, enlivened by these visits, began to look forward to the young man’s visit and to get ready for them – even if it wasn’t always possible for the young man to come; and, indeed, the older man’s wife saw her husband’s spirit change through these simple outings and to start to ask “When is he coming?”

The reality of suffering: to suffer or to suffer

In this essay it has emerged, really, that either we suffer, or we suffer. Whether we are dying, lonely or simply ill, there is a suffering that we either accept or reject; but, if this suffering is rejected, it is not necessarily supplanted by suffering less – rather there is a suffering in refusing to accept suffering. The suffering entailed in euthanasia, in the whole program and process of being deliberately killed, is no less a suffering as that entailed in being lonely, ill or dying; however, what may be different is our ability to enter into what is happening: that the more preoccupied we are with avoiding what our suffering is about, with the process of not thinking it through or seeking some way of abandoning the experience – the more we deny the possibility of suffering being meaningful and we enter into a kind of pursuit of the pointlessness of it. May be this is the tragic irony of seeking death deliberately is that it becomes a deliberate denial of the meaning of life and entails, as it were, an increasing effort of denial to the point of involving others in the process of death – instead of being together in the pursuit of life.

Is this the suffering described by T. S. Eliot?
“Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many"

There may be times when we have sat in silence and we were ‘uncomfortable with just sitting there and felt the few minutes to be very long. In the short few minutes many found themselves getting in touch with their own inner reality’[3]-. And, while more on the impression of the opening of “The Wasteland”, as a whole, John O’Brien comments: ‘the earth is dead. There are no roots. There is no prospect of re-birth. There is an absence of God, an absence of meaning, an absence of purpose. Modern life doesn’t present us with any prospect of resurrection. There is no hope. People are dust’[4]. Indeed, there is a kind of suffering where it ‘brings about bitter, twisted personalities, broken in themselves and inflicting further harm and brokenness on others’ [5]. But Julian of Norwich ‘held out hope to even these that one day they would find peace’[6].

Indeed, as John O’Brien says earlier, ‘With many people taking their lives we need to provide places of welcome where people can discuss their emotional issues and find acceptance’. In other words, while many of us will strive alone to make sense of our lives and fall foul, as it were, of the fallacy of solving our own problems, the reality of “walking with others”, while it takes many forms, is an almost absolute necessity. For just as Aristotle recognized that we are ‘social animals’ so our healing is a social reality and, probably, the problems in our lives have arisen out of a rupture of many social relationships.

The alternative, then, to the pursuit of death, whether inadvertently or deliberately, is to enter the pursuit of meaning and to follow it through the labyrinthine paths through which the reality of life takes us; and, in the course of that pursuit, there will be many dead ends, diversions and insights that pebble the way and which, in retrospect, make a path visible. It could take fruitless visits to doctors, misunderstanding of the symptoms, incarceration, either in a hospital or a prison, drugs, diet, counsellors, psychotherapists, spiritual advisors or indeed any number of contacts, studies, or pursuits until we come upon the edge of the end.

Will there be the intensity of an experience like that of Julian of Norwich, of whom it was said: ‘Those who truly see and experience God’s love in Jesus are those who become more sensitive to human hurt and can respond, mediating God’s own compassion’[7]? Or will it, rather, take us many years and many kinds of searchings to discover the depth of our own poverty and the graciousness of the God who deigns to visit us, even through a reading of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which said that just as God created everything out of nothing so He can make a new beginning for the sinner (CCC, 298). In other words, just as the people of Israel discovered God to be the Creator of heaven and earth (Gn 1: 1)[8], discovering too that this meant He could help in whatever situation of life a person or a people found themselves, so a glimmer of a sense of God the Creator could be all the “faith” that God asks if He is to act – or it is possible that because of the prayers of others that He takes pity on us. But, as Cardinal Ratzinger said in his little book on the neglected catechesis on creation[9], we live in a world in which the value of grasping God as Creator is eclipsed and needs to be rediscovered and, as such, maybe it will be a life-saving rediscovery!

The Way of the Word of God: Starting Points

In the end, then, is there a pain in discovering our poverty that is worth the recognition of it?

‘We need strength in dark times – not from ourselves or of other generations but from God. The pattern of life is in constant flux and every moment comes a new and shocking revelation. The only wisdom is “humility” [derived from the Latin word ‘humus’ meaning ground]. Practising humility in this context of powerlessness opens a person to the liberating possibilities of grace’[10].

If a variety of starting points have one point in common, it is humility. To start to grasp that the very struggle we are in to understand ourselves is a struggle like that of being on quicksand: that the more we twist and turn and thrash about the more we find ourselves sinking and the more inevitable it is, as it were, that our sinking simultaneously sinks our hope of surviving. There is a point of beginning, in other words, which, while it may well vary in the concrete circumstances of lived lives, is a point of realization: that I am approaching the lowest point that I can reach and that this is as irreversible as falling: having been defeated in all my attempts at self-analysis, counselling, psychiatric interventions or whatever form of human help had been asked for – even that of vocational searches with those who help us to decide whether or not we have a vocation to the priesthood or to the religious life. In other words, our life experience has shown us that we are in some way unreachable, untouchable by human help, out of touch with our reality to the degree that whatever life-line there seemed to be, whether from an inspiring story, a friendship, yet another course of study or action, these threads seem to disintegrate like so many lines, in a way, which line the direction down and point to a pit.

What word, then, has the power to change going down into going up? Even recently there was a word in the Gospel about Bartimaeus calling out to the Lord, while His disciples wanted him to stop shouting - but Bartimaeus kept shouting out (cf. Mk 10: 46-52). However, let us go to the opening of this moment, as it were, when the Lord starts out. Jesus has just answered His disciples’ argument about who is the greatest by calling them to a life of service: ‘For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mk 10: 45). Following this outcome, St. Mark tells us: ‘And they came to Jericho; and as he was leaving Jericho ...’(Mk 10: 46). But Jericho is full of significance! Jericho, where the first battle took place for the promised land[11], which can translate into a starting point for “entering” the new promised land of true discipleship – especially in view of Christ calling Zacchaeus down from the tree. Thus, proceeding from the following dialogue with Zacchaeus: that He ‘must stay at your house today’ (Lk 19: 5) we discover that Christ is the ‘guest of a man who is a sinner’ (Lk 19: 7), who changes and, therefore, Christ says, ‘salvation has come to this house’ (Lk 19: 9).

In other words, the disciples had come to the lowest point: the lowest inhabited place on earth[12]: the point of departure from which the vocation to be of service starts with being of service to the sinner – just as Jericho is the lowest point on earth, so this is the lowest point from where service and salvation starts.

How, then, do we translate our experience of meeting Christ at the lowest point in our lives into helping others?


  1. A Simple Path: Mother Teresa by Mother Teresa:
  2. This excerpt is from “The Wasteland”, p. 62 of T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, London: Faber and Faber, 2004.
  3. John O’Brien, OFM, The Darkness Shall Be the Light, p. 131.
  4. John O’Brien, OFM, The Darkness Shall Be the Light, p. 15.
  5. John O’Brien, OFM, The Darkness Shall Be the Light, p. 234.
  6. John O’Brien, OFM, The Darkness Shall Be the Light, p. 234.
  7. John O’Brien, OFM, The Darkness Shall Be the Light, p. 229.
  8. Cf. Francis Etheredge, Scripture: A Unique Word:
  9. In the Beginning: 20the%20Beginning.pdf.
  10. John O’Brien, OFM, The Darkness Shall Be the Light, pp. 156 and 155.
  11. Andrew, “Jericho? Why Jericho?”:
  12. Stephan A, “Jericho – the lowest-situated city in the world”:­the-lowest-situated-city-in-the-world/.