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Choice

BY Simcha Fisher

| Posted 2/28/12 at 8:00 AM

 

You’ve seen that bumper sticker, “Question authority.”  Several generations have internalized the idea that to question authority is a fine and courageous act of freedom, and they are right.

But what they forget is the whole point of asking a question is to find an answer.  Only a fool would hear that answer and continue to crow, “Yes, but I asked a question!”  Questioning is a means to an end, not a self-contained act that has value in itself.

The same is true for choice.  Choice does not have value in itself.  The freedom to choose is a hallmark of liberty, but liberty is for something.  Choice is like the action of sharpening an axe:  after a while, you need to stop sharpening and start chopping wood.

Here’s the terrible part, though:  when we question authority, sometimes we won’t like the answer, even if it’s the right one.  When we have a choice, sometimes all of our options are bad.  What if we have the freedom of choice, but nothing good to choose?  Secular people are not equipped to accept this possibility.  Desperate to find a worldview which redeems their suffering, they elevate choice itself as the highest good.

Here is a nearly unbearable essay from a mother whose child has Tay-Sachs disease.  Read at your own peril this heartbreaking illustration of what happens when the modern mind confronts the problem of pain.  She describes her beloved son Ronan:

Nearly two years old, he is already blind, paralyzed, and increasingly nonresponsive. I expect his death to happen this year, and this week’s seizure only highlighted the fact that it could happen at any moment—while I’m at work, at the hair salon, at the grocery store . . . [N]o person should suffer in this way—daily seizures, blindness, lack of movement, inability to swallow, a devastated brain—with no hope for a cure.

I will not presume to lecture glibly about the preciousness of all human life.  I cannot put myself in this mother’s shoes.  I do recall that the most terrible pain I’ve ever felt is to be helpless when my children are suffering—but my children are all more or less healthy in every way.  If I had a son whose entire life was suffering, and whose experience of the world was contracted so severely as to seem meaningless in every recognizable way, I do not know what my thoughts would be.  Here are the essayist’s thoughts:

I love Ronan, and I believe it would have been an act of love to abort him, knowing that his life would be primarily one of intense suffering, knowing that his neurologically devastated brain made true quality of life—relationships, thoughts, pleasant physical experiences—impossible.

She says, ‘I wake up every morning with my heart breaking, feeling the impending dread of his imminent death.”

My heart shrivels with pity.  Only a saint would be able to live her life and not spend each day weeping in anger and fear.

Naturally, she responds to deep pain with a profound protest:  she was not given a sufficient choice.  She wishes that she could have chosen whether or not to give birth to a son who would suffer and die young.  And so she rages against Rick Santorum, who has said that increased prenatal testing leads to more abortions.  She says,

Prenatal testing provides information, a value-less [i.e. morally neutral] act. I maintain that it is a woman’s right to choose what to do with the information that attaches value and meaning, and that this choice is—and must be—directly related to that individual’s experiences. What’s at stake here is not the issue of testing, but the issue of choice.

But here’s the catch:  she had prenatal testing.  She even consulted genetic counselors before giving birth.  The extensive tests she chose to have did not detect her son’s disability, and so she chose to give birth to him.

Furthermore, she herself has a disability, which the prenatal testing of the day did not detect—and yet she boasts of her satisfaction “with my artificial leg and strong body and big, beautiful, complicated life full of friends and books and meaningful work and sex and all kinds of texture and heaps of subtlety and contradiction”  .

You may think I’m going to point out the insane contradiction in her worldview:  Her mother had no choice but to bear her, and that turned out to be good; she herself exercised choice, and now she’s unhappy.  Her story reads almost like an argument against prenatal testing, because the clear lesson here is that prenatal testing can be a lying s.o.b.  Her worldview is mindblowingly inconsistent; and acknowledging, as the author does, that it is inconsistent does not resolve the problem.

But that’s not what I’m going to talk about.  What makes my hair stand on end is how she applies her personal story to public policy:

Santorum’s ideas advocate a return to that oppressive historical situation where women were punished for having sex, for making any kind of reproductive choice whatsoever, for being women, for being human beings, for making decisions about the course and shape of their lives.

Leave out the specific reference to Santorum, and she is actually absolutely right.  Woman are punished for being human beings.  Not by legislation, not by sexist relgious zealots.  They are punished by Eve.  Women’s predicament is exactly what she describes:  in some situations, they have no choice, and they either suffer or thrive, depending on the whim of biology; or in other situations, they have a choice, and they may or may not be happy with their choice, depending on the whim of fate.

This is not Santorum’s fault.  This is original sin.  This is the country in which we must build our homes:  a forbidding landscape strewn with suffering bodies, terrible choices.

She has had her face pushed against the wall of horror which is mortality.  She does not like the choices presented to her:  either suffer this way, or suffer that way.  What is her answer?  “There ought to be another choice.”  Choice after choice after choice.  The modern person confronts pain and slices it thinner and thinner, hoping to put an end to it.  This does not work.  It simply makes the pain, like a knife, sharper.

Am I implying that to know God is to be happy and contented?  Hell no.  The more we ask questions, the more we realize how small we are in the face of the answers.

But here is the folly of the modern American faced with ethical torment:  they think there is someone to blame.  It’s the Republicans’ fault!  It’s the pro-lifers’ fault!  It’s the tyranny of the Church, or the oppression of institutionalized sexism!

No.  It’s original sin that they don’t like.  Is it oppressive?  Hell yes.  Is it unfair?  Hell yes.  Is it inescapable?  Hell yes.  Sooner or later, all of us are faced with the crushing unfairness of life, and presented with a cleft landscape:  suffering on one side, suffering on the other.  God willing, when it’s my time, I’ll know enough to beg Him to make the choice for me.  Without God, our only option is to dive straight into the crevasse—too look into Hell, and to say to it, “Yes.”

We make our choice.