I am persuaded that the movement to demand that physicians corrupt themselves at the heart by assisting in the suicides of the superannuated is but a reaction of terror before a perceived inhumanity. We who have become the tools of our tools shudder at the last insult to our human nature, that we should be invaded by all the complicated paraphernalia of delay, to breathe our last in a dull white room, with the pitted panels of the drop-ceiling overhead (reckon up the chaos, O man, and count how many marks there are in one square), while the calls to the nurses come and go, and a television blares out the last few minutes of an inane comedy that was never once touched by youth or mirth or the milk of human kindness.
If I, old and dying, mean nothing at all, then let me mean nothing on my own terms. If I am to be swept out of consciousness, then let me ply the broom! But this is no argument. It is a cry of despair.
Such despair is inevitable, if we accept the notion that our humanity depends upon what we can do, rather than upon what we are. For the knees will creak, and the hands tremble, and the mind wander; and, whether for but a moment or for a year, we will be as helpless (though not as beautiful) as a newborn child, that most useless of creatures, who can do nothing but search for nourishment and love.
Then let us not try to fight unmeaning with unmeaning. Let us look again at the special beauty of being human, a beauty that is especially poignant in the child, the elderly, the unborn, and the dying.
One day the young poet William Wordsworth looked out upon the road and saw a figure from his childhood, a certain old man who trudged along the Cumberland roads, to beg from the villagers in their modest cottages. He stopped at a ledge at the bottom of a steep hill, placed there to help men remount their horses, and, taking his treasures from his bag,
He sat, and ate his food in solitude:
And ever, scattered from his palsied hand,
That, still attempting to prevent the waste,
Was baffled still, the crumbs in little showers
Fell on the ground; and the small mountain birds,
Not venturing yet to peck their destined meal,
Approached within the length of half his staff.
Such is the drama of the old man’s day. Wordsworth grants himself a gentle smile at the fellow, who doesn’t want to lose any of the bread he eats, but loses a little bit anyway, and who is so harmless that the small and timid birds manage to come within two feet of him, this mysterious creature, this man. We don’t know what is going on in the man’s mind. Wordsworth doesn’t allow himself that sentimentality. Whatever it may be, he is a part of both the natural world and the human village. There is a communion of sorts between him and the sparrows, he the more precious of that breed, and a communion between him and his fellow men.
For people are moved by him. Again, Wordsworth is not appealing to easy sentiment, but to action—the action of human souls. The sauntering horseman does not toss the beggar a coin, but stops, to make sure the alms are lodged safely in the man’s hat, and then, upon leaving him, “watches the aged Beggar with a look / Sidelong, and half reverted.” The exchange is not financial but human. The woman at the turnpike, when she sees him coming, leaves her booth and lifts up the latch for him to pass. The post-boy, harried with business, shouts to him from behind, but if the old man doesn’t hear, the boy slows down his horses and passes him on the roadside, “without a curse / Upon his lips, or anger at his heart.”
If the old man cannot earn his keep, can he at least behold with a full heart the beauty of the world around him? If we should insist upon it, then that, too, would reduce him to an object of utility. No, the man is so stooped, his eyes travel the ground at the same slow pace of his walk. He seems, quite literally, to make no mark on the world, as the world seems to make no mark on him:
His staff trails with him; scarcely do his feet
Disturb the summer dust; he is so still
In look and motion, that the cottage curs,
Ere he has passed the door, will turn away,
Weary of barking at him. Boys and girls,
The vacant and the busy, maids and youths,
And urchins newly breeched—all pass him by:
Him even the slow-paced wagon leaves behind.
What good is such a life?
Here Wordsworth turns with a glare at those who reduce “good” to utility, and utility to those economic speckles that can be counted up:
But deem not this Man useless.—Statesmen! Ye
Who are so restless in your wisdom, ye
Who have a broom still ready in your hands
To rid the world of nuisances; ye proud,
Heart-swoln, while in your pride ye contemplate
Your talents, power, or wisdom, deem him not
A burthen of the earth!
What nuisances, one might ask? The poor, whose souls we kill, while keeping their bodies well fed and at a comfortable distance? The simple, who shatter our dreams of Harvard, and whose habits embarrass us? The dying, who remind us of our mortality? The unborn, for whose little lives we are personally responsible? What good are these? But the goodness of being, the poet affirms, is absolute. All things partake of it, even the meanest creatures that creep on the earth; far more, then, does man, no matter how lowly. We cannot scorn that Beggar, unaccommodated Man, “without offence to God.”
But there is more. The old man is not only an object of charity. He is a living memorial to that kindness. He endows it with a human face—what no detachedly benign philanthropic system can do; and so connects his benefactors with their own better selves long past, and with one another:
While from door to door,
This old Man creeps, the villagers in him
Behold a record which together binds
Past deeds and offices of charity,
Else unremembered, and so keeps alive
The kindly mood in hearts which lapse of years,
And that half-wisdom half-experience gives,
Make slow to feel, and by sure steps resign
To selfishness and cold oblivious cares.
For some few, for the sublime and saintly among us, that beggar may bring them their first glimpse into a world of their own kindred amid sorrow and want; so it is that a Mother Teresa, that most unsentimental of women, will say that the poor, when they are loved, give more than they receive.
One thing they give us is the rare chance to break those fetters that can bind us tighter than sin: the fetters of right living. The Poor Woman of Leon Bloy’s novel, as she lies dying, will say with a heart filled with gratitude that the only tragedy is not to have been a saint. It is no tragedy to have missed out at a partnership in a law firm, or to have let slip one’s “dreams,” whatever those fantasies of power and glory may be. Wordsworth puts the point bluntly: what is there in the “cold abstinence from evil deeds” that can “satisfy the human soul”? A man pays his taxes, does not violate the law in any flagrant way, keeps well away from the marches of evil as mapped out by the latest scientists of ethics, votes for the correct candidates, and sends a check now and again to a distant charity. Does that satisfy the human soul? No more, I say, than a speckled ceiling or the drone of a television, or the false paternity of a government, or any other measure that keeps us conveniently apart from one another and from the good creatures with which we share this world.
For we need to love as well as to be loved:
Man is dear to man; the poorest poor
Long for some moments in a weary life
When they can know and feel that they have been,
Themselves, the fathers and the dealers-out
Of some small blessings; have been kind to such
As needed kindness, for this single cause,
That we have all of us one human heart.
That last line says all that I have been struggling to say here. The medicine for our inhumanity cannot be compounded of inhumanity. We must learn to love again—even to know our neighbors would be a good and toddling beginning. We must learn to love those incomparably useless and precious beings, the child, the elderly, the unborn, and the dying, because they and we are one.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.