Thursday, July 21, 2005


If you kill one life, you kill the whole of humanity.

That's what somebody said on CNN the other day, quoting the Koran, I believe, explaining that every true, bona fide Muslim knows this. Me, not being a true, bona fide Muslim, was not aware of that quote -- but it's one that I like, and it's one that I've heard before, in various variations and echoes.

Dr.Beat Richner, otherwise known as 'Beatocello', is a Swiss doctor who founded and runs a hospital in Siem Reap, Cambodia. (See for more details.) Every Friday and Saturday night, all year long, he plays the cello for groups of tourists, hoping for their attention and their cash. The attention for his performance, and their cash for his hospital. When I watched him play last fall, he answered his critics who wondered what the point of the whole enterprise was, given the enormity of people suffering in Cambodia, given the fact that he couldn't possibly save everyone.

"We only get one life," he said. "So to the person whose life you are saving, you are saving life itself." (Or words to that effect.)

Something about the brevity and simiplicity of that statement stuck with me. I see it and feel it everywhere, in places I would not expect. A child shitting in the streets. An old woman begging for change. A bored cop, asking for money. These are all individual lives that, cumulatively, form a society, a world, a universe. If one of them dies, the world does not die. But when one of them dies, a portion of life, a fragment of life, is extinguished.

It's like that other Buddhist quote I like: "Your life is not your own -- it can be taken from you at any time." The drunk driver you don't see. The pop can you trip over. The shot to the stomach from a robber's pistol. We can only control so much. We can safeguard so little. In the end, the life that we wield for ourselves can very easily be stolen and shattered by a stranger.

I used to think of death as an actual, tangible force. Part of the reason why I was so fascinated by the movie Flatliners as a kid was because the characters were able to taste death, taunt death, enter into its realm. What is death like? I wondered. What is death's structure and density? I didn't see death as heaven or hell, but as a place all unto itself -- something akin to purgatory, I suppose.

Now, I think differently. I see death as the absence of life. Plain and simple.

But --

Is life the absence of death?

That's debatable, I suppose. Two sides of the same coin. We cannot have a concept of life unless we have a concept of death, and vice versa. But I believe that we get so caught up in life that we sometimes take it for granted. We fetishize it, even. We buy this and that, go here and there, diss him and praise her. It's what we do.

But every Friday and Saturday night, a portly, saintly man stands on stage and plays his cello and asks for money, because at his hospital, every day, death is postponed, and death is embraced, and life, for what it's worth, is not taken for granted. Lives are elongated, and lives are let go. Life is played out in extreme measures all day long.

A child opens her eyes. The pain is gone! A child closes her eyes. The pain is gone. To the child whose eyes open, life itself continues. To the child whose eyes close, life itself, in this realm, fades away.

You save one person, you save the world entire. Somebody else said that, too. (Mandela, maybe? Kofi Annan? Gotta be Shore, I think. Gotta be Pauly.) You kill a single person, the world dies. You save a single person, the world is rescued. Captain Kirk and his crew knew that, right? He sacrificed his whole career, his whole life, for the mere possibility that Spock could come back from the dead. (See Stark Trek III: The Search For Spock for more details.)

As a kid, that blew me away, that selflessness. At the same time, it struck me as perfectly natural. Spock was his friend; Spock was in trouble. Ipso facto, you do what you have to do.

All we have in this life is life itself, and that translates to people. Life. Is. People. The person sitting next to us on the bus, and the teacher at the front of the room, and the boss who scratches his balls when he thinks noone's looking. That's it. We are life personified and they are life, too, in the flesh, every last one of them, like it or not. Not participants in life, and not players in life, but life. Period.

You don't have to stand on a stage and play the cello for them, or children you don't know, or refuguees you'll never meet. You don't even have to like them. (In fact, if you did like your boss who scratches his balls, I'd be worried about you. Especially if your boss is a woman.) But, if ever given the chance, you have to keep them here, these people, or at least try to. We endure to help others endure. I think we're all here to keep us all here.


Anonymous said...

Pretty good mate.
Little bit too dramatic, but pretty good.

Scott said...

Thanks. Actually, those exact words would be a perfect fit on my tombstone, come to think of it...

Christa said...

Hi Scott-thanks for stopping by my blog and giving me some advice about my blunder! When reading what you write and think about mortality I have to wonder how I could be so self-absorbed sometimes. I know it's what we do, and I do remind myself often of what other things are going on in the world and how small I am and my problems or issues are. I have only read your two most recent posts, but I am intrigued and will keep reading backwards to learn more about you and what you are doing in Asia.

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