Saturday, July 1, 2017

Of Lives Worth Living

“Je suis Charlie Hebdo,” said the signs.  Terrorism is indeed a terrible thing, and understandably calls out sentiments of solidarity.  I would not call the Charlie Gard case an instance of terrorism, but it terrifies me and, as a mother, it terrifies me on a personal level.  If a court in England can decide when someone’s child no longer has a quality of life worth preserving, how long before a court in America can make that decision?  And what if, God forbid, it were my child whose case the court was examining?  So, to co-opt a phrase, Je suis la mère de Charlie Gard.

*                      *                      *

The other day, as some of us were discussing the matter, lines sprang to mind, lines familiar from childhood, imprinted in the static-y tones of an old cassette tape.

“If someone loves a flower, one single blossom among all the millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy, just to look at the stars—because he can say to himself, ‘Somewhere, my flower is there.’  But if a sheep eats the flower, then in one moment for him all the stars will be darkened.  And you think this is not important?!”

It was hard at first to articulate why the lines felt relevant to the case of Charlie Gard; but I think I have an inkling now.

The proponents of euthanasia talk about quality of life, and occasionally about dignity.  But they define these terms narrowly: generally, by observation of the purely physical.  They talk of pain and comfort.  I cannot recall an instance where they talked of love.  But it is love which, as Saint-Exupéry reminds us, makes us happy—not to talk with the beloved, not even to be with the beloved, but simply to know that they exist.  “If someone loves a flower … it is enough to make him happy … [to] say to himself, ‘Somewhere, my flower is there.’”

I suppose someone might retort, “Yes, that’s all very well; but if the flower is unhappy, or the flower does not even know of its gardener’s existence, why bother so much about the gardener’s feelings?  Isn’t he a bit selfish to ask that his flower keep blooming while he, planets and planets away, looks smugly at his millions of stars?”

If one is asking about the flower of Saint-Exupéry, then my rejoinder is that one ought to read The Little Prince.  But of course, one would really be asking about Charlie Gard, and Terri Schiavo, and all the rest of us who may some day be in their condition, or have a loved one who is.  And to that question, my answer would be this:

There is an economy of love that knows next to nothing of the physical world.  If someone loves a flower, this is good for the flower too—yes, even if the flower is for the time being through some circumstance neither pruned nor sheltered nor watered nor smelled.  The flower too is happy, in the old sense related to “hap”; the flower is fortunate.  And not fortunate because of the good things it received in the past or may receive in the future, but fortunate because it is loved, even if it is ignorant of that fact.

No one can deny that being loved is good, as being healthy or rich is a good.  Health, however, is useless to a hypochondriac and riches are useless to a man who does not know that they are buried in his field.  Health and riches are good for use; they are good when they are enjoyed; their value lies in their employment in various activities.  But love and being loved are not good for activities; they are activities.  One does not speak of “enjoying” loving or being loved (except callously); certainly we would judge that anyone who speaks of “using” love does not know what the word means.  Other things are given a value by the human beings who have them: by the market, or the taste of the individual, or the customs of the country.  But love works in the other way: love cannot be made greater because human beings value it highly, nor can it be made less because human beings undervalue it; rather, love gives us value.  We are what we are because we have been loved: by our spouses, our parents, our children, our friends, the strangers who change our bedpans—and by God.  Most of all, by God.

I suppose to anyone who does not already take a supernatural interest in things, this will sound irrational.  I am afraid that even to anyone who agrees with my ethical concerns, it may appear hopelessly soppy.  But I do think that this is one of the true reasons why it is wrong to take an innocent life: because there is an intangible value to each person’s existence, making it in some perhaps mysterious wise worthwhile to them, due to the love they receive, an everlasting love which nevertheless bears up their existence in this brief particular moment of space and time.