In case you somehow didn’t hear, Antonin Scalia died last Saturday. Scalia was a staunchly conservative Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, arguably the core of the conservative justices of the court. His death leaves a gaping vacuum on the bench, and it brings heightened political tensions to an election where, honestly, I wasn’t sure there was greater tension to be had. But I’m not here to write about Scalia, not directly anyway.
When news of Scalia’s death broke, I was at home in the midst of an impromptu dinner party. Jarod and I had a long break between performances, and we’d invited many of our fellow performers to our house, where I promised to provide spaghetti and meat sauce if they managed everything else. As I was about to sit down at the table, I saw a news blip on my phone: “U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia found dead at West Texas ranch.” Holy shit. Antonin Scalia, writer of page after page decrying my most dearly held values as immoral, unAmerican, unworthy: dead. With a year left in an Obama presidency, and terribly important cases now awaiting the judgment of a very different Supreme Court.
In the car back to the theater, Jarod told me that it was the first time he’d ever seen me happy at someone’s death. I was chagrined. Actually, ‘chagrined’ isn’t accurate. It’s the word we typically use for this experience, but it’s too mild. I was horrified, because he was right: my immediate response was elation, and I hadn’t even consciously noted it until I got called on it.
I look at the natural world, and I see a constant exchange of life and death. And I mean this not in the abstract-Lion King-Circle of Life way, but in a very direct and visceral way: animals kill other animals and eat them. Animals kill plants in their eating. Plants crowd out each other in a mad rush for the sun, and the losers wither away. Insects kill and maim organisms high and low in an inventive panoply of ways. And that barely scrapes the surface; death is a constant. Far from becoming trivialized, however, death’s ubiquity drives home its enormity. Death is the inexorable partner of life, the counterweight to a vital struggle to live. It is to be respected but not denied. I hope that I’ll approach my own death, if I see it coming, with grace and acceptance.
But as much as it’s a normal occurrence, death is also a harrowing one: families and friends left grieving, a human life brought to an end — and rare is the person who dies thinking they’ve accomplished all they’d wanted to. My philosophical standpoints notwithstanding, the deaths I’ve been near to have been, uniformly, occasions for weeping. And so, for all of death’s enormity and its sorrow I’ve long held it as a personal value that I do not rejoice in death. That, in fact, to rejoice in death is as close to a sin as anything I believe in, no matter my feelings toward the deceased. The transition from death to life is too weighty: to approach it with anything other than solemnity is, for me, to cheapen it, and to cheapen any one person’s death is to cheapen all of our lives.
I had another move planned for this post — I thought I’d want to write about the virtue of hospitality and the many ways it plays out in my interpersonal relationships and my beliefs about treatment of others, grounding them in practice — but after the paragraphs above, it seems superfluous. May this stand as my atonement, and my self-admonishment to continue grasping for compassion, always just out of reach.
Header image: “Transition” by Jack/Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND