The Unconscious and the Unaware
If only I’d heeded wise King Shlomo’s advice to eschew gifts.
But, alas, as I stepped off the Penn Station elevator and out onto Seventh Avenue one day last week, I was offered a copy of the previous day’s New York Times and reflexively accepted the freebie. Later, during a lull in the boring seminar I attended that morning, I glanced at the front page and was quickly reminded why I don’t read the paper regularly.
A large picture of a cute nine-year-old and his eight grandparents stared back at me. Eight grandparents? I read on. The photo accompanied an article describing how “for the first time, the impact of higher divorce rates is playing out across three generations.” Ever since 1980, half of all new marriages end in divorce, and the children of those who have divorced over these last 25 years are having children of their own — hence, more and more kids have more and more sets of grandparents.
The writer next calls upon an expert to deduce the implications of this trend for those of us unable to do so on our own. “The upside of all this is that children can have more grandparents who love them,” opines a Johns Hopkins sociologist specializing in divorce. “What message it will give them about marriage, I’m not quite sure.”
To review: the expert — one of his own grandkids’ eight grandparents — is certain how wonderful the child’s newfound plethora of gramps and grans is (one needs to read the first-hand accounts later in the piece to learn it ain’t always quite so), but he’s far less sure about the message conveyed when the four most senior adults in the family have each divorced.
My intellectual honesty meter begins to ring. Rather than heed it, I glance at another front-page headline: A Family’s Battle Brings Life’s End Into Discussion. Now, then, don’t the Sages recommend focusing on our eventual demise as a spur to spiritual introspection?; perhaps, methinks, there’s some benefit to be had from reading the paper, after all.
No such luck. Far from pondering the implications of human mortality, the piece was a mere rehashing of the political firestorm swirling around the unfolding Schiavo saga. Yet, it was instructive nonetheless, for only the truly obtuse could miss the skewing of an ostensibly objective piece of reportage in favor of the plug-pulling crowd. Describing public reaction to the Schiavo drama, the reporter informs us that “in random interviews around the country, many Americans questioned why Congress was involved in what is often an intensely private matter.” He then trots out a law firm clerk, an accountant, an environmental lawyer and a security consultant (three of whom reside in Illinois) to offer their considered opinion that Congress ought to stay out of the matter. And in the other corner? We hear only from a lone dental assistant and sundry “social conservatives,” apparently a term for individuals afflicted with the communicable disease known as “social conservatism.”
Can this be the venerable Paper of Record we all know and love, that now relies on admittedly “random interviews” with a lawyer here, a gardener there to gauge what “many Americans” are thinking? Can the Gray Lady, so eager to remove that anomolous blotch called Jayson Blair from its otherwise pristine journalistic record (and don’t you Jews start bringing up trivia like Holocaust-era reporting and such), actually be slyly intimating that the real divide in the Schiavo case is between ordinary American folk and “social conservative” organizational hacks who, the writer concedes, have “generated” tens of thousands of calls and e-mails in recent days?
There was a great deal more that was objectionable in the several articles on that page — like the patronizing little box titled “Waiting for a Sign” (perhaps “Get Over It, Will Ya” would have worked even better) that referred readers to an article elsewhere from which they will learn that “guilt and lifelong familiarity can make it hard for parents to accept that their child is in a vegetative state” — and I’d had my fill of intellectual dishonesty and paternalism, New York Times style. It was time to ditch the paper, or give it to my neighbor for use in puppy training, perhaps.
But then I saw it. Toward the bottom of the very same page was a powerfully phrased recruiting ad for New York City Teaching Fellows that read thus: “You remember your first grade teacher’s name. Who will remember yours?”
Immediately, there leaped to mind a teaching of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler on how two negative attributes can sometimes be in head-on conflict within one individual, with each trumping the other in a given context. One of the illustrative examples he cites is that of the individual who, out of an inflated sense of self, strives mightily to eternalize his name and legacy for posterity. The selfsame person, however, vociferously denies the existence of a soul that lives on, rendering his desperate efforts to be remembered pointless.
But such is the human conundrum, writes Rav Dessler. The need to deny our eternal essence because of the freedom from moral constraints such denial affords makes one forget just how puny we are if our existence indeed terminates at death. And, by the same token, the self-importance that drives one person to erect monuments to his memory — or, another to become some kid’s fondly recalled schoolteacher — renders the denier of the soul oblivious to the fact that, by his own lights, nothing of him will still exist at that point to be worth remembering.
Ask a proponent of plug-pulling why he believes what he does about Terri Schiavo and the response will likely be that she presently has zero dignity of life, that without consciousness, her life is devoid of value. But isn’t that a supreme irony? This woman’s fate has caused, by this point, countless millions of words to be spoken and written about some of life’s most important issues — the meaning and value of life and of death; the parameters of man’s obligations to fellow man; the definitions of dignity, suffering, soul, consciousness, marital and familial bonds; the roles of religion, law and medicine in society, and on and on.
Though we mortals are unable to judge such things, it may just be that this woman’s life has been the vehicle for enriching the world with more meaning more wisdom, more moral seriousness in the past few weeks than many other individuals are responsible for in their combined entire lifetimes.
And while the vast majority of people in Ms. Schiavo’s predicament do not generate anywhere near the level of soul-searching and moral debate that she has engendered, does not every such situation hold within it a vast reservoir of potential meaning waiting to be actualized? The opportunity for family and friends to express altruistic love and provide care with no quid pro quo ; the lessons that sickness and looming death teach about making the most of our fleeting time on earth and the commitment to moral betterment this inspires; the opportunity for loved ones to repay moral debts and right past wrongs — these and many more sources of meaning make every human life inherently significant, whatever its supposed “quality.”
The only difference between Ms. Schiavo and those individuals is that she is seemingly unaware of the role she is playing in focusing a large part of humanity on life’s ultimate concerns, while other, sentient beings are aware of their roles and actions. And therein lies the rub. Terri Schiavo’s life can only be termed valueless if individual value is dependant on one’s subjective awareness thereof, if “I” am the final arbiter of all things meaningful, not the world as a whole or, dare we say, a Supreme Being. But what a pitifully small-minded and egoistic way of determining value and meaning that is.
Ms. Schiavo, in her tragic unconscious state, has injected a heightened consciousness of life’s fragile beauty and value into all of our lives. Others, ironically, seek to circumscribe the breadth of human meaning, even as they remain unaware of the contradictory approaches to meaning that their own lives express.