What is a life worth living? What life is worthwhile? What life is one which is well-lived? What is a well-lived life? What is a life of value? A cursory inquiry into such questions may result in an immediate dismissal of such questions as being redundant; insufficiently dissimilar to provoke claims of conceptual differentiation between each; or merely useless philosophical exercises with pretensions of profundities. How do we make such judgments and value-laden conclusions, without a defined criteria by which to apply? Can one make a preliminary determination, or can the question only be answered in the twilight of one’s life?
So, one must consider the Judys of this world; are there saints; is she a saint; is the concept of ‘goodness’ at all meaningful within a world where God no longer maintains a relevant presence? What does it mean to be “good” anymore? And, even if there is a consensus that a person is “good”, is such a characterization meaningful? Without a Platonic Form, or a transcendent conceptualization of the “Good”, it becomes mere trite; to be “good” is a relative term of meaninglessness without a contextual absolute to render it some meaning. Is Judy a faithful servant, such that at the end of her life, one would say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” or is she a failure by society’s standards?
Colleen loved her sister. It was an uncomplicated love; there are human beings placed into the world for specific reasons; or, perhaps one may generalize and say that all human beings are placed into the world for a reason; but the problem with this latter statement is that it trivializes the teleological uniqueness of the specificity of reasons, by applying to all, thereby diminishing the special sense of the individual.
From a very early age, Colleen was subjected to a battery of psychological tests. Her worth and humanity were questioned, evaluated, interpreted, and ultimately condemned by esoteric assignations of medical terms which pigeonholed her for life. She would never reach a level of intellectual functionality greater than the first grade – 2nd grade, at best. Her worth in society thereby determined, she nonetheless remained happy, oblivious to the professional condemnation which she had received; sentenced to a label which minimized her humanity; she was forever “less than”, “she won’t be able to”, “she is capable of only that which…”, rather than the natural focus which should have been upon her limitless potentiality; for that is what we do: God forms man with inherent talents which make up the essence of man; man in the modern age designates labels; and so Colleen’s mother and father, who brought her into this world with dreams and hopes and projections of limitless potentiality, were resigned to accept the dehumanization of their first-born; to give up their greatest joy: of dreaming. For who were they but simple people in the face of such credentialed and learned labels? How could they not accept the condemnatory sentences by such eminent scholars of this school called ‘psychology’?
Joy is a peculiar human emotion. One would think that there would be a proportional correlation between quantitative accumulation of wealth – of knowledge, of money, of fame, of __ (the Reader may fill in the blank with multiple and divergent nouns), and qualitative state of joy. But of course the human experience we encounter daily defies such a correlation; but Colleen was truly a person of joy. Now, let us not be condescending about Colleen by trying to argue and state that she, being intellectually disabled, was “pure joy to be around”. No – she could be difficult, and to try and attempt to paint a picture that Colleen was an angel would be a disservice.
Colleen, frozen at an intellectual level of a 6 year old, could also act as a 6 year old; throwing tantrums; crying with great emotional instability; stubbornly refusing to listen by placing her hands over her ears and shaking her head, screaming, “No! No! No!” Nevertheless, joy was the defining qualitative essence of her character. She smiled more often than not (how many people does the Reader know, who we can describe in that manner?) And, perhaps because she was looked upon as the big sister to Judy, and Judy had a memory of a kind, loving, and protective big sister prior to being labeled as somehow deficient, that for Judy, Colleen was the sister who, on summer nights when the crickets played their violins in concert with the brief relief of the morning dew, a giggle would suddenly befall the quiet dark, and would gain momentum, and infect the room with such overwhelming joy that the first gurgles of involuntary giggles would scratch the back of Judy’s throat, until within minutes, the room would explode with a string of giggles; and suddenly the violin of crickets would stop; for they knew that they could not compete with the bonded sisters in this time of love. Yes, Judy and Colleen were sisters who cared for each other; they were brought into the world as sisters; they were brought into the world in succession, the older in years followed by the younger; then the older to become younger than the little sister, as the latter quickly surpassed her in intellect, but never in progression of their linear historicity.
Judy was to Colleen the world of consistency, security, and familiarity – all qualities of boundaries and constraint which provided for her joy of life. It was not that Judy was never mean or short with Colleen, for of course she could be; but Colleen never remembered anything about her sister, but that she was always there; always there to take care of her; to provide for her; to tell her that she loved her. The younger sister, who became the older sister, who lived – according to the labeled assignation of professionals who are supposed to know such things – with limited and restrictive human apparatus to survive in this Darwinian world; would remember only that her sister Judy was there, in her presence, in her memory, in her limited intellect; Judy would always be there for Colleen. For to Colleen, in the universe of her humanity, the very essence and structure of her world were constituted by the presence of her sister Judy. Her joy and happiness; her very self-identity, was created and maintained by being with Judy. When Judy was gone to work at the ‘pancake place’, Colleen waited patiently, following the strict routine and rules set down by her sister. If Colleen wandered from that routine – and Judy always seemed to find out and admonish her with an alarm in her voice – an alarm which said to Colleen, My sister is unhappy with me; but always with love, with that human emotion of love; no, it is not merely human; it is of God. And when Judy returned, Oh,
but with what bubbling joy would overwhelm Colleen; for it meant that her universe had the consistency of the one presence which provided the structure of her limited universe. And that structure was her sister Judy. For Judy was her world; she was her universe; she was her joy.
Judy would give up all of her dreams. Early on, her teachers described her as “exceptionally talented”; she would go far; she possessed “vast, limitless potential”; and then the assignation of labels was performed; now, to be fair, mother and father never expected Judy to give up her dreams. For, would that not be a crime? The humanity of one sister was minimized; would the humanity of the other also be diminished by the burden of one sister upon another? Would that not be unfair? Better to allow for that vast, limitless potential to succeed, to have the opportunities to have actualized, than to burden it with the care of one who would never reach the heights of worth which society determined. Yet, it was Judy who determined to take care of Colleen; to embrace the unspoken “family obligation”; to take the “burden of her sister”; to “bear the cross” that life had given to her. And when mom and dad suddenly died, it was not as if the burden became heavier; as contrary to what one might think, it was as if the burden became lighter; but of course Judy was greatly saddened by their deaths; she was crushed beyond understanding. For Colleen, there was sadness, too; but that sadness was interdependent with and upon Judy’s sadness; for as the Reader has already seen, the universe of Colleen was intimately connected with the humanity of Judy; and if Judy was sad, then Colleen was sad. But sadness, though it may consume some, must be set aside in deliberative fashion when necessity dictates such will to survive; and for Judy, the threat upon Colleen’s universe required that she dismantle the structure of her present sadness, and focus upon re-structuring and securing the joy of her sister’s life: Colleen was not a burden; Colleen was the purpose for which to sacrifice one’s life, in order to gain another. Her life was not in any way diminished. Yes, others would shake their heads and say, “Isn’t it sad that…” or “The two of ’em wouldn’t have amounted to much, nohow.”
So Judy gave up her dreams; she gave up her potential careers; she gave up the quantitative worth of her humanity.
But what of the qualitative worth?
And so we shall endeavor to answer each of the questions posed at the beginning of this story:
What is a life worth living? It is a life measured by the vastness of a sacrifice.
What life is worthwhile? It is a life defined by the essence of love.
What life is one which is well-lived? It is a life which is lived without fame, but which impacts the world, whether the concept of ‘world’ be limited by the cognitive world of a single individual, or of the greater world of vast populations.
What is a well-lived life? It is a life which brings joy to another.
What is a life of value? A life of value is a life of sacrifice.
For, is that not the life as lived by Jesus Christ?
See also: In a Small Town, Last Part V