The bill allowing terminal patients to request life-ending drugs from doctors has made its way out of committee in the California State Assembly and might well be on a track toward imminent passage. Just for once, perhaps we can forget the politics of left and right, the raucous caucusing for views rancorously anchored. Sit here beside me under the generous palm in an hour long past midnight, when the striving of Man’s machinery has waned and the roar of his bustle is stilled. Let us hold up to the starlight this gift we call Life, this spirit that pulses and ebbs.
Whom else to consult but Solomon, wisest of all men? He says, “The soul of man is the candle of the Lord, seeking all the chambers of the belly. Kindness and truth established the king, and he bolsters with kindness his throne.” Now this is not Song of Songs, rippling through the supple tongues of emotion, nor yet Ecclesiastes, hewn from the grim granite of the experiential. This is Proverbs (20:27,28), where the rays of reason radiate to the intellect. How is this wisdom? Making the statement that the soul is a godly force inhabiting the body sounds for all the world like religion, not reason. And how does this segue into monarchic politics and its blending of kindness and truth?
Solomon is saying something eminently reasonable, namely that we know nothing of the soul and its sojourn within the borders of the body. Accepting that, the sovereign tempers his effort to govern by universal application of truths; some truth is unknowable. And so whenever a decision involves the gritty choice of life-or-death, he bolsters his throne by kindness. He does not try to rule beyond the reach of his capacity. Thus wisdom, not poetry.
It behooves us to be humble, not to presuppose the limitations of life. I had a great mentor, a genius, a poet, and upon his passing we mined his notebooks for little gems. One anecdote from his youth involved his picking some beautiful flowers for a young cousin. The child first admired his gift but not long afterwards a fit of pique moved him to hurl the flowers to the ground and trample them savagely. My teacher wrote: “Forgive us, O Lord, for the sin of trampling so many flowers…”
A flower has no utility, only beauty that speaks to the human spirit; that spirit itself can never be adjudged less beautiful than the flower it embraces. Long after Ronald Reagan could address us in his voice of avuncular jocosity, we were comforted by the presence of his spirit among us. For years his wife bore the saintly burden of preserving that candle to buoy the spirit of all humanity. We loved him every minute that he breathed in our midst and we were that much better as people each day, knowing that there was still a twinkly eye keeping watch, winking encouragement.
We must not trample any more flowers, at least not in law. There will always be some who can no longer bear the weight of their trials and choose to shut their own eyes before they close themselves. We do not shun the portraits of Van Gogh nor the novels of Hemingway. But the law should express the humility of the sovereign. We are here to protect life, to open doors for healing, not to deliver medical or utilitarian verdicts of death.
In my own life, I saw two scenarios; between them, this consciousness was branded into my heart. My great-aunt Dora had a stroke and was on life support. Her husband refused to pull the plug and bankrupted himself paying for heroic shifts of nurses. She lived for some weeks in this comatose state and eventually segued into death. My cousin Lillian had an aneurysm at age 58 and lapsed into a coma. The doctors urged that the plug be pulled and her husband nearly succumbed to their hubristic importuning. After some weeks she emerged with full intellectual capacity and limited mobility. She lived 17 years more.
We don’t know the pathways of the soul. We have no clear answer to the question of what precisely constitutes the animating element that stimulates the magical brio that is life. It is larger than us, this force, and no hollow posturing can alter that truth. Our job, the task of the sovereign on his earthly throne, is to approach it with requisite awe.
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