January 23, 2008

The Worth of a Life

2008 1503 page25 capeana is 8 months old, and she and her grandmother are staying with me for a couple of months. She just cut her first two teeth. She can roll over, hold her head up, and enjoys taking tentative steps—with one of us holding her up, that is. When she makes a new sound, her excitement is obvious, and she then shares each new vocal accomplishment with whoever will listen, including the entire first church service on Sabbath morning. Yes, that was her.
Each day she is diapered, fed, dressed, diapered, fed, dressed, diapered, fed, dressed ad infinitum. She can’t feed herself. She can’t dress herself. When she rolls into a boundary, she can’t figure out how to roll away. She can’t strap herself into a car seat, can’t wash herself, can’t select her own clothing, food, or hairstyle. Not only can she do nothing for herself, she can do nothing tangible for anyone else. So, it could be asked, what good is she?
To which my only reply is that she is of value simply because she IS. She doesn’t need to do anything more than that in order for her grandmother to love her, and for me and many others to adore her. Certainly, spending time with her gives life a new focus, and we’re in turns energized and exhausted by her smiles, responses, and daily growth. But that’s not why she is loved. She is loved because she is a precious human being in baby form who needs to be cared for and loved.
It pains me a bit to know that Jeana won’t really have memories of this love I’ve shown her this fall. But it’s still worth it for the joy that brings her today, and for the foundation of love and nurture I will have helped create in her.
2008 1503 page25I can’t help but think of other babies, little persons who weren’t wanted or planned, or whose arrival is inconvenient in the extreme. What is their value? Which makes me think of so many others in this world of any age whose existence creates an inconvenience for others. Who will never progress past their current abilities, may not learn to read, or to speak clearly, will not learn to feed themselves or control their bowels, perhaps even need assistance breathing. Or those who once could do those things, but now, in advanced illness or age, can’t. Unable to do anything tangible for others, what is their worth? And what if, after you spend time with them, they have no recollection of it? Did it still count?
And what of those not profoundly challenged, but developmentally slow? Who do not accomplish what the charts say they should have accomplished by this point in time. Who may or may not ever be self-reliant. Who love people and enjoy their company, but whose company is not always relished by others. What is their value? And who gets to determine it?
Each of us is at some point a disappointment or incon-venience to someone else. Is that adequate basis for it to be determined that our life has no value? I’m terrified of a world in which value is determined externally, extrinsically. Where someone’s ‘owner’ (parent, spouse, state, etc.) gets to determine if and when a life is valid and if and when a life is terminated.
There are various attributions of this poem, inscribed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.:
     First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist.
     Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist.
     Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
     Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Now, while you can, speak out for the Jeanas of the world. Remember—and remind others—that life is a precious gift, in every form, in every circumstance.
Valerie N. Phillips is the associate director of the women’s residence hall at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where she has ministered to collegiate women for more than 25 years.