I’d like to write about something other than Terri Schiavo. But I can’t stop thinking about her. Why? Because I am Terri Schiavo. And you are Terri Schiavo. We all are Terri Schiavo.
By which I mean: whoever Terri Schiavo is—body, soul, matter, spirit—each and every person is. This is the root reason why her situation is so compelling and produces so much passion. Whatever will happen to her when she dies is what will happen to you and me when we die.
If Terri is merely a material body, then when her body dies she is gone forever. Since her brain is dead, and the brain is the locus of a person’s consciousness, then Terri may already be gone forever if matter is all she is.
However, if Terri is something more than her body, then that “something”—call it soul—will survive the death of its bodily shell.
As Terri goes, so you and I go. Thus even though the impassioned debate over the removal of her feeding tube is couched in political and religious terms, I believe the fuel that is feeding the fire of this controversy is much more deeply personal. To put it bluntly, it’s that death scares us shitless.
Many people won’t admit that they are scared of dying. I will. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I die. I wish I did. I’d like to be sure that my soul will live on after my body is dead. But I don’t know that this will happen. I just hope that it will.
Most Americans, whether they are conventionally religious or unconventionally spiritual, hope like me that there is more to life than bodily existence. The operative word though is “hope.” It is a fact that every person will die. What occurs after death is in the realm of belief.
At least for now. When you and I take our last breaths, the reality of what lies beyond will be right before us. Or not, if we are not.
Laurel and I have strong feelings about how Terri Schiavo’s situation is being handled by the courts, Congress, and her family. So do lots of others.
When Peggy Noonan rails against the morals of the “pull the plug” people in a Wall Street Journal editorial, my blood starts to boil (metaphorically, thankfully.) When I wrote about religious zealots running amok in this case, a man commented that I was driven by hate for anyone who didn’t share my “secular humanist agenda.”
I’m sorry he felt that way. I don’t hate him. And I don’t hate Peggy Noonan. What I hate, really, is death. Not death per se, but the mystery of what happens after death. This uncertainty creates anxiety in all of us. It is part of the human condition.
People deal with this angst in different ways. Some do their best to not think about death. Others do their best to have faith that God, Jesus, Allah, Buddha-nature, Jehovah, the Tao, something or someone, will take care of them after death. Still others do their best to accept the finality of death as the end of their existence.
Yet irrespective of these best efforts, death will come. When it does, thoughts, beliefs, and acceptances will be swept away in the instant of our passing. To be replaced by: reality. Whatever it is. Afterlife. No life. Semi-life. Meta-life. Whatever, we all are united by that moment which comes to every man and woman: the last earthly moment.
When I watch CNN and see the “Save Terri” crowds standing vigil outside her hospice, I see part of myself. The part that wants to cling to life at any cost, that recognizes how precious is the sense of “me” now inhabiting the body known as Brian.
When I watch Fox News and see Michael Schiavo pleading that his wife be permitted to die with dignity, I also see part of myself. The part that wants to soar as soul above the crude confines of materiality, that recognizes how marvelous is the expanse of the cosmos that lies beyond the little knowledge of reality that I have now.
And when I watch the videos of Terri Schiavo, I see myself most of all. Not part of myself, all of myself. I wonder what I would be—no, will be—when my brain becomes mush, worm food. Will “I” still be there? And where is “there”?
Whatever I will be or won’t be, wherever I will be or won’t be, I feel that Terri Schiavo and I are the same. As are you and me. As are we all. Terri’s enduring gift is that she has brought us closer together. That may not seem to be the case at this moment given all the divisiveness surrounding her bedside.
But I believe, or at least hope, that this will be Terri’s lasting legacy: a greater recognition that we are all Terri Schiavo. That whatever our religious beliefs or lack of beliefs, whatever our political inclinations or lack of inclinations, we are all human beings.
Who will die. One by one, yet also as One.