In my eighth grade English class, Mr. Sweeney asked us to write a persuasive essay and then deliver it to the rest of the class convincingly. The United States had just sent its military to the Middle East to expel the Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait, and that was a hot topic of discussion and controversy. As a part of these events, the head pastor at my church had recently delivered a sermon on what constitutes a "just war." It was a good sermon - contemplative, balanced, and challenging without being preachy (beyond the normal degree to which a white man adorned in robes standing in an ornate pulpit speaking down to a congregation with an amplified and booming voice is "preachy"). Because I admired this man and trusted my church and had not yet at that point in my life encountered any other theories of war, I found myself thoroughly convinced that the use of force by my government in that case was justified. I thought it was a perfect topic to use for my own persuasive speech. Continue reading "Justifying war, values training for war makers"→
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.
It seemed to be all my friend Eppie could remember about her father's death: the Ten minutes right before it. She had watched him die for months and had grieved for years afterward but the climax of the "event" as she remembered it was never the moment of death itself, but the Ten minutes beforehand.
It always seemed odd to me that Ten minutes of life would mean more than the life lost, but the wistful stare in Eppie's eyes when we talked about it brought me closer to understanding. You see, in those last Ten minutes of her father's life, she realized that her father was dying. According to her (and sometimes her mother), their eyes met as this sunk in at about minute number Three and that was when he realized it too. One of the nurses reflected later that in that moment, even though all the damn machines were going off and people were waving goodbye in their hearts, he felt like the cancer "just up and left" Eppie's father and that "if we hadn't all been so intent on him dying he might have up and walked away from the whole mess." But with Seven minutes to go, what are you gonna do, especially if you don't know you have even that much?
Cry is what Eppie wanted to do, but her father wouldn't have it. He was mostly gone and mostly ready, but he wasn't just about to slip out. The damnedest thing is that every power involved seemed raring for him to do just that, but right as minute Four started to head into its second half, he sat up in bed and held out his hands.
The real excitement wasn't that he was sitting up, though this was apparently something he hadn't done since he woke from the last round of miserable skin slashing and marrow moving, but the real excitement came when he held out his right hand as if it were a flat slate and with his left made a scribbling motion. Now it seems his hands were pretty weak so I guess the motion wasn't that clear to Eppie at the time, so it took until about minute Five and forty-five seconds until she realized that her father, who had lived 43 years of life and who had devoted 12 of them to her happiness, was trying to get a message across. And this time, it wasn't the "need more water" or the "change the channel" signing he would have to make because there were so many awful tubes in his beautiful mouth; no, this time it was something that gave him enough strength to hoist his tired and dying body closer to his daughter. This time it was a message that made nothing else matter.
Eppie never got that message. No one in that room did. The very thought of the situation makes me want to cry, and I can't really even begin to imagine what it does to my friend. When minute Six reared its head, Eppie shouted for a paper and pen and her mom followed Seconds later with a cry for the same. The one time when Eppie went into a lot of detail about it, she said "the damn hospital kept the place so clean and reality-free that there wasn't a writing utensil or paper to be found in the room." But it got worse. The nurse who felt the cancer leave walked out looking for something to write on as minute Seven walked in. Eppie's father looked around questioningly and his hand stopped scribbling. He just sat there, she said. "Just sat there and waited for something to write on. My dad had been waiting to die for six months and now all he had to wait for was a pen and some paper."
The nurse had to go far to get it. He had to watch the head nurse fumble around the admit desk for something suitable for a patient to use. He had to watch the head nurse scribble ink on a piece of scratch paper to make sure the pen worked. He could not say anything because it was almost minute Eight and that ink "might as well have been life flowing out of that poor man's body."
Eight and a half and his head started to droop. Eight and forty and his head hit the pillow. Just a few before Nine and his hands fell all the way down by his side. Nine-oh-five and Eppie grabbed both of them. Nine ten and his squinting eyes were for ced closed by the rising smile that defied a tube that gave him breath. Nine thirty and there was so little movement and so many tears. Minute Ten rolled around and the message left forever like a secret that is so secret you forget about it. After that, Eppie's life was only ever measured in hours and days and tears, but never in such minutes and seconds as those.
We won't always be able to figure out that dad wants to write us a message. The damn hospital isn't always going to have some paper and a pen lying around. There isn't always going to be a nurse, and if there is, he isn't always going to care about your dad. Sometimes, what we do in minute number Two matters so much more than what happens in minute number Nine. This is a happy story. These are the greatest Ten minutes of your life.