Saturday, March 19, 2005

Approaching Holy Week

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday. The following Sunday is Easter.
This Lent has given us a lot to contemplate, life and death questions so widely discussed that even Philistines and infidels are involved. You know what they say about opinions...

Terri Schiavo's feeding tube is again being taken away.
Professor Volokh shines a spotlight on capital punishment.
Whatever we call what we are doing in Iraq (War? Occupation? Nation-building? Security?) continues to be paid for in human losses.
Another little girl is murdered in Florida by a registered predator.
Scott Peterson is sentenced to die.
Darfur has not vanished, except from the popular press.
And on and on.

As much as I would like to say something wise about all these subjects, I am at a loss to do so. For me there is no easy litmus test or common denominator. I understand and respect the passionate, pro-life pleas to "save" Terri Schiavo, but I also just completed my own "Critical Conditions Planning Guide" and wrestled with my own wishes in the tragic event that I might be in a similar condition. My father spent his last year following a stroke in a nursing home with a feeding tube. His death was caused by something else, but I decided at that time, seeing his condition, that if I was not able to participate in my own nutrition, at least cognitively, that I would prefer not to continue living. I have said as much to my wife and anyone else who cares to listen. The operative word here is "cognitively." That is the variable separating Christopher Reeve from Terri Schiavo.

But all that is irrelevant to public discussion.
That is where we start to get into trouble. Public discussion becomes more than just discussion. After a few paragraphs, public discussions move to attempts at resolving questions in a manner that is normative for everyone. That is the great pitfall of democracy and the adversarial mindset developed from ingesting too much law and too much logic. Too much father, too much son, and not enough Holy Spirit. (And yes, I did not use upper case for the first two deliberately. It was simply a figure of speech that seemed too good not to use. )

Peggy Noonan's column in yesterdays WSJ is excellent. It is as clear and undebatable link between the Schiavo case and those who oppose abortion as can be found.

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.

The use of the word "kill" is inflamatory, but when one is arguing to save or protect life, it is rhetorically fair. Arguments are not actions. Arguments are only words. And if the use of an inflammatory word will cause or block actions, then words have done their job.

American Digest has an excellent essay inspired by Noonan's column that should become required reading in some future anthology of writing reflecting the puzzles of our time.

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.

The whole thing, as they say, is worth the time it takes to read. Later in the piece this very familiar experience was described.

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. 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 be 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.

The familiar experience to me was not a change of politics, but the harsh realization that there were people called "friends" lost because of a change of my thinking. I never knew of this capacity in human beings until I was "politicized" in late adolescence. I came to the harsh realization that because I embraced ideas that they considered unacceptable, people I thought would always be frineds abruptly left me, even to the point of letting me remain homeless when put out of my apartment for taking part in the civil rights movement of the early sixties. I had more than one conversation with sweet ladies with rooms to rent, names provided through the good offices of the Baptist church, who politely let me know - after I told them why I was looking for a place to rent - that they didn't think their room would be where I should live.

The point is not that people disagree. The point is that disagreements can lead to widespread intolerance of unpopular ideas. Sometimes those ideas prevail anyway, as they did in my lifetime with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but just because the ideas prevailed, that did not mean that they were accepted. Even today I know people who will not be able to change. Their children have inched forward. So, too have their grandchildren. But changes, it seems, are measured in generations, not years. All we can pray for in the meantime is peace among those who do not agree.

As the passion of the pope, the passion of Terri Chiavo, the passion of Scott Peterson, the passion of those who die in prisons at the hands of guards or other prisoners, the passion of a child in Florida, the passion of all who die, friends and enemies these cases pass before us, as well as the Passion of Christ, we are left to reflect upon our own death when that time comes. In the end, we all - including those who do not believe in such mysteries - deeply want to die on the side of the angels.

1 comment:

Deborah said...

Thoughtful of the best I have read on Terri Schiavo. I agree...why kill Terri? She is in no pain; her family is ready to assume all care of her; her family believes her to be responsive; a feeding-tube is the only artificial method in use to support her life.

There is clearly a piece of info missing that only her husband is privvy to. Did you know that she has never had an MRI or CAT scan? And never once had any form of therapy? That's too suspicious for my taste. He never seems to have had interest in her recovery.