Dichotomizing Ourselves to Death
by Kristyn Komarnicki
One of my part-time jobs while in graduate school was caring for a 13-year-old girl who lived with multiple challenges. Her body cramped into permanent disobedience by cerebral palsy, her mind focused to pinhole precision by autism, Erica was completely dependent on others to dress, eat, and move. She was unable to speak, but she smiled often and contagiously and possessed the gift of complete unselfconsciousness.
She was clearly the heart of her busy, exhausted, but totally committed family, a radiant spirit who repaid in joy everything she demanded in terms of her care. Her father was a music professor from France, her mother a Canadian Jew who had abandoned most of her life plans to care for her daughter. Their home was a place of warmth and welcome, of books and music and good wine, and every hired helper quickly became an extended member of the family.
At one of the family’s regular musical soirées, where friends brought their instruments and Erica’s father pulled out the piano bench and filled the room with classical melodies, I sat at the table feeding Erica, delighted to be surrounded by so many fascinating, eccentric, and international guests. From her smile and heartier-than-usual appetite, I surmised that Erica, too, was happy to be in the midst of so much vibrant celebration.
An elderly woman sat down next to me, and her pronounced accent stirred the journalist within me so that within minutes I had learned her story. Born into an educated Jewish family in early 20th-century Vienna, she spoke of the years leading up to the Holocaust, the terror of being targeted for hate, the family’s eventual deportation, and her older sister’s death in Auschwitz. “She had played piano for Queen Elizabeth—she was a great artist—and they killed her, simply because she was a Jew,” she said in a weary voice.
We sat in silence for a moment. Then she turned to me, watching as I fed Erica another spoonful of dinner, and said, “It’s a shame. This wouldn’t happen today. They wouldn’t allow it.” I assumed she was speaking of the Holocaust, but she appeared to be talking about Erica. When I asked her to clarify what she meant by “this,” she gestured toward the girl, saying, “Erica. Her situation. Nowadays we have the option of prenatal screening and abortion, so children like this don’t have to suffer. And it’s such a burden for the family.”
A cold vise suddenly clamped itself around my chest. Could she really be sitting in Erica’s home, observing the affection we shared, the warmth of her smile and flesh, and suggest that she would be better off dead? Had this woman, who had lost her sister to the Nazi conviction that a Jewish life is not worth living, really just said that Erica’s life was not worth living because of her handicaps?
Could she really be sitting in Erica’s home, observing the affection we shared, the warmth of her smile and flesh, and suggest that she would be better off dead?
I have relived that moment many times in my mind, wishing I’d had the sang-froid to make the woman feel the gravity—and the madness—of what she had just said. Instead, I shuddered inwardly, speechless, until someone else at the table diverted her attention.
This remains one of my most potent experiences of the human ability to dichotomize—to call one death a murder and another a mercy, to dichotomize to the point of sheer blindness. We all do it, in one arena and to one extent or another. Sometimes we do it to survive, as do victims of abuse. Sometimes we do it out of ignorance, but for people who believe in revelation, there isn’t much excuse for long-term ignorance. More often, we do it for convenience.
In a world where lies routinely parade as truth, we are encouraged to dichotomize. Women are urged to consider their own life as more valuable than their pre-born children’s, to see the death of another as a new lease on life for themselves. Many “liberals” go to the plate for the poor but completely ignore the rights of society’s most vulnerable members—the unborn. Many “conservatives” vehemently defend the unborn but see no problem with the death penalty. The list of creative dichotomies is as long as the heart is wicked (see Jer. 17:9).
To use a technology metaphor, when we download these lies onto our hard drive, we erase our Manufacturer-issued software. Mother Teresa referred to that software, more commonly known as natural law, when she said, “I am sure that all people know deep down inside that the little child in the mother’s womb is a human being from the moment of conception, created in the image of God to love and to be loved. Let us pray that nobody will be afraid to protect that little child, to help that little child to be born. Jesus said, ‘If you receive a little child in my name, you receive me.’”
Kristyn Komarnicki is director of communications at ESA.