Weighing the Value of Life

(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

I think that one of the hardest things a person can be asked to do is confront the value of their own life weighed against that of the world around them. But we see the tensions of this confrontation everywhere - balancing our self-interest against our service to others; balancing our concept of the good life against the survival of other species and the environment they live in; balancing our intense love for a small group of people against the thousands of neglected and unloved that die in some unknown place.

Last night, I saw one of the recent movies to come out about wars and the nature of the experience for those fighting in them. This one was about Vietnam, and it did an amazing job of contrasting the emotion and intensity of individual participants (American and Vietnamese) against vast scenes of death and destruction, hundreds of lives being ended violently and quickly and without prejudice. But the overall feeling I walk away with is awe at the magnitude of the loss of life. The movie tells us that loss of life on this scale can be worthwhile - that sacrificing spouses and parents, hundreds at a time, is sometimes necessary. And, perhaps unfortunately, this is the message that is absorbed from these films, more so than the sense that the loss of any particular man or woman is in itself a horrible tragedy. For who can bear the burden of reflecting on the pain and sadness of any and every widow and widower, son and daughter, mother and father that would hold their loved one no more?

When I wake up this morning, I go into the kitchen and see on the front page of the paper that a local high school student has died in a car accident. The picture on the front is of my housemate Charlie, a volunteer firefighter, wading around a half-sunk, overturned car in an icy creek. Charlie says that the shot was taken right before he went under to try to find the kid. We talk about the rescue effort, how cold it was, and how sad it is. "Poor kid." Thinking about the shock and the sadness and the sense of loss that his friends and family will experience breaks my heart as I sit and stare at the words on the page.

But how can I put it into context, how can I think about the loss in terms of all the loss that was experienced that day, even in that hour, around the world? How can that tragedy be weighed against images of boys the same age as the accident victim being shot, stabbed, blown up, and burned as they run through the forest fighting for a country that will notify their next of kin via telegram delivered by taxicab?

At either extreme, the value of life is sharply more understandable than in the relatively mundane existence that is common in the middle. There is the sense that I am doing an injustice to that boy and those soldiers by worrying about my plans for the summer, stressing over too many meetings, pondering my weight and my exercise regimen. I know that I may never have an opportunity to truly experience the appreciation of simply being alive because I may never understand how good life is, and how easily it slips away.

The resolution, it would seem, might come in the form of relativism - the sense that the value of our lives can only be completely known when taken in the context of those around us who we love, fight for, and miss when they are gone. It is too cold to say that because life HAS been lost on massive scales in the past, the value of an individual life is decreased. But neither does it feel right to say that we must all mourn deeply and at length over the loss of every stranger...again, who can bear that burden?

Even in relativism, I can find no peace. But it is perhaps the unanswered question - what is life worth - that can inspire us to seek ways of living our own lives that pay tribute to those who no longer have life, and to those who miss them.

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