Global communications seem particular laden right now with earth-shattering crisis. Just the front page today includes bombings and rocket attacks in Israel and Palestine, beheadings and live burials in Iraq and Syria, the military confrontations in Ukraine, the militarization of police “protection” in Ferguson in the United States, the Ebola virus in Africa. The temptation is to despair at being so helpless in the face of it all, when one’s whole impulse is to STOP IT!
But I myself live in a small world – not in the Middle East or Africa and I am now retired. Perhaps I did some small good as a university professor, perhaps sometimes as a friend, and in the partnership with my husband. But now there are no students to spend energy trying to help, no fellow faculty, no ongoing research or books to be written. I’m not overwhelmingly useful except to my husband, who is equally important to me. In terms of achieving something significant for mankind, I am definitely no longer making the grade.
What then is the value of my life now?
Somehow life itself seems intrinsically valuable to me. I don’t mean my life. I mean life. It’s amazing. Incredible is life. I can’t think that there is a way that this great gift can be earned or even paid for. The only thing worth doing with it is grabbing it with both hands in gratitude and joy and respect for the capacities, as well as the limitations of what it is to be human.
Admittedly, now I come to the tricky part. I have the great gift of life. And yet it is a mystery. In what is the fulfillment of a human life? Some of the ideals I was given during my Catholic socialization now sound bizarre. Martyrdom, for example. I thought I would like to be a martyr when I was a child. I’ve been remembering that now with some trepidation as martyrdom is once again held up in the Muslim world as a great act, and as we have been commemorating the beginning of World War I when more than 6 million military laid down their lives for their countries.
I’ve been playing with a thought that I think also comes from somewhere in the bowels of my Catholic upbringing: that if we truly love just one other person, we have reached the pinnacle of human achievement. The version I was no doubt first socialized to probably was something more like “reached true sainthood,” or some such, but the point is potentially relevant.
Loving is something that as a human I need to do as much as I need to eat and sleep.
I do not know if the human race is going to survive, or if war or disease or climate change, or a meteor strike, or some other calamity will bring our species to an end in the near future. Whatever the dangers, there is not much I can do to influence the course of events.
But I can honor life by refusing to let it be diminished by anger or despair or hopelessness. Wherever my life in particular, and life in general is going, whenever and however it ends, it is worth living now. I don’t have to earn it. I can’t earn it.
Life is simply a great great gift.