What Is A Life Worth?

Adam Schiff had a great line, and I don’t mean its speaker was the head of the House Intelligence Committee, as formidable a person as he seems to be. I mean the Adam Schiff, played by Steven Hill, who is the District Attorney on “Law and Order”, the procedural NBC crime show produced by Dick Wolf which is still in reruns and to which I am addicted. The fictional Adam Schiff is a cantankerous and world weary sort. A young woman is sentenced to two years in prison for having assisted the suicide of her sick, elderly grandmother. The episode pointed out the ambivalent morality attached to assisted suicide and needed a light note on which to end. The elderly Schiff says “If I knew that I could go to jail for two years and come out twenty-five, I would take it.” As would we all, hands down. There is a lesson here that I have been trying to parse out ever since I first heard that line many years ago.

First of all, the line is not quite right as a metaphor for the human condition. The girl had no choice and she would have turned twenty five anyway. And she was guilty of something and her punishment was being shown to be not all that bad while people in general die not as a punishment, other than in the sense that Adam and Eve had not eaten from the Tree of Life as they had from the Tree of Knowledge, but because it is in the nature of things that all living creatures, all biological creatures, die sooner or later, for reasons that are not all that clear, whether their systems are worn down or because cells lose their ability to reproduce exactly, or whatever. This is an epidemic with a hundred percent death rate, though calling it an “epidemic” is, again, a misnomer, because it isn’t as if we somehow catch death, the grim reaper come calling. Rather, we notice that we age because all living things age and because we begin to notice our infirmities as well as our ever more aged appearances. The situation is so sui generis that no metaphor quite captures it, though Adam Schiff did capture a nuance of the human situation that bears exploration.

In the “Law and Order” universe, people are supposed to be punished for their crimes and to the show’s credit often enough that is not what happens. People who are guilty escape the law or are convicted by a stretch of prosecutorial discretion and innocent people get sent away for a long time. The battle for justice is not simple; whatever might be the ideal is always elusive. So what is the justice, Schiff is asking, in our all being condemned to death and why do some people escape it only because they are still young? It is no more fair for an old person to die than for a young person to emerge from jail hale and hearty.

But once you bring justice rather than inevitability into the discussion, the discussion changes, because we do not usually consider justice as opposed to inevitability, to be a part of death. In my youth, people asked my wise old head why good people like JFK, died young, while bad people, like Stalin, lingered on, and my answer was that I did not know, not mature enough to see this as a false question because whether a person died or not was not related to the state of the person’s soul but to the state of the person’s body. Contemplating mortality led to a profound skepticism, shared by all but the gullible, that human life was valueless, that it didn’t have to do with taking good care of yourself, even if not smoking and keeping trim might help to delay the inevitable, and certainly mortality didn’t have to do with moral purity, even though that is what those old people who live to one hundred are always saying, complimenting themselves on having lived a clean or yoghurt eating life, or having lived to a ripe old age because, like Churchill, they consumed vast quantities of cigars and cognac.

And so what Adam Schiff is counselling is magical thinking, which is to put aside the hard won but usual perception that the individual life in the world has no meaning, just as Darwin makes us understand that the life of a species has no meaning or purpose, only a certain functionality for a few million years or so. And to contemplate, instead, how you could trade in an old life for a new one by somehow getting imprisoned, that become an image of liberation rather than an image of privation. So the reason we do not accept the verdict of death is because we have not been on trial, even though that is the way Dante would have it, each of us undergoing the ordeal of life to show our moral mettle, and many of us found wanting. Rather, we are executed without trial, and that is unfair, or, rather, death is not the sort of thing whereby somebody can be tried or where fairness is an issue. That is what makes Adam Schiff’s joke funny. It points out what cannot be, that death and justice are incommensurable. Also, that the young woman is not put to death but merely serves a sentence that may not interfere very much with her life, and we should all get off that easy.

But press the matter one more time. If death is not a punishment, then what is it other than an opening to the great void in which we will not have any semblance of consciousness, unless, that is, we presume life to have indeed been a kind of test and punishment. Remember that the young woman is in the prime of life, not yet burdened by scars of memory or even, presumably, the actual bodily scars we will all come to if only in that our skin will become what is called in the television commercials “crepey”.

So her going to prison is a minor punishment while our own fates are a major one. Our rehabilitation project occurs either in life or after death, even as it is also a punishment and also a form of incarceration that keeps us out of some metaphysical trouble as might be the case if, as Adam and Eve could, we could unsettle the universe by extending life or otherwise challenging the gods. So we reach over and over for justice as the meaning of death and if that is not it, then we are indeed out of air.

Here is another alternative. Think of death as one of those things that people either do or do not feel like talking about. A disinclination to do so is acceptable. Death drives too deeply into people’s emotions for them to be easily shared except in the “there, there” sense that we all politely acknowledge the suffering of others when they mention the death of their mates or share some memory of their mates when alive. It is also socially acceptable-- which means within the realm of human experience to which we are all heir -- to want to discuss a recent or impending loss with a close friend if only to for a moment relieve the burden by talking about the cause of the burden. The enemy of death, as of so many other things, like despondency or war, is talk, both because it is  the act of living people and because it is in its nature an attempt to make sense of things. Sometimes, in talking to the loved ones of people who are seriously ill or have died, you talk about the character of the sufferer, as if it were a wake and the conversation a eulogy; sometimes you go through details of medical treatment or share stories of things that happened when you were caught in a similar situation; sometimes you talk about ordinary things, like politics or opera, because that makes your talk remind you of ongoing life; sometimes you just make chit-chat or claim only to be checking in, as if that were not the most important thing accomplished by the conversation. Talk brings people together and yet also respects their separations. It is universal and it transcends death, to the extent that is possible, because it is timeless, at least as long as people are around, which is to make of talk what Durkheim made of funeral rituals as ways to appreciate the fact that society outlasts every one of us: they are reminders of what is permanent though invisible about human life. I prefer that to the metaphor of imprisonment.

The problem with the Adam Schiff statement is not that it is inopportune or not nearly funny enough or that it is not the expression of a true longing but that it takes its place as something that can be said about death rather than as an observation of the truth. It has always been the wrong metaphor. The right one is that people go on talking as long as they can so as to place death and so as to be themselves and the rest, after that, is, as Fortinbras says at the end of “Hamlet”, silence. Talk provides at least the appearance of control over death. We can talk about it or decide not to talk about it, leaving its image to our fantasies and nightmares and superstitions, though having to be careful, when talking about it, not to try to eliminate its sting or significance.

So what is a life worth? It is worth talking about because that keeps the person alive at least for a moment in our lives, but that is not enough compensation for the loss of consciousness. “That’s the rub.” It isn’t that we might dream bad things but that there will be no feelings and no thoughts. We will have run into a brick wall and not survived.