Why not a single existence is “ordinary” and why that matters

By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. This post that appeared two years ago in NRL News Today remains one of my favorites for the simple reason the lecture  discussed in this story touched my head and my heart in a genuinely profound way.

Last night our youngest daughter invited  my wife, Lisa, and me to a lecture delivered by Anthony Doerr, the novelist whose New York Times bestseller All the Light We Cannot See Louisa had read but we hadn’t. 

Doerr is a brilliantly accomplished story-teller, in books or in person. He charmed the packed audience which (judging by the caliber of the questions) was comprised of serious readers who’d read All the Light We Cannot See very carefully and with insight.

Doerr joked about how, when he won the Pulitzer for his latest book, he would get calls from reporters asking him to summarize an immensely long [531 pages] and very complicated story which comes packed with flashbacks, in 30 seconds or less. 

In that all-too-brief vein, here’s Carmen Callil’s summary from The Guardian:

All the Light We Cannot See follows two children whose fates are entwined by the second world war. One, a French girl named Marie-Laure, is blind. The other, a German boy named Werner, is a whiz with radios. Without giving much away, these complementary qualities lead them on a clear path towards each other. The novel has been praised in, among other publications, the Guardian as a “page-turner.

In fact, according to my daughter and multiple rewards I read and Doerr’s dazzling presentation last night, All the Light We Cannot See raises moral issues of the most profound kind to which this snippet could not possibly do justice. 

To understand one of the many metaphors, we need to know about a kind of cheap radio Hitler’s propaganda chief developed to spread the Nazi message of hate and “Aryan” superiority. For our purposes, the point is that the radios [Volksempfänger ]were built in a manner that the listener could not tune in foreign broadcasts. 

Getting around that built-in defect–and what happens because of it– is a central plot in the book.

For our purposes, let me make two points. 

First, I am not by any stretch of the imagination comparing what comes out of most of our mainstream media on the abortion issue with Joseph Goebbels’ savagery. That would be just stupid. Besides pro-lifers were/are never forbidden from listening to “foreign broadcasts.”

What I am saying is that once upon a time, there was no NRL News or NRL News Today or any of the many other fine pro-life news outlets, nor the vast communication network we all use to reach people around the world . 

What the average person heard about unborn babies back then was drivel and dangerously dehumanizing. 

Today virtually everyone–not just confirmed pro-lifers–have access to the truth about the marvelous prenatal journey each of us takes as a developing human being.

Second, Doerr referenced a passage from the work of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska which clearly meant a great deal to him. It comes from Ms. Szymborska’s December 7, 1996, Nobel Lecture, “The Poet and the World.”

The passage comes near the end where she is meditating on how “astonishing” the world is:

But “astonishing” is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We’re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we’ve grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn’t based on comparison with something else.

Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events” … But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.

You already see where I’m going with this. You don’t be a poet, let alone a Nobel-prize winner, to be awed by the knowledge that everyone’s existence is singular. 

Everyone, born and unborn, is unique. There is nothing “usual”–in the sense of being commonplace or lacking in significance–in the tiniest unborn child or the oldest woman in a nursing home. That is “the light” that many cannot see.

Nothing–absolutely nothing–more fundamentally separates pro-lifers from pro-abortionists than this foundational principle. Why? Simply because if we are essentially indistinguishable; if we are like mass-produced widgets with no overriding moral worth, then our lives are forever on the chopping block.

It’s late Tuesday afternoon, and when I get home tonight I will have to put away the remote and dig into All the Light We Cannot See

That is, if I can wrestle it away from Lisa.

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