One of the greatest duets of all time is John Denver and Placido Domingo’s “Perhaps Love,” not just for the melody and lyrics but because the teaming of a country singer and an opera tenor to create a masterpiece is one of those occasions which would be labeled “impossible” until it was done. One of the lyrics to “Perhaps Love” says,
And some say love is holding on and some say letting go/
Some say love is everything and some say they don’t know.
It’s romantic, absolutely, but like so many romantic ideas, unless it is reigned in, it can burn out of control and be used to justify things that have no business being defended. And one of those things is suicide.
Noa Pothoven was a girl about whom everyone (myself included) should think when we feel tempted to ask why the universe is treating us like its punching bag: when she was 11, she was sexually assaulted while at a party at a friend’s house and then, when she was 14, she was raped. It was because of these traumatic events and the pain that they undeniably caused her, that she decided that she would end her life. Euthanasia has been legal in the Netherlands since 2001, with even children as young as 12 being eligable to request the State kill them IF their parents give their consent. It was initially reported that Noa had been euthanized by the state but this turned out to be a case of sloppy reporting. She had requested to be euthanized last year but was turned down by the medical clinic. Stymied in that avenue, Noa took matters into her own hands and literally starved herself to death, refusing food and water. Her parents and doctor all decided to not intervene.
On a now deleted post on Instagram, Noa defended her decision saying “Love is letting go, in this case.” Again, in the context of Denver and Domingo’s song, sometimes the loving thing is to let someone go in a relationship because they are just not meant to be with us. But when it comes to a situation like this, with Noa, this idea of love becomes terrifying.
It should be pointed out that love, naturally is terrifying. In Christian theology, love is the force that created, not just the world or the cosmos but Reality as a whole, including the fundamental but invisible parts of it, such as Space and Time (neither of which existed before the Big Bang). Graham Greene in one of his stories (the name of which I’ve completely forgotten) has one of his characters, a former priest turned atheist, explain that he became an atheist because he was terrified of the Love of God, the force that made the bush burn and the sea to split. Real love mimics this by, quite literally, shattering worlds. When two people love each other, they are no longer alone which means, in some sense, they are no longer totally independent. The world that you knew, the world that you created for your single self is shattered by the arrival of a new person. If you marry, that shattering increases, not only in home and work life but if baby comes, that shattering extends into the entire world because a new life has been brought into being. At its root, this ability of love to do all these things comes from its nature–putting the genuine good of the other person above your own needs, wishes, inclinations, desires, and, even, your genuine good; making yourself always the servant of the person you love.
Love is not terrifying–the world shattering it causes leads to the creation of something not just different but better–but it can be described as “aweful” in the 18th century understanding of the word which meant “filling one with awe.”
But Western society has neutered love though, turning it only into a feeling-in-the-tummy, which is why a few years ago (whether this is still a practice now, I have no idea) some couples had their vows read not “Till death do us part,” but “Till love do us part,” the not so subtle implication being that once the feelings of love dissipated, all promises and duties and obligations and bonds between the two were snapped out of existence, leaving the two free to form new attachments and start the process over again. Pick up any woman’s magazine and you will find numerous examples of women justifying cheating or their decision to make their marriage “open” by an appeal to happiness which, in every case, is a euphinism for pleasure, or the feeling of happiness which they have equated with love.
This neutering trivilizes love and denies its awesome power. The neutering doesn’t destroy the power; as a primordial force, like fire and water and air, love’s genuine power can’t be destroyed. But, if it is denied and hidden, that power can and will be corrupted. And that is what is on display in the case of Noa.
Love can be expressed by letting go in relationships, as already mentioned; it can also be expressed by letting go in the case of death when the time has come for death to claim a life, whether through disease, accident or the simple flow of time. These are all events and conditions which are completely out of our hands since not even the power of human love can force a cure or bend a bone or organ to mend. But killing oneself–whether that is through willful neglect or assisted suicide–is another case entirely. If love is putting the good of another ahead of your own, this rules out helping or standing back and allowing someone to kill themselves because the good of another can never include that person taking their own life. At the most fundamental, this is because life is always more valuable than death becasue as long as their is life, there is hope and the real potential that life will improve. While the past is solidified and the present is an ever fleeting “Now,” the future is unwritten. This can be exploited, of course, much like how G.K. Chesterton explained that the reason why so many people prefer the future to the past is because the past is full of heroes and truths, heroes we do not think we can emulate and truths we would rather forget; while the future, being unwritten, can be whatever we want it to be (at least, in theory). But this nebulousness of the future can also be a source of good because it represents the chance and opportunity to start again.
But this extends to beyond just the case of euthanasia and assisted suicide. This idea of love is just letting go veers directly to the idea that love is allowing the people we care about to do whatever they choose because “If we love them, we will want them to be happy.” But there can be no real and lasting happiness without an attachment to what is true and good since without those transcendentals whatever we find to give us happiness, however genuine our happiness seems to us at the moment, will lose its gloss sooner or later. Real love then doesn’t sit back, neutered and weak; it roars like a lion and fights to protect the beloved. This doesn’t necessarily mean screaming fire and brimestone; power and strength does not usually equate with theatrics. It may be the strength of fire, intense and hot; it may be the strength of water, moving inexhaustibly for the other person and their good; it may be the strength of the earth, immovable and unyielding, even in the face of impossible odds.
At the end of the day, I don’t condemn Noa who must have suffered mightily from the evils inflicted on her. Instead, I condemn a culture which has lied to us about the nature of love, a lie that has been so strong, to this point, that it has even succeeded in nullifying the natural love of parents for their child.