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
AS CONGRESS MOVES INTO RECESS FOR THE HOLIDAY THAT CELEBRATES THE TRIUMPH OF LIFE OVER DEATH, Peggy Noonan has some pragmatic advice for it: 'Don't Kick It'.
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.
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.Posted by Vanderleun at March 20, 2005 3:15 PM | TrackBack