In the interest of not offering any spoilers, I won’t name the brilliant and best-selling novel I just read--oops, too late!---set during World War II. It’s a story told pastiche-style, like an elaborate quilt pattern, patiently pieced and wrought. And to some extent the novel requires a patient reader as well, not so much because of the shifts in time and geographic locale but because throughout the narrative, many characters we have come to know well either disappear or die (presumably both). This includes one of the two the main characters.
I’m sure the author does this to mimic the very fact of what war does: indiscriminately destroy—buildings, people, animals, souls, historical records. Artillery has no conscience. And so characters drop out of the fabric of the story, just as they might have in life.
As someone who regularly presides at funerals and deals often with the dying, I was surprised at my own reaction to the deaths of two characters in a novel I was writing. They were an older couple and I had them killed in a car crash. As their daughter is informed of their deaths and begins to mourn, I found myself crying, too, really crying. I was sitting at my desk, Kleenex in hand, sobbing over the deaths of characters I had made up in a novel that I had created. Was I crazy? Of did JK Rowling, too, cry a lot during the writing of the Harry Potter books?
I think our imaginations play a big role in how we perceive and value life. We flatter ourselves, I think, when we decide that we esteem all life as having equal value. But we don’t. We make distinctions based on our preferences and predilections.
You can see that in how discussions—and I use that word generously--on abortion and gun control are carried out. I received more hateful and malicious responses to a column in which I spoke of standing in support of Planned Parenthood’s health care services than I have for any other column I have ever written. Anti-choice rhetoric and visuals always invoke images of charming, chubby babies; but that’s an imagined milieu of a safe and happy home, not the reality many unplanned, carried-to-term babies would face.
Conversely, the imagined lives of those victims of gun violence become mere talking points for those who oppose more restrictive gun laws: if there were more guns there would be fewer shootings goes the twisted logic. These dead children/college students/theater goers/gym members/African American churchgoers/etc might have been safer if more people had been armed.
We pay lip service to valuing human life, but we value it differently, given the contexts.
I mentioned to a friend that I had just visited a parishioner on dialysis. “Oh,” my friend, a doctor, said, “People in Europe live longer on dialysis than they do here.”
“What?” I asked, “Why?”
“It’s done longer and more often. Different cultural expectations,” was his response.
Maybe. But the expectations with contexts vary. I remember being in the south of France with my daughter several years ago. A man was lying right outside the women’s public toilet in this pretty little village where we had gone to see the market. The man wasn’t moving. He wasn’t breathing, as far as we could tell. Women just stepped over him to get to the loo, the door sometimes hitting him as it opened and shut, sometimes not. Linnea and I made our way to the police station and told an officer about the man.
The officer shrugged his shoulders. Il est ivre. He’s drunk.
“I figure he was,” I said, Mais peut-etre mort, aussi. But maybe also dead.
He looked at me as if I were a hopelessly naïve woman, And he said something to the effect of, “we’ll check it out.” But made no move to leave his post. Linnea and I walked away, now considerably less eager to check out the wares at the market.
The sad and humbling truth is that we cherish lives selectively and sentimentally. But girded with that knowledge, perhaps we can do more to cherish life more broadly and indiscriminately so that fewer of us are deemed worthless or left lifeless.