Paradox Lost — and Found

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I write this postscript on the Terri Schiavo case despite the fact that with her demise, the media frenzy has subsided, the news cycle has turned and the nation’s attention has turned with it to other matters, such as the celebrity trial du jour and the newest film releases. On this site, at least, perhaps we can still get in a reflection or two on matters of life and death that are now, for many Americans, ancient history . . .

In my last post (or is it “posting” — where are the Lexicographic Irregulars when you need ’em?), I noted the inherent irony of applying the “death with dignity” platitude to the supposedly meaningless life of Terri Schiavo.

Her tragic predicament engendered an unprecented level of discussion and introspection about life’s most important issues and an enormous outpouring of compassion (since even those imputing ulterior motives to the politicians and ideologues involved would presumably concede the good will of the millions of ordinary folk on both sides of the issue who, while divided in their worldviews, were united in their concern for the best interests of Ms. Schiavo and in promoting life as they respectively define it). This being so, using a purely objective standard of meaningfulness would require the conclusion that Terri’s life, at least in its last stages, was exceedingly meaningful.

Now that the saga has drawn to its tragic close, I note yet another great irony, this one relating to the desire of plug-pulling proponents that Terri be accorded what they termed “death with dignity.” Now, one man’s dignified death is another’s premeditated passive murder (evocative of the Chazon Ish’s famed statement: “What secularists call ‘love,’ we call kareis“), and thus it is infinitely malleable phrases like this one, not Terri Schiavo’s life, that are truly devoid of any real meaning.

But let us grant for the moment that the phrase has a fixed meaning and that it is the one intended by the Hemlock Society, George Felos and fellow travelers. Still, I query: given the atmosphere in which her demise occurred, i.e., the extreme acrimony between family and between warring ideological camps, the use of her situation by both sides for political and ideological purposes, the media circus in Florida and nationally, was her passing, a death with dignity? Nor did it end with Terri’s last breath: with her husband barring her parents from the room as her life ebbed away and the rush to cremate her body in violation of her and her parents’ Catholic tenets, it’s difficult to imagine a more ignominious end to one’s life.

And so, a fascinating paradox: those seeking a dignified end to what they perceived as Ms. Schiavo’s insignificant existence, actually helped imbue her life with deep importance, while also helping to insure that the circumstances of her death would be fraught with indignities large and small.

On the topic of paradoxes, Peggy Noonan raises an interesting one. How is it that people who evince so much passion for, say, save-the-whales campaigns find the cause of saving human lives like that of Terri Schiavo so much less arresting? Why would PETA members not vociferously protest indisputably inhuman procedures like late-term abortion? By the same token, one might wonder how it is that Jewish law treats the preservation of human life, however fleeting or impaired, as sacrosanct, all the while that its prescription of capital punishment for various offenses seems to convey that life is not Judaism’s preeminent value.

And, indeed, it is not. That pride of place is reserved for the wellbeing of the soul. These seeming contradictions on both sides of the religious-secular divide disappear once the existence of the soul, and the secular denial thereof, is introduced into the discussion. So long as the soul reposes within the human being (and even after it departs therefrom, in some measure), the Torah teaches, his or her physical self partakes of the soul’s inherent sanctity; sullying that same soul with particularly grievous forms of sin, however, renders that same physical life forfeit. Whatever best benefits the soul governs.

When, by contrast, the secular individual expends excessive time and money on behalf of endangered species and similar causes, resources that might otherwise help relieve human misery in this needy, pain-filled world of ours, that is often a statement — conscious or otherwise — that, ultimately, we and those species are both soulless creatures, different in degree but not kind, on the continuum of life in an arbitrary universe. And, when such is the lens through which one views mankind, the door is opened for human life, at both its beginning and end, to be made to bow before all manner of expediency.

It’s all about soul.

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3 Responses

  1. Seth Gordon says:

    Let the record show that with Schaivo’s death, the Republican party has also lost interest in the issue.

  2. Sholom Simon says:

    Oh, c’mon. Most of life is not black and white, and, certainly, to a secularist who cares both about “life” and “rights”, this was a case of balancing acts. The Florida Constitution has a “right of privacy”. Included in that right is the right of self-determination as to treatment and/or withdrawal of that treatment.

    And so, the answer to Peggy Noonan’s disingenuous loaded question: many of those arguing on behalf of Michael Shiavo’s actions were concerned that Terri Schiavo’s rights of self-determination were preserved. (This, of course, presumes that Michael knew, precisely, what Terri would have wanted, but whether that is a correct assumption is not the issue here). (Furthermore, *if* Michael was correct in what Terri would have wanted, then what he was doing *was* love based from his perspective — he was attempting to fulfill Terri’s wishes.)

    This is _precisely_ why the Florida GOP-controlled legislature specifically rejected any changes to the law. Florida is a state of many senior citizens, and many of those senior citizens care deeply about their “right” to accept and/or terminate medical treatment at the end of life.

    Yes, yes, we know, halacha makes a different choice. But neither Noonan nor PETA, et al, are arguing from a halachic perspective.

  3. Yaakov Rosenblatt says:

    Thank you Eytan for a masterful piece. It is ironic that so much of secular culture (poetry, literature, music, film and theater) focuses on love, a collage of never ending attempt to distill, define, and deliniate, that most wondrous experience in irreligous terms. But love is the mergence of souls not intrests. Without reverence of the soul all we are left with is reverence of love, which allows a Michael Schiavo to withdraw his poor wife’s feeding tube because “that is what she would have desired”.