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Friday, April 13, 2012

What is the Value of a Single Human Life?

This is a fundamental question in our society. It doesn't just touch on the huge moral (and secondarily, political) topics of abortion and euthanasia, but on something far more common:  it hits us all, every single day in every single human interaction.

I recently began re-reading a book series that was beloved to me in my youth: Lloyd Alexander's  The Chronicles of Prydain, beginning with The Book of Three.

Early on in the story, the protagonist, Taran, meets the great Warrior Prince Gwydion, his hero, and upon meeting him is both awed and disappointed. The man in person does not meet his mental image of a "hero" nor does he encourage it. He reveals his humility and wisdom when the passionate Taran suggest the two of them go against the Horned King alone.

"Then we should stop him," Taran declared. "Attack him, strike him down! Give me a sword and I will stand with you!"
"Gently, gently," chided Gwydion. "I do not say my life is worth more than another man's, but I prize it highly. Do you think a lone warrior and one Assistant Pig-Keeper dare attack the Horned King and his war band?"
Taran drew himself up. "I would not fear  him."
"No?" said Gwydion. "Then you are a fool. He is the man most to be dreaded in all Prydain..."

Ahh. What a beautiful dialogue to demonstrate the point. Here we have a lowly commoner (like most of us), and we have a Great Hero, actual royalty, even! And when the commoner wants him on a pedestal and seeks in his own pride to raise himself to the level of his hero, the humility of the hero brings him back to earth, even to the degree of calling him a "fool"!

Can you imagine such a rebuke? (Does it perhaps call to mind Jesus rebuking Peter by saying "Get behind me Satan!" or to James and John by calling them the "Sons of Thunder"?)

I couldn't move on from this passage, especially a single seemingly-insignificant line from Prince Gwydion:  "I do not say my life is worth more than another man's, but I prize it highly."

There it is. What is the value of life? Is there any such thing as one life being more valuable than another? In any give situation, who determines who should live and who should die? In any given human exchange, who is owed more respect or less respect?

Our current society is driven by hero worship. Never before in history have celebrities been such a huge force behind politics and causes. People did not used to follow mere actors, whose trade was to entertain the masses. Now, it matters not if someone is educated; it matters only that they are beautiful and popular and "in".

That is not to say that those who are "celebrities" necessarily buy into this image of themselves; I would not accuse them of valuing themselves above others, but rather, I cast the role of naive and starstruck Taran upon the American public at large.

The problem is we don't see the humility of the Prince in the story in those we as a public perceive to be our "leaders". We don't see moral fortitude (or any solid moral compass at all), and when it comes to celebrities, even the popular spokesactors haven't a leg to stand on when questioned in most cases. They are but straw idols to be cast upon the wind and torn apart by crows when the appetite suits them. They become victims of the same society that elevated them seemingly only to eventually rip them to shreds.

So let us speak directly then, of politics. Every few years it is a tidal wave of politics, a tsunami that never really goes away, but seems to regather and build for an even greater assault every four years.

I am always left scratching my head over the adulation given to certain politicians, and in contemporary society: Obama. I can't understand why he wasn't vetted and vilified as were the other candidates, and I was shocked when he was never forced to answer tough questions in previous presidential debates.  He didn't like the question he just said, "Let's move on." and they did.

I make no apology: I don't like Obama, and I have often thought, and even stated that if I were ever to meet him, I would refuse to shake his hand. His clear anti-life status, his abuse of our natural-law and Constitutional freedoms, his various methods of America-bashing in other countries, his constant prideful faux-pas in "gifts" to other Heads of State, his obvious dismay and outright attempts to crush out any legitimate criticism of himself and his policies, his attempts to crush religious freedom...all for his own power and his own glory. I despise him as a man and I am offended as what he has done to the Office of President.

And there, those last words, that's what stop me. Office. Office of President.

Many years ago I considered the Secret Service, researched it a bit and pondered for myself the role the Agents take. They agreed that they would take a bullet for the President! What a noble cause! How beautiful a way to die!

Except that ultimately, I didn't want to die for the President. I thought it would be a nice idea, but, no, no, if I was going to die for someone, I wanted to die for someone I cared about. Someone more  Someone who came from my community, lived their life and perhaps had something terrible happen to them. Someone..normal. Not someone whose life was "more valuable" than that of the average person.

I was raised to respect authority, and certainly, I do. I also learned through trial and error that respect may be owed to a particular position, but the person who holds that particular role may not be worthy of that respect; but one gives it anyway. Not for the person, but for their Office.

This is why those Secret Service Agents who protect the President can do so even if they disagree with him or even personally despise him. They do it because they defend NOT the man, but the Office. They can recognize that his life is worth no more or less than their own. What IS valuable is the office he holds, for if the Office falls, so does the country.

I have to realize, because of this, that if I ever do meet Obama and am in a position to shake his hand, I must do so, not because I respect him as a man (for I don't), but because I respect the Office of President of the United States, and it is right and just to give it and him as a human being, simple respect. I respect the fact he was created in the image and likeness of God, no matter how he has chosen to distort that image (for I am a sinner, too, and am also distorted.)

Ah! But What of Life? For Anyone? What of the Everyday?

Most of us won't meet political heavies or celebrities or royalty. Most of us just go about our lives every day and try to eke out our existence, work with people professionally and of course, simply try to keep our heads down and shoulders to the grindstone.

But if we're pressed and if we really think about it, we DO tend to give more value to certain lives than we do to others.

Think about it. In the workplace, do you treat EVERYONE with the same respect? Or do you treat the CEO with more?  How do you speak to the CEO in comparison to the IT guy locked in the basement? How to you treat your Pastor versus the Mechanic doing your brakes? How do you treat the Parish Council member versus the elderly confused lady who asks random questions and speaks about random things you know nothing about?

How many average human interactions every single day cause you to change your level of respect and interior admiration or desire for approval according to the person standing before you?

Whose life is worth more?

Is any life worth more than another?

Do the wealthy deserve more respect? Or should we not give the same respect to the poor?  To the person we dislike? To the person we like? To the person who is lost, the person who serves us in some way, the person we serve by employment or other obligation?

The issue of Life isn't to be compartmentalized; it's not just about abortion and euthanasia, but is part of our everyday lives, in every moment, every interaction.

It doesn't mean we have to like or approve of everyone. It doesn't mean we have to "respect" someone in the sense of placing them on a pedestal. What the call to value life means is this: we must hold ALL to the highest standard, we must give ALL basic human respect and it should not matter whether we are speaking the Pope, the President, the CEO, the Janitor, the Stable groom, the Housekeeper, the Pastor, the Mechanic, the Cashier, the Religious Sister, or the homeless guy on the corner. (Hint: learn his name!)

Life is life. In Genesis, we learn that blood, the symbol of Life, belongs to God alone. So it was that God Himself, through His Only Son Jesus Christ offered His blood so that we might live for eternity. Jesus gave us the example of holiness we are all to live. He did teach to respect Civic leaders, but in practice, to be like Himself.

Personalities and politics are not part of God's Kingdom; they are of the world. We are called, through Baptism to bring about the Kingdom of God in word and deed, and foundational to this is respect for all Life, and to know that every human being is willed and loved by God. It's not a matter of political action, but in how we all live our lives. It matters not if we pray outside an abortuary and then return to our regular lives and bash our neighbors and coworkers.

We have to catch ourselves when we find we are caught in the trap of valuing one life over another, and remember to find Christ in them, somewhere, recalling they, too, are known and loved.

I fall very, very short of this, every single day, and pray one day I may finally practice what I am incoherently trying to preach.

** Disclaimer:  I am not stating that the Truth should not be taught  and I am all for condemning the moral attack upon our society, namely abortion, homosexual "marriage", euthanasia, the Health Mandate, the attack upon religious freedom, etc. These things are ideas, not people. In this post I am attempting to focus on basic human discourse, no matter what our position. Every life is a gift from God and we need to treat every life we meet according to that reality, and THEN address the darkness within us that makes us into total idiots.***


Jose said...

Glad to know I am not the ONLY dork who often gets inspired by well written fantasy. My library is full of books that have illuminated me on the many levels of meaning to be found in the Lord of the Rings. Thank you for adding another book series to my list of "To read." Great post, Adoro.

Jose C.
Your sadly Pelagian Friend ;)

Arkanabar said...

You might do for Pornchai Moontri as I shall do, as soon as I finish reading the comments to his post on TSW -- put up a post asking any who are able to help him.

Katherine said...

Adoro, thank you for this post. While we differ in some of our ideologies, I love the way you address the value of a life, especially as reflected through the book. I've never read The Chronicles of Prydain, but there was an animated movie that came out when my kids were little. I think the movie was called "The Black Cauldron." I loved that movie and didn't mind watching it over and over. The quotes you chose never struck me until just now. How wonderful that fantasy literature can touch us in such deep ways.

Every day, I am reminded about the value of each life. I am teaching in a jail, a place where you have to believe that everyone has has worth or you risk becoming something less than what human beings are called to be. It is very difficult not to internally condemn some of these people, dismiss them as worthwhile human beings. It takes a certain mindset and spiritual connection to look beyond the crime and into the heart. My experiences over the past year or so have been life changing. I often say that I learn more from my students than they do from me.

Would I take the bullet for someone else? Intellectually, I don't know, but I have the feeling intellect would not play into my decision making were I forced into such a predicament. I DO know I wouldn't sign on with Secret Service, if for no other reason than I would have to give up blogging. : )

Adoro said...

Jose ~ Oh, my dear "Pelagian" friend, do read the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander! While they are meant for youth I am finding much to ponder even as an adult. Sometimes it's good to go back to our roots, no?

If you do read them (please do, in spite of their genre in children's literature), let me know what you think!

Also read about Lloyd Alexander himself and from whence his inspiration comes! :-)

Katherine ~ Ah, you HAVE to read the series! I also saw the movie and think it came out before I read the book (I'd have to look that up, actually to find the year). But the book...oy! Awesome! And the author actually wrote it to stand alone if necessary which is perhaps why the movie was truly a success. It makes more sense within the series but even alone it is beautiful.

I need to watch it again. :-)

As to taking a bullet for someone...well, we never know what we may do in any given circumstance. Even those trained may fail to react or have a change of heart. I have never been called upon to give my life for another (lol...if I had, would I be here?), and I would hope that I would do so but really...I think it comes down to the proper moment.

That's where we need to be in tune with the Holy Spirit, who helps us to act in ways that are holy and, well, if it is time to preserve a certain life, we do it (only through our own cooperation with the Holy Spirit. He is an gentleman and does not treat us as puppets).

But in the context of our post: I would not willfully sign up for a service that might require me to take a bullet for our President. I might however, consider that role on behalf of the Pope. That decision also comes down to fundamental beliefs and who I believe our Pontiff to be and who chose him...and really...I'm pretty sure God would not call me to take a round for our Holy Father any more than He would call me to be the speaker of His own Mother!

It's great that you are working with people in the prisons! I wish I was able to go in and do RCIA in prisons but I don't live near the women's prison and the demand in my area is more for men - and it is more proper to send men into that particular role for various reasons. If there was none to respond, though, I would be willing to go to fulfill that role. (Unfortunately the requests are rare).

God bless!

Katherine said...

Gaaa! You got me writing another short poem! LOL!

Jose said...

I found the ENTIRE series on Amazon in a Box set priced at 20 dollars. I had ordered it about 10 minutes after reading your post. :) It arrives today. Thank you so much for turning me on to it.

Jose C.

Adoro said...

Katherine ~ Beautiful!

Jose~ I really really hope you enjoy them! I just finished "The Black Cauldron" last night and today found the DVD at the library.

Don't get the DVD until you are done with the series. It's good, but it's not the same story and, well, really, to speak like Elinowy, It's like promising ambrosia but providing lutefisk.

(I love Elinowy more and more now although as a teen she drove me nuts even as she endeared me to her!)

Adoro said...

BTW...if you do watch the movie, find it at your local library so that you can get it for free. That's what I did.