March 23, 2005
Private grief and public spectacle
I have not posted anything so far on the big story that seems to be consuming the whole country, which is the sad, sad case of Terri Schiavo. This is partly because I intended this blog to be more concerned with reflections on slower-moving themes, and not consist of commentary on current events (which other people have the time to do much better), and partly because I felt that there was nothing that I could say that would add anything of value to the substance of the case. I have no moral or ethical wisdom to offer that would help people decide what should be done with the feeding tube.
But the non-substantive issue that depresses me most about the Schiavo case, and caused me to break my self-imposed silence, is the public circus that it has become. I can completely understand the grief that the immediate members of the family must be experiencing. This is an awful situation and as far as I can see, there is no â€˜rightâ€™ answer to this problem. Whatever the outcome, there is not going to be a victory or a defeat for anyone, and no right or wrong.
While we can try and wrap this event up in big, overarching issues of national importance or see matters of grand principle, at its core it is just the sad story of a family tragedy. As such it is something that the immediate family has to come to terms with, with whatever help and strength that they can get from their close friends, the medical community and, as a last resort, the law. What surprises me that so many people who have little or no connection to the family have got so passionately involved.
I am fortunate that I have never had to make a decision that directly affected the life or death of a human being, especially someone close to me. Making that kind of decision about my much-loved dog caused me so much grief that I donâ€™t even like to speculate about it happening to people that I care about.
I think that it is very risky to predict what one would do if placed in the kind of situation faced by Terri Schiavoâ€™s family. I think none of us really knows until we are actually in that situation, because it is so extreme, so far removed from what we have experienced before, that hypothetical speculations are useless in such cases. I would like to think that, finding myself in such a situation, I would behave bravely, nobly, and selflessly, but I really cannot know in advance. This is why I refrain from judging the people directly involved in the Schiavo case or other cases like that.
I have only sympathy for the members of families who grapple with end-of-life questions for their loved ones. If any friend of mine had to make such a decision, I would simply stand by them and accept whatever decision they made, without urging them on or trying to tell them what to do, because the last thing that grief-stricken people need is gratuitous advice coming at them all the time from all directions. The rest of us should simply be thankful that we do not have to make the kinds of agonizing decisions that they must make.
If Terri Schiavoâ€™s parents were my friends, I would accept their decision in their time of need. If her husband were my friend, I would accept his decision too, even though what he has decided is the opposite of what his parents have decided. The reason for my apparent indecisiveness is because I cannot know what either of them should do since I am not sure that I know what I would do if I were in their shoes. But since neither are my friends, I would just leave them alone to let them work their way through this with their real friends and their doctors, without the intense media scrutiny they are currently experiencing.
I also have nothing but respect for those doctors (and judges and juries) who are required to be involved in such decisions. It cannot be easy to do so and the fact that they have been put in this unpleasant position should make us refrain from criticizing them just because they make decisions with which we do not agree.
In cases like that of Terri Schiavo, there is enough tragedy and sadness to go around without it also becoming a media circus. The best thing we can do may be to just leave the family alone.
The invaluable Juan Cole has a very interesting post on how the mixing of public advocacy with private lives in the Schiavo case has disturbing parallels with cases that have occurred in the Muslim world, where fundamentalist clerics have used that mixing to interfere in the private lives of private citizens. That posting is a must-read.
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