Friday, December 9, 2005

What is a life worth?

Every time you look into the printed photographic eyes of someone who's been killed, are you seeing the trials of pregnancy and the pains of childbirth? The countless feedings plus clothing and diaper changes? The education, whether informal or formal; at home, at school or on the streets?

Beyond an act of love, passion, or lust (or all three), combined with intentional or thoughtlessness, it takes considerable effort to make a human being. And that effort can be destroyed in an instant, just as intentionally or thoughtlessly—an exploded vehicle in Iraq or a blown-up bus in London, a bullet ripping through an organ, a beating that ends in internal bleeding, an accidental blow to the head.

How does each of us determine what a life is worth? For most people, human life seems nearly sacred until our person, our family, or our property is threatened. A mother who never dreamed of killing might do so without thought if her child is endangered. A man might kill if he catches someone in the act of looting his home. Most of us will never face these circumstances, but we do have an idea of our priorities and an instinct for self-preservation.

How do we really feel when a stranger is killed? When soldiers are ambushed in action, it's sad and regrettable, but all too often they're just a face and a name, with perhaps a brief biography and some quotes. We don't have any personal attachment, and while parents may empathize with those of the fallen (and feel gratitude that it wasn't their child), and the same for girlfriends, boyfriends, brothers, sisters, spouses, it's nearly impossible to become emotionally invested beyond the superficial when it comes to most strangers (with well-publicized exceptions). Undoubtedly this is programmed into our psyches; no one could afford the energy it would take to grieve every loss as though it were personally meaningful. So our reaction tends to be, "I feel bad for the parents," "Doesn't he remind you of Steve Flynn over on Sixth Avenue?" or "What a shame."

Then there are those who invest their emotions in dead celebrities, in John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, John Lennon, Princess Diana. Years, decades, after the death, they write of their loss, sadness, and heartbreak as thought it were a deeply personal tragedy. Do such people value life? Or do the value the artificial association they have created with a person or an idea that is bigger than themselves? For such people, was it Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana who died? Or was it the idea that died, not just of beauty, but of fantasies of lives that never existed, of their own youth and memories that began to fade long ago? Is it the lives of these celebrities that they miss and mourn, or their own lives, doomed never to achieve the impossible fantasy that no one's life can?

Soon there will be more deaths in the headlines, and the cycle begins again. Very little changes. We spend billions trying to treat and cure disease because disease will affect us and every one we know; we hope that violence, in whatever form, does not.

Every day, though, the behavior of seemingly ordinary people reveals a combination of egotism and lack of empathy for lives that are not our own. I thought of this when another case of a child in joint custody of her divorced parents was mentioned. The girl supposedly hates her time with her father, who fought bitterly for joint custody, because he ignores her. She senses that she was an object in a power struggle. It is long since over, so she seems to hold no interest for her own father. I find myself wondering how I could look into the face of my child, a face that would surely resemble mine in some ways, and not feel enough love and compassion to show it in everything I do, to feel only cold indifference. Doesn't what he helped to give her—life—have any value to him? How can he not know or not care about the effect of his indifference on his own child?

In another case, the mother has one child with one man and two children with a second man. As a toddler, the first child was not welcome in his mother's home. He has spent most of his childhood living with an uncle and aunt. How can anyone value life so little that they don't want their own child living with them, that they prefer that someone else raise them even when they have the ability and the means? Does he understand why his mother doesn't want him and can foist him off on a relative like he is an unwanted item for which there is no room? What value will he place on life when he is older?

The same boy had a docile, affectionate cat. One day, the boy's half-sister, with an established reputation as a bully, decided to scare the cat while the boy was holding it. Already, she has learned her mother's valuation of her half-brother. Predictably, the startled cat panicked and clawed the boy badly. Rather than punishing the girl for her bullying behavior, the family decided that the life of the victimized cat was forfeit. What value does life have under such circumstances, when victims are victimized twice, when they are victimized permanently?

Children are life, animals are life, trees are life, just as we as stewards of the Earth are life. Those who kill, those who destroy—they are anti-life, like matter and anti-matter. For some, it is a socially accepted hobby or habit—the hunter, the fisherman. Soldiers must kill when ordered to. Butchers slaughter animals every day of their working lives on our behalf. For others, it's an accident, a temporary suspension of judgment, the proverbial crime of passion or anger or fear. Then there are the sociopaths, who kill compulsively, without empathy or compassion. Some value the life of some but not that of others; some value life but must destroy it, however regretfully. The sociopath doesn't understand the value of life, if it is not his own.

For those who die to nourish ours and to protect it, we should never fail to feel gratitude. For those who have lost their lives, we should stir our memories. For those who have lost a life that they created, we should feel the deepest of sorrow. And for those who have taken life for the vilest of reasons, what must we feel? Hate? Contempt? Loathing? Pity? Anguish? Pity and anguish that that person could destroy the only thing of value that has been granted to us, the only thing that has meaning? Life itself, without which there is nothing.


  1. Life-taker as anti-life. Indeed so, in some instances. But even we (former) Army officers have the *required* duty not to obey certain orders.

    Much to think on here, lady. I'll seen what evolutes later this fifth day of 2007.

    Lord guide, Lady heal; best blessings this night.


  2. Many Indians included thanking the animals they hunted as part of their rituals and spirituality; I was just reading about the northern hunters in 1492 edited by Alvin Josephy.

    I am not against legal hunting (although I realize now that isn't obvious), but against the thoughtlessness and even glee with which some killing is done.

    There's a great line in a Star Trek episode after Data disobeys orders because he has found a better way to deal with the situation but doesn't have time to explain, about "I was just following orders" being used an excuse. I spend so much time questioning "authority" that I doubt I would be much use in the military. :)

  3. The notion of returning grace for grace is part of most, erm, non-traditional {grin} paths; I feel quite uncomfortable not doing so in my own personal acts.

    I stopped actively hunting after I medically retired from the service. I did continue to go into the field with people I trust who were both armed and behind my back. I stopped even those trips after I started to see that same idiot glee you mention on the part of other people who I'd seen in the same hunting area for years. Had I not developed personal
    objections to my hunting for personal reasons, the profound feeling of disgust based on that mindlessness would have been sufficient.

    The classic excuse of 'I was only following orders' is known as the Nuremberg defence for a good reason, after all. As for questioning authority, even the military services consider it to be one of the ways to improve non-combat performance. The combat side of the question is what I'm giving more critical thought to.