The Value of Life

This is my first draft of an ERW paper that Erich and I have assigned to our students. They will be writing the essay in class this week.  I learned that this is a tough paper to write on-demand, so I am going to advise students to do some prewriting before they sit down to write on Wednesday.  I had about five false starts, which would have been disastrous under timed conditions.  Not totally happy with what I have now, but as I said, it’s an early draft.  There are moments that I like.

The human mind is an extraordinary thing; we have used our minds to discover corners of existence that no other species could.  Take math, for example.  Human beings developed mathematics because we like to know how many, how big, how fast, how wide, how cold…we want to know, and we do.  We know how far away our sun is, and how hot it is at the molten center of our planet.  We teach our babies to count their fingers and their toes (base 10), and we push candles into our cakes to commemorate our trips around the sun.

But when a little child raises their face up to ours to ask how much we love them, the language of mathematics fails us.  Math must then give way to poetry, because we know that love cannot be quantified in the way that we count beads on a string or stars in the sky.  It is a mistake to use the language of math to try and communicate the value of a human life, or to use math to determine its worth.

Amanda Ripley (“What’s a Life Worth?,” 2002) explains that this was the dilemma faced by attorney Kenneth Feinberg in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Mr. Feinberg was charged with the task of working out compensation for the families of the 3000-plus victims of 9/11; using his training in the law, Feinberg relied on a commonly used mathematical formula that was logical, and in its way, coldly fair.  The families of the people who died that day received varying sums of money, based on the victim’s annual income and a few other factors involving Social Security, life insurance, and charity donations.  Although everyone understood intellectually that the money was not intended to replace the life of a loved one, and was only meant to replace lost income (with some pain & suffering compensation thrown in there), the differences in award amounts only served to deepen the emotional pain suffered in an already devastating event.  Forced to stand behind the cruel logic of the legal system, Feinberg “[based] his decision[s] on the law,  just as juries did every day. But…the grieving families could not hear” his explanation, and Feinberg came to realize that he didn’t believe it himself (Feinberg, 4).  Faced with the same grim job in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, but working with a private fund and free of the constraints of the laws governing the 9/11 pay-outs, Feinberg made sure every family got the same amount.

Since the language of mathematics cannot be used to describe the value of life, when writer Roger Ebert faces the slow but steady growth of cancer in his body and writes of death, “I know it is coming, and I do not fear it,” that same human curiosity that wants to know how many, how far, how wide? stops to stare and listen, a little awestruck by the certainty in his tone.  Or when the great innovator Steven Jobs tell us that “all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important,” we find ourselves asking, well, what is truly important?  I know that when it is all said and done, the value of my life won’t be measured by dollars or by the years I have accrued, but what?  What is the measure of a life?

I’m certain that assigning value to life has to be an inside job.  It’s necessarily personal, and grounded in those things that give our life meaning — it’s in the quality of our relationships, and in the contribution we make to the world.  It’s in the way we work for the justice that uplifts the human being, and that clears the way for everyone to realize their human potential.  It’s in sharing our ideas, and moving human evolution forward. Ebert tells us it’s about joy, and that he’s glad that he lived long enough to learn this.  Jobs tells us its about love — loving who we are, loving what we do, and loving the people we surround ourselves with.  And David Foster Wallace reminds us that we create value in this world through “attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad, petty little unsexy ways, every day” (Wallace, “This is Water”).

Our human lives are not only short and tenuous, but when we really think about it, they are unspeakably profound partly because they are so unlikely.  All the forces that had to come together to make us who we are — it boggles the mind.  And yet, here we are.  Every single one of us has a story to tell, and a life that longs to be lived.  The value is in the living — in the making of a life out of the raw stuff we were given, and doing what we can with it — in creating joy, in loving, in giving — not to be measured or quantified, but lived and appreciated every single day that we have.

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