Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, April 5, 2010

"Life is Good"

Here is a short essay I did, for Notre Dame Magazine, which tries to connect "Jake" (the stick-figure guy with the smile who's on all the t-shirts), Nick Wolterstorff, and human dignity.  The bumper of my Jeep makes an appearance.  (Sorry for the long excerpt.)  Comments welcome!

I cannot help it — I love “Jake,” the distilled-to-his-essence stick-figure with a wide, winning grin, never-off shades and a disarming, simple message: “Life is good.”

Yes, he’s probably, to put it mildly, a bit overexposed. In fact, he’s everywhere. In airport gift shops and upscale shopping malls, on bumper stickers and backpacks, on doggie Frisbees, gold balls and baby bibs, there’s Jake — deftly managing a sizzling grill, cruising on a mountain bike, relaxing in a hammock, strolling through the woods, strumming a guitar. “Life is good,” he reports through the medium of carefully distressed “vintage” T-shirts. His sure seems to be.

It would be easy, but mistaken, to dismiss Jake as a knock-off of Harvey Ball’s “Have a Nice Day” smiley-face. The latter’s expression is vacant and phony — stoned, maybe — but Jake’s is genuinely happy. The smiley-face is a logo, with no story, plans or dreams, but Jake is the buddy who calls to cajole you into skipping work for a powder-day. “Have a nice day” is a limp, tepid, vague suggestion. “Life is good” is a bold blend of laid-back vibe and affirmation of the cosmos.

Jake is not just a stylized Crocodile Dundee (“No worries!”) or Bobby McFerrin (“Don’t worry, be happy!”), who is relieved to report that things aren’t too bad. He’s no slacker-nihilist, shrugging off what comes with a “Whatever, dude.” No, for Jake, life is Whitmanesque — it is large, it contains multitudes, and he likes it. It is good.

No doubt, Jake’s success is a tribute to lifestyle marketing, but his is more than a “lifestyle” claim. It is, I think, also a theological one, and I like to imagine that he knows it. When God made the world — the “dome in the middle of the waters,” the “two great lights,” the “great sea monsters” and “all kinds of creeping things” — we are told that “He saw how good it was.” Jake invites us to suppose that God’s verdict on bike rides through the backcountry and sausages cooked over fire would be — indeed, that it is — the same. No Manichean darkness here: Jake’s spirituality is joyfully incarnational. His world, like Gerard Manley Hopkins’, is “charged with the grandeur” — the goodness — “of God.”

As a general matter, I am leery of bumper stickers, even ones that tout candidates I support or causes to which I am committed. I would hate to undermine them with a sloppy lane-change, an ill-timed nose-scratch or a long-delayed car wash. My “Life is good” decal, though, seems perfect. It says it all — or, at least, it says a lot — and, really, who could object?

Secret message

To be honest, however, my sticker has a double meaning. As I see it, I’m not only safely throwing in my lot with Jake, and reminding my fellow drivers of the joys to be found in and through guitars, barbeques and hiking boots. I like to think that I am also proposing sneakily what I suppose I am too nervous to proclaim more straightforwardly (on my car, anyway): Every human person is precious and inviolable, every human person has dignity and worth, and every human person — old and young, strong and frail, vulnerable and independent, loved and lonely, innocent and guilty — ought to be welcomed in life and protected by law.

But am I really saying all that? Maybe I’m kidding myself. Sure, I want to think that Jake and his motto make it easier to invite my fellow drivers-citizens to consider and embrace what others’ bumpers say more explicitly, but is it just wishful, self-justifying thinking to imagine that hearts and minds are moved, pervasively and comprehensively, in the pro-life direction by even a contagiously good-natured cartoon-guy’s pro-“life” catch-phrase? And does Jake’s message really capture, or even map onto, what I and so many others mean by “pro-life”?

In his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II challenged all people of good will to take on the “responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life.” Does my display of Jake’s good-natured profession cut it?

Maybe not. The pro-life message, after all, is not — that is, it is not only — that there’s a lot of fun to be had in “life,” that we should hope, look and reach for many pleasant experiences. It’s a call to communion, love and relationship, not just to hedonism. The good news that is the Gospel of Life is not just that not all of the stuff in the universe is inanimate but is instead teeming with metabolism, reproduction, growth and adaptation. It’s amazing and wonderful, certainly, that so much in the world is alive, and only a crank would refuse to marvel at, even revel in, its dynamism.

Still, “to be unconditionally pro-life” would seem to involve more than standing duly impressed before the workings of DNA and photosynthesis. No, the pro-life claim is about us, and not only about the arenas in which we struggle, the contexts through which we move and the stories we construct. It is about the amazing mystery and gift that is the person who lives — and laughs and cries and prays and plays — and not only about the no-doubt impressive facts that cells multiply and neurons fire.

The pro-life proposal, what it is that I want Jake to be saying when he revels in the goodness of life, is that the individual human person — every one — matters. Each person — every one — carries, in C.S. Lewis’ words, the “Weight of Glory.”

“There are no ordinary people,” Lewis insisted; “You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

The claim that every person matters and has worth might seem unremarkable. Perhaps it is one of those “duh” observations that is not even worthy of a bumper sticker, let alone a pop-culture phenomenon like Jake. It is, certainly, the purported premise of the law and morality of human rights and of our American civil religion (“with liberty and justice for all”). But can this claim, this premise, bear the weight we ask it to carry? Is there anything to it? What’s so special about us, actually?

My Notre Dame colleague Tom Shaffer has said that every human person is “infinitely valuable, relentlessly unique, endlessly interesting.” This is true, I’m sure. But what is it, exactly, that makes it true, and not just wishful thinking or a delusion of grandeur?

The great worth

We profess — Jake and I, and the rest of our pro-life friends — that the dying and elderly deserve more, and better, than a chemically hastened, hospital-bed-vacating death, but what makes this true, as opposed to merely squeamish or sentimental?

We affirm that even the commission of the most grave, most horrible crime should not be enough to push the criminal beyond all hope for reconciliation, repentance and relationship, but what saves this affirmation from being so much soft-hearted, excessively expensive fluff?

We insist, flying in the face of a culture that holds out ability and achievement as the criteria for a worthy life, that a severely disabled unborn child is no less welcome, and no less inviolable, than the most gifted protégé, but why isn’t this insistence mere preening or self-indulgence?

“What is man,” the Psalmist asked God, “that thou are mindful of him?” What indeed. After all, he noted, human beings “are but a breath” and “their days are like a passing shadow.” More than a few contemporary philosophers would agree with John Searle, who insists that the world “consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force,” some of which have become organized into “certain higher-level nervous systems.” We are, in other words, electrified sacks of fluid, meat-puppets in particle-clogged space. What is so “good” about that?

It is, to say the least, an unsettling question. We are committed, today, to the morality and language of human rights and human dignity. We believe, in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s words, that “human beings, all of them, are irreducibly precious.” This is true, if a bit wordy for a bumper sticker. But how is it true, and what makes it true?

Many would say that our “reason,” “autonomy” or “capabilities” do the work. We are valuable and inviolable, the arguments go, because of the impressive, inspiring things we do, or at least can do. To be sure, we can do amazing things, we do have characteristics and capacities that set us apart and above so much else that is. But these are not enough. Many of us are broken, disabled, unimpressive; all of us are dependent, vulnerable and incomplete.

The Psalmist, again, gave thanks that he was “fearfully, wonderfully made,” but even a well-designed meat-puppet is, well, just that. Looking through a microscope, one might mistake us for chimps, if not worms. What gives us — what gives life — the great worth that we have and that saves our talk of rights, dignity and the sacred from being so much pretty nonsense?

Remember here the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit. A little boy’s toy becomes, over the years, “old and shabby, but the Boy loved him just as much. He loved him so hard that he loved all his whiskers off, and the pink lining to his ears turned grey, and his brown spots faded. He even began to lose his shape, and he scarcely looked like a rabbit any more, except to the Boy. To him he was always beautiful, and that was all that the little Rabbit cared about.” Eventually the Rabbit is made “Real” by having been loved by the Boy.

In a similar way, Wolterstorff has argued, God’s love for us is what makes it true that we are precious, sacred and have worth. Our dignity is real; it is not just a convenient, reassuring construct. But, it is not achieved, earned or performed. It is freely bestowed and lovingly given. Our human rights do not attach to our own capacities but instead to the “worth bestowed on human beings by that love.”

This is what John Paul II called the “moral truth about the human person,” that the “greatness of human beings is founded precisely in their being creatures of a loving God” and not self-styled authors of their own destiny. That in which we so justifiably take pride is also, and always, a call to humility. Not one of us, in the ways that really count and matter, is self-made, and thank God for that.

Life is good, then, and it is because we love and are loved.

That almost does sound like it could work on a bumper sticker.


Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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