March 20, 2005

The Easter Recess

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood --
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

    -- Eliot, East Coker, Four Quartets


But in the end, it comes down to this: Why kill her? What is gained? What is good about it? Ronald Reagan used to say, in the early days of the abortion debate, when people would argue that the fetus may not really be a person, he'd say, "Well, if you come across a paper bag in the gutter and it seems something's in it and you don't know if it's alive, you don't kick it, do you?" No, you don't.

So Congress: don't kick it. Let her live. Hard cases make bad law, but let her live. Precedents can begin to cascade, special pleas can become a flood, but let her live. Because she's human, and you're human.

Issue whatever subpoena, call whatever witnesses, pass whatever emergency bill, but don't let this woman die.

Like you, I have no power as an individual over the fate of Terri Schiavo. She has now gone beyond being another human being in a dire circumstance to an emblem of a larger issue, that of the culture of life versus the culture of death. If it is true, and I more and more believe it to be so, that each of us has a purpose, great or small, in the vast tapestry of life, Terri Schiavo has come to hers. If it were possible for me to know her will in this, the lesson she holds for me would be simple and clear. But it is not possible to know her will, so the lesson she teaches is something I must find in myself. To do so, I have to go back to the beginning of my re-learning about life.

At some point in the early winter of 2001, it became clear to me that I needed to conduct a searching inventory of my soul and rebuild, almost from the ground up, my sense of who I was and how I thought about the world I was in and the life I was leading. At the time, I knew only that I had been mistaken about a great many things for a very long time and I was long overdue for an extreme makeover of the self.

To do that I used the only set of skills I was ever any good at, writing and reading, and began -- in fits and starts at first but then with more dedication -- changing into something and someone different from the person I had been for many years. This is nothing either unusual or dramatic. Indeed, the reinvention of the self is something deeply American and mordantly dependable. Still, it seemed to me at the time, and it still seems to me today, that I have no choice but to begin and continue with my slapdash renovation until such time that it seems to me to be finished.

All of this is a worn out way of saying that it has become my discipline over the past few years to try and write my way to a new kind of freedom I still only vaguely see. This again is neither unusual nor dramatic. Many others do it. Many more use other tools to accomplish a similar goal; career-change, relocation, materialism, spiritualism, conversion, drugs, alcohol, rehabilitation, Jesus. As Americans our options for reinvention are numerous with more being minted daily.

We are a restless people in America, a yondering race that seldom finds the here and now good for more than a few years in any one place -- in our hearts or on the land. We meet and we part, promising to see each other 'down the road apiece', and often we do, but much more often we do not.

And as we move across the land and through our lives, so we move within our hearts and souls, in our persuasions and in our politics. In so doing, we often come to the belief that people we once thought of as significant are, indeed, disposable in the pursuit of our own personal goals.

Disposable people are just another product of a disposable culture. And the stark truth of this matter is that, yes, this is quite frankly the case much more often than it is not.

We like to say that there is one special person on the earth for each of us, but the truth is that there are probably 10,000 special people on earth for each one of us. It's not romantic to say so, but with more than five billion people on the planet, the odds loom large against such romanticism. Instead, we come to the realization that there are lots of people hanging about that will do and, in the words of Molly Bloom, "Well, as well you as another."

But what is desirable to the individual can become disastrous to a society. It is a commonplace in our disposable culture to contend that a divorce between two people is a solution to the recurring problem of incompatibility. And this is true. The problem is that when millions upon millions avail themselves of this personal solution, it becomes a disaster to the society. It becomes normality. As such it underscores the disposability of people and demonstrates it to all, old and young. Thus the whole cycle begins anew, growing ever larger than before, until it displaces a society built on faith and trust with one founded on little more than the thin gruel of things, and the desire to be admired through possessions rather than works and deeds. Our souls become smaller then. We have only so much room in them and to bring others in, some must be disposed of.

Terry Shiavo's husband has, wittingly or unwittingly, become the emblem of this sort of American. But he is only one of many tens of millions of men and women just like him. The only difference is that he must dispose of his inconvenience in the light. Few will applaud his action for others to see, but many among us will approve it. "After all, what else could the poor man do? He's moved on. It's time for Terri to move on as well." A shameful thought to speak, but not, I think one that is at all uncommon.

Once this disposability is realized inside the self, it is only a small step to the kind of culture that compulsively and without reflection puts material things above people as the real goals in life. After all, you will have lots of people in your life, but only one life -- so you'd best grab what you can on the material plain while you can. "You take what you need and you leave the rest."

This year it would seem we are to approach Eastertide through the passion play of Terri Schiavo. Now the new culture of technology and disposability vs. the old culture of loyalty and love is put on upon our video stage for what may only be a two-week run before death brings down the curtain. The ultimate end of the play -- two weeks or twenty years -- is not in doubt. No matter. Its resolution it is already that of a vast cultural tragedy. Performed by the Shiavos, the courts, the media, the congress, it was written by all of us day by day over several generations that only wanted one thing -- more. Seen for what it is, it sickens all of us as it should. It is only proper that we now be forced to watch what we have made.

The judge in this case continues to rule and to act as a wicked ruler in an absolute domain. His courtroom has become a small model of what an all-American tyranny would look like. His decisions those that would decide your fate as well as the fate of the person currently in his power. He exemplifies what absolute power over life and death can do. But he is only doing what we have allowed and begged our judges for decades to do: decide for us so we do not have to do the work of thinking, debating, voting and shaping our world. We are more interested in leisure pursuits than the heavy lifting of ethics, law and justice.

Our congress, like some sad cavalry, has come riding over the hill at the very last minute determined to save now what it could have saved years before if it had used the wisdom and courage supposedly invested in it. We revile their speeches and statements as so much strutting and fretting of little moment. But we have elected them and re-elected them and they are at bottom our representatives. Many of us now send them letters about this and make phone calls too. All at the last minute. If they are grandstanding fools, we all ride with them.

This previously private but now national drama reminds us -- as things magnified by our relentless media often do -- that one of the crucial questions of our blighted age is whether or not we are correct in regarding human life as something which is, under the proper conditions and self-ascribed definitions, something that really is "disposable" whenever it becomes inconvenient? And in our answer to this, whatever it may be, we shall learn very little about Terri Schiavo but a great deal about ourselves.

What I am learning... No, "learning" is the wrong word for this. What is coming into focus for me out of the circus around and the suffering of Terri Schiavo, her family, and all those associated with this passion play is something to do with the difference, or the lack of difference, between our present politics and past friendships. Why this should be so when there are so many larger issues that hover over the case of Terri Schiavo, I do not know. I do know that I should, however, try to listen.

I quit being a Democrat at some point in the months right after September 11. Since that time I've lost old and, I thought, true friends who have assumed, wrongly and in spite of my objections, that I had become a Republican. Trapped or self-banished into a bipolar political mind, they assume all others around them share this binary, black and white realm as they argue for the grey zones they learned about so deeply in their youth. Should you appear suddenly as "not one of us" you have become the other; dismissable lest you trouble their sleep, disposable lest you clutter their lives.

I have no wish to "become a Republican," nor do I have the slightest idea of how to be one. But it seems to be the default assumption of many that the measure of a man and the worth of a friendship has become entirely based on how one did or did not vote in November of 2004. Given the utter complexity of the issues such as those raised up by Terri Schiavo, it is amazing to me that such a simplistic reduction can be made. And yet it is and thus are millions of friendships that might have enlarged lives rendered, like so many other things, disposable.

I am aware that friendship is a fragile accord between two people, subject to an instant's revision, review and revocation. We all know that and accept it. I also know that, in life, we outgrow many people and they outgrow us; often those we have thought of as our best friends. Our least disposable relationship is to our children, our family second, lovers third, and friends -- frankly-- a distant fourth. Yet who would say life is worthwhile without them?

It has always seemed strange to me that there are people who, having lived in and battened on our democracy, and who spend a great deal of time averring that they have no prejudice and are for fair-mindedness, equity and equality, now determine their personal lives and relationships around the thin measure of party affiliation. I've never done that myself, but I understand now that there are many who do. It has been demonstrated to me recently and it will, I have no doubt, be demonstrated again in the future, as friends come and go during this newly turbulent era.

There is a fire in the minds of men now as there was at the beginning of the 20th century. Terri Schiavo's predicament is but one of the smaller flames in this continuing conflagration that pits, like some strange civil war, brother against brother and friend against friend. And so they go, as the other things of life that were once good and have now turned bad, away along a path of life that you no longer can share.

Some friends stormed out of my life in a rage and others just, well, dumped me like a teenager dumps last week's flame. Others still have simply faded away. I am not innocent of this. I've done it as well. Some of them I miss, but others I do not. I'm sure those once and faded friends feel the same way. But why?

I think it is because these last few years, for those of us who think seriously about being alive in the world, have served up serious issues that require serious conclusions, and that to refuse to face these issues, even if they cost you friends, is a betrayal of bedrock reasons of life.

"I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live.
    -- Deuteronomy

I've learned, if I've learned anything, that the casual catchphrase "Well, its not worth losing a friend over" has very real limits. And those limits do not involve whether or not one is a Democrat or a Republican, but whether or not one is ready to choose good over evil and life over death. In the end, it's not political, it's personal. That's what Peggy Noonan is saying so eloquently and what those who live too close to their politics cannot hear and will not learn.

An old aphorism states, "Life is a series of lessons. Each lesson will be repeated until you learn it. At that point you will be given a new lesson."

There's a humor in that both dark and deep. I've had my share of lessons that are very hard to learn, lessons that I find I have failed at again and again. There have been lessons I learned wrongly, lives and people I have let go too lightly, and lives and people I have hung onto too long. I've been complicit in ending lives at the beginning and at the very end. Was I right to do so? I believed I was at the time I was called upon to make these decisions. Would I agree to these decisions now? I believe I would not.

As the song says,
"You may say to yourself,
'Am I right or am I wrong?'
You may say to yourself,
'My God, what have I done?' "

What would I do if I had the power of life or death over Terri Schiavo? One of the lessons I have learned bitterly tells me that I cannot know what I would do. These are decisions that cannot be made as hypotheticals and it is foolish to believe otherwise. The essential lessons of life are neither theoretical, nor legalistic, nor abstract. They are things that can only be decided in the world dimensional.

That said, I would also like to say this: Having chosen death too many times in the past, I like to think that I would always, in the end, now choose life. And that no matter how my friends would choose, we would all, at least, understand, and be able again to become and remain friends.

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Posted by Vanderleun at March 20, 2005 3:15 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Comments about friendships and politics—well stated! Isn't it a pity...

Posted by: Alexandra at March 18, 2005 8:37 PM

This is excellent writing. Usually I toss in a snarky comment vainly trying to prove that I'm the cleverest kid in class, but not this time.

I'll just say thank you for a great post and a great site.


Posted by: Mumblix Grumph at March 18, 2005 9:43 PM

Quite a bit to wrestle with.

Quite a bit. But wrestle we must, right? Your essay is an unsettling one and will likely take some time for me to fully digest.

That said, I don't know what to make of the Schiavo case but I do find myself wondering why the husband (who has unofficially moved on with his life but maintains his status as husband) won't just divorce her and let her blood relatives go forward. Yet, I acknowledge that he may be honoring her heartfelt wish and simply can't divorce her and walk away from the issue.

Posted by: RattlerGator at March 18, 2005 9:43 PM

As long as there is a single human willing to care for another, both should have that chance.

You may have seen friends go, but for every one gone, you have gained many hereon.

Posted by: Steel Turman at March 18, 2005 10:33 PM

Eliot says we die with the dying,
All ends, all beginnings, eternally wove.

I say we’re obliged to live with the living:
Not knowing our endings, our best thread is Love

To weave through our choices of pyre of pyre
To grasp when we flounder in black pits of shame,

To pull us through terror, from fire to fire,
Until in the fire we learn our true name.

- with apologies to Eliot.

And to you, Gerard; I hope I'm not being more presumptuous than usual.

Posted by: ccwbass at March 19, 2005 3:38 AM

Truly outstanding.
I'm just one hair in the "long tail", but it reached deep inside and caused me to reflect.

Posted by: John Ballard at March 19, 2005 4:50 AM

This is what I posted this morning:

Terri Schiavo
Topic: Into The Breach
Posted by Everyman - 08:57:37 EST

Too much, too much.

At least for here.

But if you do nothing else today, please read the post on the Terri Schiavo dilemma, and so very much more, here.

Read it - and ponder its message - more than once.

None of us will be untouched by this, no matter how it turns out.

Nor should we be.

Posted by: Everyman at March 19, 2005 6:21 AM

I would hope that your true friends are still with you. Those who abandoned you were merely "aquaintances", who dropped you when you were no longer useful to them, or until they can resolve their own issues.

Have you really "reinvented" yourself, which is a term that doesn't imply any sort of repentance, but more of a brazen repackaging of the same bill of goods? I'm thinking of this in the context of our popular culture. Perhaps you have "redefined" yourself instead?

Posted by: Stephen B at March 19, 2005 8:54 AM

A fair and a good question. It is true that neither "reinvention" nor "repackaging" works when discussing this state. Repentance, it seems to me, requires grace to be sincere. Repackaging certainly doesn't do more than enhance the buzz.

All fall short or are off the mark. For the moment, "rebuild" seems to fit the bill but that too is not spot on.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at March 19, 2005 9:09 AM

Gerard--I think that, perhaps, we have walked very similar paths. I would describe my experience as waking up and realizing that--all the while I had thought I was awake, I had, in fact, been asleep. I was in the dark, but thought I had the light, and that it was the "others" who were benighted, beyond the pale--just as your former "friends" regard you now as having fallen out of grace--gone over the cliff to the "other side."

You quote Deuteronomy regarding the choice between life and death--but I believe it takes a prior epiphany to even see that choice clearly. I think it is that epiphany that leads a person to understand, first, the need for "reinvention." Perhaps a truer description of the process would be to say--as I think you are saying--that gradually an old self--and its ideas and assuptions--begins to fail, to wither, and, ultimately, to die, while a new self emerges--a new self with a new sense of being, of reality, of what is right and true, and good. Its rather like giving up pablum in exchange for real food, or like being fully awake and in the light instead of stumbling around in the dark, or like discovering the difference between fun and joy.

One discovers that it matters whether one lives or dies, matters that one has been alive and has been part of the lives of others--that pain and suffering have a value and a dignity that contributes to our stature and strength and abilty to love; that life--our own and everyone else's--is intrinsically precious and worthy.

I hope your reinvention--I would call it "rebirth"--continues, and that the light grows stronger and stronger within you.


Posted by: ricksamerican at March 19, 2005 12:20 PM

Thank you, Rick, for those kind and wise words.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at March 19, 2005 12:25 PM

Great post Gerard. Thoreau called the first chapter of Walden "Economy." Old Henry David didn't have much dough, and so he had to be frugal, but in many ways he was incredibly extravagant. He based his personal economy not on dollars, but on how much "real life" things cost. His cabin cost just a few dollars, and a few hours of labor. The money did not concern him in the least, but his time was invaluable.

He deliberately leaves the definition of "real life" to the reader, but he insists that we make the calculation lest we be harnessed to a mortgage and doomed to lead lives of quiet desperation.

It seems that you made the calculation and found that certain friends and certain ideas simply cost too much.

I think that the Schiavos have also made the calculation. Terry is too expensive for Michael, but her parents see that she lives, however impaired. They see that she loves them and they love her back, and they find that priceless.

My God, I pity everyone involved in this heartbreaking case, and at the end of the day, only God knows what's right. When in doubt, I'd like to err on the side of life and love, though.

But someday I might be faced with Michael's choice. I really don't know what I'd do in his shoes.

Posted by: Old Dad at March 19, 2005 1:59 PM

This is an excellent post - and its only one of the many like it that you have written, so thank you.

Posted by: Mike Beversluis at March 19, 2005 3:27 PM

Certainly Tom DeLay and Bill Frist have used their deepest concern to grandstand in Congress for all they're worth. The righteous Peggy Noonan has chastised everyone for not caring as much as she does.

I am ashamed of those who attempt to make political mileage out of a family's suffering.

Posted by: Xixi at March 19, 2005 6:29 PM

Bite me.
This post has haunted me all day and all night. In a good way. Because you're right...that old saw about "it's not worth losing a friend over" has its limits. What to do, though, if you're in my position and the "friend" you're worried about is your mother?

No fear, there's no chance of any sort of estrangement between my mother and me over something as dumb as politics, but there definitely is a new tenseness in our relationship, and I don't know how to deal with it.

Example: I asked her what specifically about Bush's plan for social security offended her. She said it gave too much to the rich. I informed her that Bush had not put out a plan yet. She said that it didn't matter, and that no plan Bush could come up with would be satisfactory. How do you sensibly argue with that sort of passion? My answer: you don't. You just keep loving her because that's what you've always done.

I don't know a better answer, though I wish I did. Maybe there isn't a better one. But you're does seem to be some strange sort of (mostly) nonviolent civil war. At stake is who we will be a generation from now. I hope we all win, because it would suck if we all lost, and I have a feeling it's all or nothing.

Posted by: Dan N. at March 19, 2005 11:19 PM

That has got to be the most wonderful, heart-felt post I've seen on this whole deplorable situation.

Vanderleun...I salute you.

Posted by: Michael Jones at March 19, 2005 11:42 PM

Mr. Van Der Leun -

Isn't it amazing that the questions we ask of ourselves, though prompted by situations far removed from our own lives, often bring answers - or lack thereof - that hit us hardest?

A free society cannot depend on mere partisan agenda for strength. What weaves us together in common cause, or leaves us disconnected and adrift, is our character as individuals. The Schiavo case does stand out as one of those events where personal choices reflect starkly on what kind of world we would live in.

I've linked your essay.

Posted by: TmjUtah at March 20, 2005 11:40 AM

Absolutely fantastic and unfortunately, damning.

Posted by: Paul Dirac at March 20, 2005 4:44 PM

The thing to keep in mind when addressing the issue of friendships that end over political differences is that in sharp contrast to other nations we do not share a common ethnicity or culture. The only thing we as Americans share is our diversity of opinion and the political and intillectual wherewithal to settle our differences through discussion and compromise rather than violence.
As to the polarity that has emerged in our polital endeavors,I think what must be addressed is the entering into a polital discussion with the intent of "winning" ie, making a more forecefull argument and thus requiring the other to back down from their beliefs (not likley). Shouldn't we all be looking instead to see if there might just be a more informed opinion, a more reasoned arguement, a different point of view? If not, so be it, however all seem intent on winning at all costs, and , if not, are ready to discard those that disagree.

Posted by: Flannelputz at March 20, 2005 6:06 PM
At some point in the early winter of 2001, it became clear to me that I needed to conduct a searching inventory of my soul and rebuild, almost from the ground up, my sense of who I was and how I thought about the world I was in and the life I was leading. At the time, I knew only that I had been mistaken about a great many things for a very long time and I was long overdue for an extreme makeover of the self.

Have you written about this experience elsewhere, Gerard?

Posted by: Allah at March 20, 2005 7:35 PM

Wonderful, humbling, and ultimately very courageous writing. No wonder I always put your blog's name in caps when I link to you.

Posted by: greg at March 21, 2005 4:28 AM

Gerard & guests;
I tend to agree with your sentiment, but I do want to ask one question: what if the husband has come to peace with his wife's condition, and wants to release her? What if he _doesn't_ consider her disposable, but instead feels sadness at what she's been reduced to -- alive, yes, perhaps, but what of the lively, smiling young woman he fell in love with?
Don't flame me and don't attack me, because I believe that we agree -- but I'm worried that there's a part of this story we don't know. Everyone involved has so much on the table that there's no nuance to the story.
I'm a father and a husband, and seeing anyone of my family in this state would reduce me to the most feral reactions. Could I let one of them go? Or would I fight to save any flicker of the light in their eyes?
Regardless, I thank God I haven't yet had to decide...and I've never been an overtly religious guy.

Posted by: Will E. at March 21, 2005 10:47 AM

"what if the husband has come to peace with his wife's condition, and wants to release her? What if he _doesn't_ consider her disposable, but instead feels sadness at what she's been reduced to -- alive, yes, perhaps, but what of the lively, smiling young woman he fell in love with?"

A fair question. My answer: she is not his to "release", any more than you are mine to "release". She's not brain-dead. She's not on life support machines. They are starving her in a way tantamount to torture. If Terri was a labrador retriever, they would arrest them for animal abuse.

The "husband" has not stayed faithful to her, and I'm not damning him for that. He's free to go build a new life for himself, and he seems already to have done a good deal of that.

Sure it's been hard on him. But wouldn't it be much easier on him if he just left the situation and got on with his life, instead of giving an order for his wife to be killed and then hitting the TV talk-show and news circuits to chat about it? He's voluntarily taking the hardest road in order to kill her. Ask yourself why he would do that.

Then consider that there have been allegations of abuse involving him and Terri in the past, and that some think he might put her in the condition she's in. Hmmmm. There's one way to shut up a potential tattletale forever, right? I'm just sayin', is all.

Posted by: Dan N. at March 21, 2005 11:18 AM

This is a fine, powerful piece of writing and I consider myself fortunate in my insomnia-at least tonight.
When I saw Peggy Noonan's WSJ piece I knew this poor lady would not be starved to death. I do not know or really care what a person may think about our current President but he is nothing if not predictable: "thou shalt do nothing, ever, to offend your core supporters and suffer thy father's fate".
The issue here, in my mind, is not only who decides, and why, but also how. Even the most vile monsters among us are not starved to death. I wouldn't do that to the fish I was planning on having for dinner, let alone to a fellow human being.
Something else seems fishy here. The conduct of the husband is very odd-to say the least. I take little comfort in the political and social isolation of the Judges involved-they are lucky not to be lynched. This business is just starting and it will be a tsunami by the time it crests-the very short sighted politicians more brain-dead than Terri who stood up and tried to delay, Lord help them if she dies now.
It is not my fault what happens to her-God knows there is a world of misery I can't change-but I have as responsibility to try to understand and, if I can, to act. It could be me about to be starved to death or someone I knew or maybe even loved. We may not be able to agree on much as a nation but I think a consensus can be formed on this one issue-dying with dignity does not mean taking away food and water.

Posted by: warspite at March 21, 2005 10:07 PM

Here's you concisely refuted:

Posted by: Caltrops Convention Society at March 27, 2005 2:32 PM
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