What is a human life worth?

What good am I if I’m like all the rest,
If I just turned away, when I see how you’re dressed,
If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry,
What good am I?
Bob Dylan

I’m eating lunch in a Subway (Why? Because I work in a land of strip malls, so it’s either McDonald’s, Subway, or the dry cleaners. Not too many choices for a vegetarian.) and they’re playing “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.”

All I can think is that what I’d like is to tape that kid’s mouth shut. But then I think of how cute 3B is with his two tiny, razor-sharp teeth, and I think that I’m pretty Grinchy for wanting to tape some kid’s mouth shut. But then I remember that shrill voice, and that it’s some adult making himself sound like a grating pipsqueak, and I’m back to wishing for a roll of packing tape from Santa.

So it’s that time of year, when everyone’s wishing for something, like front teeth or packing tape, and trying to see into the upcoming year and reflecting back on the past year and what I really want for this upcoming year is to figure out how to need less. I try hard to need less throughout the year, but sometimes my inner gear geek gets the best of me. Sometimes I’ll assuage my guilt by giving to those who need items like clean water, food, or an education that are worth more than whatever geek toy I want. This year, with all of our attention focused on 3B’s first holiday season, it’s been easy to ignore any needs that I had, although I have to admit that we didn’t get 3B anything for Christmas day, figuring that his new Casino Royale was our pre-Christmakwanzukkah gift to him, that everyone else would shower him with gifts (which they did), and that all he would really want is some shiny paper to play with anyway.

What good am I if I know and don’t do,
If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you,
If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin’ sky,
What good am I?
–ibid.

Also, Mama and I decided early on that we weren’t going to buy anything for each other, partly because we were too far behind to confront the prospect of more shopping and partly, I believe, because we’re both too emotionally drained by what the end of this year has become to shop for each other with as much enthusiasm as we would like to. Neither of us wants shopping for the other one to be a chore. Perhaps it’s because we’re so emotionally strung out that small things started to have larger than usual effects on us, like the photo on the Sunday NYTimes front page a few weeks back of a girl who is roughly 3B’s age crawling through an abandoned village. She was left behind when her parents, along with the entire population of her village, fled approaching aid vehicles, fearing that they were the local militia, come to kill them.

I can’t imagine the abject fear that would allow me to, for even a second, leave 3B anywhere to fend for himself, much less fend for himself against a marauding militia. Honestly, I couldn’t even look at the picture after reading the article, because it just made me cry–for the girl, for all the children like her whose parents never return, for our good fortune that 3B is (knock on wood) healthy and happy, for her parents, and honestly, out of total futility. I knew everything I could about her situation, but I was powerless to help her.

What good am I while you softly weep
And I hear in my head what you say in your sleep,
And I freeze in the moment like the rest who don’t try,
What good am I?
–ibid.

As it is wont to do, serendipity struck and we immediately found the charity that we’re donating to as our gift to each other that is trying to spread a solution to problems like this, particularly problems that girls face. (Read more about them.) But the next question was, How much should we give? Just in time, came this article in the NYTimes magazine, by one of Mama’s favorite philosophers. The first sentence gets right to the point, asking, “What is a human life worth?”

What good am I then to others and me
If I’ve had every chance and yet still fail to see
If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been
–ibid.

As a new parent and one who strives for compassion for all those who I share this world with (something that I generally fail at a few times a day–you know, it would be easier to be compassionate for everyone if nobody would cut me off when I’m driving to work), my inclination is to respond that a human life is worth whatever it takes to save it. But if you look at my actions, that’s not entirely true, as the article makes clear, because I’m not giving whatever I can to save lives. But what about 3B? Or Mama? Wouldn’t I give anything to save them? Yes, yes I would, without even thinking about it. And does that make their lives more valuable than the life of that little girl, abandoned in her village to face a marauding militia on her own?

What good am I if I say foolish things
And I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings
And I just turn my back while you silently die,
What good am I?
–ibid.

If I don’t give anything to save that girl, then yes, I’m saying, through my actions, that some lives are more valuable than others. But how should we define “anything” in this context?

How about you, dear six loyal readers–

  • Do you feel this conflict?
  • If so, how do you resolve it?
  • If you don’t resolve it, how does that affect you?

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  • I resolve it by donating a portion of my salary every month (World Vision and my parents’ charity are my change-the-world charities of choice. I support the local charities that focus on helping young mothers and street kids)and by praying. What else CAN we do?

    I wrote a post about this a few months ago after watching ‘The Constant Gardener’.

    Would that every person with means was willing to face this conflict and to resolve to do something to help.

  • I think the biggest problem is that humans were meant to live in small groups. We live in monster cities. And the media has moved all those cities closer together. I think the best thing we can do is take care of our small group (our 3Bs and Mamas) and try to elect people to represent us who will help others where we can’t.

    Because I fear I’ll get more involved in what’s going on over there and I’ll neglect what’s going on in my family.

    It’s the only way I can justify it.

    And thank you for writing about it. We need to be reminded as often as possible how lucky we all are.

  • What’s one life worth? What’s Saddam Hussein’s life worth? What’s an unnamed toddler’s life worth? What if George Washington had decided to devote his life to running an orphanage instead of leading an army and killing people?

    As we hike up the mountain, some forge ahead and scout the trail, inventing space stations and AIDS cures and Eiffel Towers and Mona Lisas. Some trudge along with the pack. Some keep to the back, reaching a helping hand to those who are having trouble clambering along. (Some do all three.) It takes all of us. If Bob Dylan doesn’t give his coat to a guy shivering on the sidewalk in the cold, would you really say the guy who wrote “Hattie Carroll” was worthless?

    Who am I to decide which lives should be saved? Which ones of us should drop what we do for a living and go devote our lives to saving more lives? Does that make us more valuable? Would you take food from 3B to give it to someone you don’t know? Is it enough to save a life? How much should you give up to make someone else’s life better?

    Of course it’s good to help others. But I’m not going to judge who should be more generous and who’s already giving all they can. My mind won’t wrap itself around that arithmetic. (The right and left hand should be ignoring each other anyhow, right?) Somewhere in the Bible it says to trust your heart; you are the best judge of whether what you’re doing is right.

    Or I could quote Bob Dylan and say “All you can do is do what you must.”

    We can all work and hope for better seasons ahead. Here’s to peace and love for all in the coming year.

  • I’m with L.A. Daddy in that I think we’re overwhelmed by the size of our cities and cultures. I love to read the NY Times, but then I find myself becoming both desensitized and hopeless when faced with world events.

    I’m also cynical that donating to charity does any real good, and I feel paralyzed by the attempt to choose where to donate.

    If I do choose to do something charitable, it’s usually doing something, not donating money. I’ve knitted winter caps for a local homeless advocate, for example.

    At this point I feel that the best thing I can do for the world is raising my children the best I can, and by making choices in my own behavior like consuming less, eating organic, etc. Maybe that’s ignoring the plight of others, but it’s what I feel capable of right now.