Terri Schiavo and human vanity

This isn’t about Terri Schiavo.  Her inert body has already been desecrated by too many strange hands.  This is about what it means to be human in a world defined by uncertainty.

Since our species emerged from some mysterious nowhere, fully conscious, awake to our own weakness and inescapable death, we have considered our existence as a puzzle, and we have desired most powerfully an absolute explanation of it.  The world appeared perfect, complete, but we ourselves were a terrible question, a haunting and everpresent doubt.

From our race alone something was missing.  The earliest attempts at an explanation, painted in caves like Lascaux and Altamira, show beautifully drawn animals, and bizarre, half-bestial people.

The desire for absolute answers fuels the emotional potency of our religions, and religion, in turn, allows us to accept with great courage the incompleteness of our lives and our dissolution in death.  The central fact of Christianity is death and new life.  The confusion of this world – the fear and suffering, but also the temptations of pride and selfishness – can be placed in perspective by the believer.  This is summed up by the famous phrase in Ecclesiastes:  “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

Absolute faith in a particular explanation – a way of life – must be universally shared, or conflict ensues.  Yet once social relations achieve a degree of complexity, universal agreement becomes, for practical purposes, impossible.  The goods of the world, Isaiah Berlin once observed, are irreconcilable.  I can’t be a Hollywood star and an ascetic in the desert.  Every community in history has faced the problem of competing absolutes.  Some have solved it with violence, with Inquisitions or Gulags or ethnic cleansings.  Others have lapsed into cynicism and self-indulgence.  The uncertainty of human life must somehow be resolved short of chaos and fratricide.

More than the settled nations of the globe, we Americans feel the primal loneliness and doubt of human life.  Others stay put, and weave webs of gentle illusions; we are restless, and keep before our eyes the gap between ideals and facts.

The American way of life was established along the crossed axes of freedom and morality.  We see clearly that the farther we go down one virtuous path, the more distant we grow from the other.  We are a secular country that aggressively promotes and defends religion.  We are a nation of churchgoers that sells smut to the world.  In this outsiders suspect hypocrisy, but it is really an endless and titanic wrestling match, the greatest show on earth.

The wise men who laid the foundations of our country dealt boldly with the conflict of absolutes.  They were not faint-hearted; in the restless seeking after truth, they saw moral health, not political trouble.  Let the secularist go as far as his principles will take him.  Let the believer do the same.

But the Founders also carved out a civic space in which Americans of every persuasion debate with one another the boundaries of freedom and power, and the dispensation of tax dollars – and on this space they imposed, as ruling principle, the original uncertainty of our condition.  Here, we must assume a becoming modesty.  We accept that we may be wrong, and our opponent right, and that facts matter more than authority in the business of democratic persuasion.  To grow deaf to opposing voices and demand the triumph of one’s sectarian absolute is, in this sacred space, the most unwholesome kind of vanity:  an insult to the common sense of the American people, and a trampling on our ideals.

Terri Schiavo’s condition is a private tragedy.  But in the most painful manner imaginable, it raises questions and doubts about what it means to be a human being, about the purposes of human life.  She is so incomplete.

Those who seek to make a public scandal of this silent woman crave a resolution that will make her whole:  alive or dead.  A weight of uncertainty oppresses them, so they appeal to absolute and irreconcilable doctrines, religious and secular, in infantile language.  Their words are vanity; all their controversy is vanity.  Among the hurling of anathemas and pontification of certitudes, only one person, mysterious and mute in her hospital bed, has managed to retain a measure of dignity.



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