Thursday, March 31, 2005

Include Me Out

I've tried to avoid writing anything about the Terri Schiavo case because I feel that to do so is to invade the privacy of strangers. Beyond that, I find that no matter what I have written on the subject, I've managed to betray or misrepresent myself.

Now, Robert M. Jeffers has coaxed me into taking the plunge, by questioning whether one should assert that Ms. Schiavo's parents have forfeited their claims to our sympathy.

It's good timing. I actually said yesterday - for the first and only time - that I'd lost all sympathy with her parents. It wasn't really true, though, and I felt uncomfortable saying it. I've also argued - just as uncomfortably - that whatever made her an individual personality is completely gone. And although I think this is very probably true, to assert it without reservation is to betray feelings I'd prefer to rely on whether they're correct or not.

So far, the easiest way to resolve my mixed emotions has been to remind myself that the case is absolutely none of my business, except to the extent that it's been exploited and lied about by Republican jackals. And the question there is not whether there's some spark of being in Ms. Schiavo that's worthy of respect and protection - her husband and parents agree on that point, in their own ways - but whether a pack of dishonest, callous, hypocritical politicians has the legal or ethical or scientific standing to address the question in public or private.

So why did I say her parents had lost my sympathy? Part of it was mere aggrieved coarseness. There may be a few people out there who haven't been coarsened or hardened or made more prone to intolerance by the emotional discomforts of life in George W. Bush's America. But most of us, I fear, are stupefied by anger and grief a good deal of the time, and aren't as patient or intelligent as we might be.

When I was younger, I was instantly and often inconveniently empathic, even with "enemies"; nowadays, it often takes a bit of effort to put myself in other people's shoes. It may be more evidence that I've hardened, or it may be that I've stopped taking such feelings seriously, except in cases where they lead to worthwhile action. It's easy to feel - and to prattle about - connectedness and empathy, but language is no proof of anything that really matters. In cases where action is either impossible or unjustifiable, it seems like sheer narcissism to harp on how finely tuned one's sensibilities are.

And sometimes, sad to say, it's easy to take the path of least resistance. Otherwise, you have to figure out what you feel, and then you have to consider whether you can put it into words worth saying, and finally you have to wonder whether people will be willing or able to accept it, whether you express it clearly or not. Generally, I find it more bearable to be understood when I express something that I don't entirely believe, than to be misunderstood when I express something I believe passionately. This makes me prone to indirect or distancing language on the one hand, and overstatement on the other (for those who haven't noticed).

Anyway, whatever I think of the political aspects of this case - and the truth is that no act of political opportunism has ever shocked me more deeply - I think Ms. Schiavo's parents and her husband are both right, on a certain essential level. I marvel at the loyalty this woman has inspired: I marvel at her parents' unwillingness to let her go, and her husband's unwillingness to walk away from a situation that is painful - and now, dangerous - beyond all reckoning, in order to fulfill what he sees as his duty to her. Legally and medically speaking, Mr. Schiavo is clearly far more right than the parents are, given our current understanding of medicine and law. And to the extent the Schindlers have allied themselves with people who are demonstrably evil, I have to conclude that they're morally wrong, too. But one is certainly obliged to feel compassion for people who have been so warped by pain.

My mother, by the way, died five years ago today, partially because I gave up hope of saving her and had her life-support removed. Hers was an exceptionally ugly death...not in its specific physical details - though those were certainly unpleasant - but in her unwillingness to be reconciled to it. If nothing else, I learned from her last days to loathe the idiocy of Dylan Thomas's exhortation to "rage against the dying of the light." My mother raged and raged, and it resulted in nothing but unnecessary distance and irresolvable pain for all concerned.

These things happen, unfortunately. It was all very difficult, but for the most part it was also very private, as such things should be. The political ugliness of the Schiavo case is a very real issue, but that doesn't mean that everyone who's offended by it is competent to discuss the intimate emotional details of the relationships at the heart of the matter. The proper response to the ugliness of this situation is not to demonize the Schindlers, but to reiterate that this case is completely outside the jurisdiction of the court of public opinion.

(NOTE: In case it's not obvious, I wrote this before Ms. Schiavo's death, but was unable to post it.)


Anonymous said...

Phila, your post was quite moving. These situations are always painful. I went through it with my mother, who after a debilitating stroke, suffered from many medical problems throughout a ten month period. She was totally depressed and wanted to die. Fortunately she had a living will, and she had a doctor who was a compassionate caregiver. Each time she went to the emergency room, I had to remind the staff that she had a living will on file, and sometimes was rewarded with a dirty look. Thank God this was a private experience between our family, the doctor, and a clergyman. This is how it should be. I would have been horrified to be in the middle of a circus-like atmosphere, in which the Congress, the governor, the demonstrators, and the press were involved.

I did and do feel sympathy for the Schindlers, but I also feel sympathy for Michael Schiavo and Judge Greer, who have had death threats and are under guard. I am appalled that whole thing got so out of control.
Believe me, this situation stirred up deep feelings in me too.

Phila said...

JB, in case it's not obvious, my sympathies are almost entirely with Michael Schiavo, and with the judges who now face death threats thanks to the Schindlers' ill-advised alliance with the ultra-right. Mr. Schiavo has been amazingly brave and conscientious, while the Schindlers have been...well, reprehensible, by and large. I suppose it goes to show how great suffering reveals existing strengths and flaws in human character.

I actually did have some some strangers interfering in my mother's last days, and that may be one of the reasons why I feel so strongly about the privacy issue. In one instance, I had to threaten to throw someone out a window in order to get her to mind her own business and go away! Some people are little more than vultures, I'm afraid, with a cultivated taste for other people's misery.

Anyway, I think the Schindlers' bad decisions show that they're ultimately their own worst enemies. I just hope their frailties and foolishness don't end up getting people killed.

Wayne Hughes said...

Thank you for writing it. After pointless rage over CNN's webpage photos and the horrible hypocrisy dealt us by the two Bushes, Hastert, Frist, Delay and their minions I haven't had a lot of time for the body of Ms. Shiavo.

I suspect her parents had a bona fide wish, however poorly grounded, to do everything they could for their daughter, and have found themselves victimized. I suspect a good many of the wacko demonstrators whose contorted, irrational faces we've viewed over the last two weeks, are victims themselves, however willingly they put themselves in that postion. There's the judges who were put in an awful postion, but I suppose it's their job. And then there's her husband (and how many pictures of him have we seen?), he's the ultimate victim.

All the angst and all the vicarious vultures could have been avoided had a political element not chosen gladly and wickedly to become involved. And it's not just the Republicans, although they are enormously at fault here; it's the Democrats who engaged and so bizarrely Jesse Jackson who bugged in at the last moment.

That's what I've come up with as a result of what I've witnessed the last few weeks. In the meantime of course, I've hardly taken the chance to think about the woman at the center of it. In part, it's because all the evidence I've seen says her consciousness died more than a decade ago and so it's pointless to worry too much about her. The ones I do worry about are her husband and parents. In a few days, they'll be less than dust in the passing of the thugs who victimized them.

Anonymous said...

I feel compassion for the parents but find them repellent. They said in court that if their daughter were to develop diabetes and subsequent gangrene of the limbs, they would amputate the limbs, and for heart trouble would authorize open-heart surgery--even if she had left instructions to be allowed to die. Gruesome. Like "Johnny Got His Gun," but without the cognition. Horrible people.

Phila said...


I agree with you...the amputation comment was absolutely horrific, and I imagine it steeled Michael Schiavo's resolve considerably.

But again, what I'm trying to get away from is the manufactured adversarial nature of this case. It was never possible for anyone to "win" anything matter who prevailed, the "prize" was something you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Both sides were fighting for their own brand of heartbreak, and both got it in spades.

Anonymous said...

Phila, This was an exceptionally moving post and a powerful intervention in an issue that had long ago become a fight over an idea rather than a person. There still was (may have been? it's not clear how long it had been since she'd been sentient) a person there, and the jugglers outside didn't help the matter. Thanks for putting a human face on it, and for balancing that with your usual sensible take on the circus that had grown up around the matter. Well done.

robin andrea said...

Phila-- This is about the clearest and most thoughtful post I've read on the subject. Thanks for taking the time to write about it so deftly.
I felt some sympathy for both sides, but I agreed entirely with Michael Schiavo's position. I could almost (but not really) understand the Schindler's maniacal reluctance to let their daughter go, in the sense that I've seen other people be that singlemindedly, weirdly, and wildy obsessive. But for the President and Congress to weigh in was an over-reach of such proportion that I could not understand. And somehow I blamed her parents for that. And yes, at the center of it all was a young woman who really died 15 years ago, and is now finally going to be buried.

Ellie Finlay said...

This is a very thoughtful post, Phila, that engages the issue in all its complexity. I'm sorry your mother's death was so difficult. That must have been tearingly difficult for you and your loved ones. And I agree that the Schiavo case was quite simply none of our business.