Even though I know what the reality is, it gives me hope, it gives me a purpose, it gives me something to do. However little time I have.

— Myuran Sukumaran, Australian artist

Here’s a story that ought to be filling us all with hope: a big tale of resilience, creativity, cooperation and opportunity, driven by a remarkable and gifted Australian. Look at him here: he is young, and healthy, and doing so much good. He has time left. If I was his mother watching this, I’d be awash with pride at what he’s achieved.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAP2xWlEfNU]

But his reality is this: that right at this minute plans are being made for him to be taken to a field, tied to a post and shot. Let’s not mince words, this is what we mean by “death penalty” and “firing squad”, and anyone who is still championing this as a just outcome needs to look much more closely at the violence in the details. There is nothing at all separating this killing from that of Kenji Goto, and the only whisper of daylight between this and the shooting of Kajieme Powell is the premeditation, the forced contemplation of what’s to come. Nothing at all distinguishes what his mother will feel when his body is returned, from the grief of Junko Ishido.

None of us are going to live for ever, and this is why mortality really is inseparable from love. We all wonder how, when, in what condition we’ll end our turn; we wonder who will be with us, and how they will get up and carry on without us when we stop.  Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, an intensely personal discussion of what happens to individuals and their families at the end of life, suggests that this is why humans really cannot bear the idea of dying. So we go on suffering because we don’t know how to accept that what’s around the next bend—the next birthday, the next family wedding—isn’t going to be part of our life time. The weather will continue, the buildings will stay up and the clocks won’t stop; it’s just that we won’t be here to see it, and people we love will have to go on without us.

Gawande and many others are now arguing that it’s vital to good healthcare that we learn to make peace with human dying, and let that direct us towards living while we’re here in a way that reflects our values. This isn’t a simple thing: it takes time to untangle our own values and beliefs from those of our community and the cultures that shape us. It’s easy to get taken up with the things that seem to matter to others, the achievements that are celebrated, the stuff that is envied. But in the end we all have a fairly strong sense of what we each really care about—what we would go on doing if it was the last day of our lives.

UK palliative care specialist and cancer patient Kate Granger, for example, has taught me a great deal about what it means to value work, and to fight to continue working while thinking that this might be the last year for doing anything at all. Lisa Bonchek Adams advocates tirelessly for the right of patients with metastatic breast cancer to have their condition recognised as a disease stage that can be lived with, and in so doing she continues to love and care for her children, her family and friends. Both have made hard personal choices to continue in treatment, and to do this in public, because this is what enables them to go on living with purpose.

This is Gawande’s point: we each approach the question of what it would take to live the best possible day today on our own terms, whatever the constraints we’re facing. This isn’t just a question for people who are sick; the best possible day is a wish we can all offer each other, for the simple reason that we’re all mortal too. And this really should be the basis for how we treat each other, how we value each other’s time, and how we react to the knowledge that someone is facing their death. This isn’t just about ethics in institutional or constitutional decision-making, or state sovereignty: we stop in our tracks for death, and we try to bring every possible resource of care and hope to the end of someone’s life, because one day that’s exactly how it will be for each of us.

How people die and how we participate in their deaths is as much about us as about them. Our own humanity is at stake.

— Eric Manheimer, MD, Twelve Patients

And so I can’t make peace with this dying at all. I wander round the house thinking about him, and I know that thousands of us are doing exactly the same, right at this moment. Those close to him have said goodbye and look exhausted with grief. I can’t imagine their pain.

Execution strips all possibility of dignity or care from the event of dying, which is why it’s used wherever the aim is to brutalise and terrify. The aim isn’t simply to end life, but to cause its end to be a spectacle, and to force the whole world to contemplate the violence and abjection of life being ended in this way. Kenji Goto’s mother, pleading for his release, said that she would sacrifice her life for his, and we all knew that this was an unbearable cruelty that she should be made to suffer the knowledge of his death, and her exclusion from it. Nothing is different here.

Myuran Sukumaran is an Australian artist. With persistence and vision he has created a studio and an educational enterprise filled with generosity, and inspired an incredible campaign to try to keep him alive. And at this last minute, he’s still there painting, caring for his family, thinking it all through, making a portrait of himself and the island of Nusakambangan, where prisoners are taken to be shot.

He is one of us, and he is still alive. Don’t disturb him. Let him paint.

While there is still even a fraction of time to register your concern, please consider following the Mercy Campaign and signing their petition for clemency. They are highly organised and refusing to give up hope. Also, Australia’s parliamentarians are united on this, which is all the hen’s teeth you need.

9 Responses

  • francesbell

    Thanks for linking Myuran Sukumaran’s work to that of Atul Gawande and Kate Granger. I was so moved by the video – the beautiful, hopeful and calm way that he spoke of his work. It struck me how powerful his actions have been in the cause of rehabilitation compared with the cruel, empty message of execution as a ‘lesson’. I hope I can learn to live my life a little more fully from the example of Myuran, Atul and Kate.

  • Thanks Frances. Atul Gawande’s book on palliative care has been very important for me this year, although I should be really clear that my own experience isn’t imminently in that direction—I’m not in the palliative stage of things at all, but the regular old post-treatment state that cancer patients find themselves in.

    But when I first read his article on “The Best Possible Day” (linked in the post), I realised this is a blessing we can offer each other every single day, and on that basis, we can set out together.

    Mortality is a very hard thing to talk about, but it’s actually the substance of our capacity to care for each other, and reach across very wide divides. Because you and I and Atul Gawande and Kate Granger and Myuran Sukumaran will all not be here in 100 years time. That’s the most startling and actually very beautiful thing we have in common.

  • francesbell

    I am beginning to grasp the power of acknowledging mortality – whether near or far, we all have it in common. (The illusion of) immortality has a twin – perfection. I haven’t disclosed much online (it’s a bit tricky for me) about my experience of motherhood but it did alert me to the modern obsession with perfection of one’s offspring – here’s a glimpse of what I feel https://francesbell.wordpress.com/2012/11/19/listen_to_the_mothers_voice/
    I do think that that illusions of immortality and perfection are somehow evil twins that trap us and get in the way of living in the moment.

  • I am truly honoured that you shared this, I can’t ever thank you enough.

    Ordinarily I don’t feel that being a mother changes how I think, but this morning I find myself aware of nothing else. How can we outlive our children?

    For years I’ve been haunted by the video footage of the face of Christa McAuliffe’s mother at the exact moment that the Challenger shuttle exploded nearly 30 years ago. Sharon Olds was also watching, and wrote about this moment from the perspective of her own experience of giving birth, which is the really the beginning of a journey in which we whisper every step of the way “please outlive me, please outlive me”.

    There’s such a strong case for clemency here in terms of Myuran Sukumaran’s astonishing work, but in my heart I also find myself wanting there to be a case for sparing his mother who has already lost almost everything in relation to his future life, his place in her home, at her table. Taking him from her completely, after all this loss, seems unbelievable in its cruelty.

  • francesbell

    The pain of outliving one’s own children is palpable. I cannot imagine the feelings of Myuran Sukumaran’s mother as she watched him ‘grow’ in prison from his state at arrest. This could be a joy for her except that she may never be reunited with the ‘grown’ man. It’s even worse than her having the sense of losing him and thinking what he might have been. She can see what he has become and will/may still lose him. That’s brutal and nonsensical and a loss to our world.

  • A quick thought, part response, part separate thing. I had an exchange today on Twitter with someone who was concerned—as I have been—that in elevating the significance of someone being an artist, a pastor, whatever, we’re buying into the idea that some lives have more value than others. There are other prisoners scheduled for the same execution, and this is really important.

    But I’m really struck by how much harder it is to sustain reductive stereotypes like “drug kingpin” and some of the others thrown about, in the face of an actual living person, living his life. Executions strip us all of the future: brutal, nonsensical loss.

    My nine year old daughter asked me today what the news of these executions was about. I tried to explain that killing someone was considered a way to teach a lesson in relation to a serious crime. Her amazed and straightforward response: if you kill them, they can’t learn their lesson, because they won’t be there to learn it.

    • i think the thing that really stands out for me in your post, and the discussion, is the idea of humanity, and the way we are so quick to dehumanise everyone who is even a little different. there is a heartless, cruel streak running through public discourse at the moment about who is worthy, who’s deserving, who’s a leaner or a lifter, and i see politicians in particular jump on this case to make a political score because he can be argued as worthy. as you say, they are all worthy, because im not sure how the words ‘death’ and ‘deserve’ go in the same sentence. so stereoptypes help with the dehumanising, that we dont have to care but we really do, we have to care about everyone every day and that is exhausting and necessary. the other thing that stands out is the idea about execution as statement, as punishment, and how vile and evil and primitive that is. so i wish i was hearing more politicians make that statement, about the principle of that, regardless of the person.

  • Dear Kate, this is such a wonderful post, thank you.
    It reminds me -all of what you write reminds me- of a remark I saw by Seamus Heaney once.
    He was comparing the work of Wilde and Synge. He said something along the lines of Wilde pares the surface but Synge really goes in under the fingernails. I think that is the great and outstanding quality of your project here: you under the fingernails, however uncomfortable, of these big everyday realities, such as our mortality, such as living with disease, such as going public about the difficult choices we make.
    The execution story you are referring to has not made the same kind of media splash in the UK, but is nevertheless vital to our understanding of mortality, forgiveness and human ‘worth’.
    And I did not know of Gawande’s book, now on my list, thank you. (You are causing a dent in the old finances!)
    I’d like to invite you to write a guest post on my blog, if you would like to – no deadline and on anything you want. I’m DMng you on Twitter with emails.

    Thank you so much again
    As ever


  • Lisa Chamberlin

    Kate, I find this post interesting on many levels. I live in a town in Washington State, USA where the state’s prison is located. As such we get the notoriety of death row and the stories that accompany it. Every prisoner there will claim they are innocent. Some are, probably. Across the US, we’ve had death row inmates later get released upon last minute appeals when proven innocent based on DNA evidence not available at the time of their conviction. There have been enough mistakes to push toward abolishing the death penalty in my state and many others.

    Myuran makes no claims to innocense, other than having been young and stupid. Here, it’s the severity of the penalty in relation to what I know of the crime that seems so extreme to me. It never allows for the very rehabilitation he seems to have achieved.


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