A Life Beyond Reason

November 21, 2010 | 20 comments

I had another post all ready to go for today, but I’m going to bump it because I just read something that so moved me that I had to share it with you. Go read this stunning article called A Life Beyond Reason, in which Professor Chris Gabbard recounts how his severely disabled son made him take a hard look at his views on the value of human life. An excerpt:

I was inspired by Socrates’ statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Similarly, Aristotle’s dictum that man is the animal having “logos, ” the power of reasoning, impressed me. The notion that the human being is a rational animal made sense, and I internalized it as a basic assumption, as I did Socrates’ pronouncement. At San Francisco State University, I became intrigued by the Enlightenment. John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant fascinated me. Who would not want to be enlightened? Who in his or her right mind would choose in favor of a benighted past of superstition, ignorance, and blind faith in custom? I put my faith in reason. Eventually I obtained my doctorate at Stanford in 18th-century British literature—the age of reason: Anne Finch, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson.

In sum, I grew up prizing intellectual aptitude — not that I am a candidate for Mensa — and detesting “poor mental function.” Perhaps what helped make me revere intelligence was growing up in Palo Alto, with Stanford less than half a mile away and a number of Nobel Prize winners and famous and wealthy technology innovators all around me. People in my immediate vicinity had good brains, and that meant money, respect, and international influence.

Given, then, my nearly metaphysical attachment to intelligence, imagine my surprise when in March 1999, at my first child’s birth, he failed to breathe and consequently suffered severe brain damage…After his birth, as I entered the intensive-care nursery, I was deeply ambivalent, having been persuaded by the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer’s advocacy of expanding reproductive choice to include infanticide. But there was my son, asleep or unconscious, on a ventilator, motionless under a heat lamp, tubes and wires everywhere, monitors alongside his steel and transparent-plastic crib. What most stirred me was the way he resembled me. Nothing had prepared me for this, the shock of recognition, for he was the boy in my own baby pictures, the image of me when I was an infant.

Professor Gabbard goes on to describe how he came to see the value of his son’s life — a value beyond reason — despite lingering misgivings from his old ways of thinking. The article makes a profound statement about the limits of a purely rationalist worldview, and about the power of love to change hearts. Go check it out. (Hat tip to Dorian Speed and Korrektiv)



  1. Danielle

    Quote: They simply are what they are.

    That was such an amazing article. But the quote above is what captured my attention. Such a simple statement about the dignity of the human being as neither a vessel of punishment, nor a tool to teach others.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Mark S.

      Thank you so much for sharing this piece!

  2. Tania @ Larger Family Life

    A great article and though not the same, it reminded me of the position we found ourselves in regarding a decision the medical profession were pressing us to make.

    When I was pregnant with my eighth child last year a routine scan showed a potential problem with our baby. The hospital informed us it could have been something or it could have been nothing. The “something” it could be was anything from stillbirth, death of the baby during pregnancy or any number of conditions.

    We were pressed to have invasive testing but were not willing to take the risks posed to our baby. We opted instead to have only blood tests from myself and my husband which would give an idea of any genetic risks to our children which along with the finding they’d uncovered, would allow us to, in their words, “make a decision on what to do with the pregnancy”, i.e to continue or to end it. The results would take six or seven weeks. I would be in the final trimester. But “making the best decision” was what they would keep referring to.

    My husband and I knew that no matter what the results, it was not our place to even consider ending this life ourselves. It was not our place. We could not play the role of God. Of course, this was difficult for the medics to accept. We waited, worried and couldn’t enjoy the pregnancy. I was having to return to hospital for regular scans.

    The results came back when I was around 30 weeks pregnant. The blood tests showed no genetic problems in either maternal or paternal side. The relief was unimaginable. But the scans still showed a problem.
    It wasn’t until two weeks before our baby’s due date that we were given the all clear.

    Our son was thankfully born healthy but having been put in the position to make a decision that no parent would want to make, I know that only having faith and trust gave us the strength to accept that our lives could have changed immensely to have our baby in our life even for another day in the womb, for a week after birth or with a lifetime of caring for him. But whatever the outcome he’d have still been our baby, our child, no matter what the medics thought would be “the best decision” for us to make. And still I have to question, the best for whom?

    • Barbara C.

      I was in a similar position with my third pregnancy. One minute the ultrasound tech. is showing my my beautiful girl, and the next minute the doctor comes in and says that she has a marker for Downs and/or Trisomy-18 and that if I want to have an abortion “now’s the time”. It turns out that her chances for either were way slimmer than the doctor made it seem, and she was born perfectly healthy. But we went through a scary three-month period worrying about our baby for no reason. With #4, I refused to have the ultrasound until 30 weeks since I knew we would never abort anyway.

  3. Margo

    This is such a breath of fresh air! It provides so much hope in a world that is severely troubled and confused. Thank you for sharing this – it’s worth passing on, and I certainly will!

  4. Lauren

    Amazing read. That was captivating! Thank you for sharing this.

    “Martin Luther held the opinion that, because a child such as August was a “changeling”—merely a mass of flesh, a massa carnis, with no soul—he should be drowned.”

    WHAT?????? I did NOT know this.

    • Ciska @ This Journey Of My Life

      This surprised me too. I googled and found these texts by Luther:

      Martin Luther
      The Story of a Changeling at Dessau
      Eight years ago [in the year 1532] at Dessau, I, Dr. Martin Luther, saw and touched a changeling. It was twelve years old, and from its eyes and the fact that it had all of its senses, one could have thought that it was a real child. It did nothing but eat; in fact, it ate enough for any four peasants or threshers. It ate, shit, and pissed, and whenever someone touched it, it cried. When bad things happened in the house, it laughed and was happy; but when things went well, it cried. It had these two virtues. I said to the Princes of Anhalt: “If I were the prince or the ruler here, I would throw this child into the water–into the Molda that flows by Dessau. I would dare commit homicidium on him!” But the Elector of Saxony, who was with me at Dessau, and the Princes of Anhalt did not want to follow my advice. Therefore, I said: “Then you should have all Christians repeat the Lord’s Prayer in church that God may exorcise the devil.” They did this daily at Dessau, and the changeling child died in the following year…. Such a changeling child is only a piece of flesh, a massa carnis, because it has no soul.

      Source: Martin Luther, Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe: Tischreden (Weimar: Böhlau, 1912-1921), v. 5, p. 9.

      Changelings from the Devil
      Changelings and killcrops are laid in the place of legitimate children by Satan in order to plague mankind. He often pulls certain girls into the water, impregnates them, and keeps them with him until they deliver their children; afterward he places these children in cradles, taking the legitimate children away. But such changelings, it is said, do not live more than eighteen or nineteen years.

      Source: Martin Luther, Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe: Tischreden (Weimar: Böhlau, 1912-1921), v. 4, p. 357.

      The Killcrop of Halberstadt
      A man who lived near Halberstadt in Saxony had a killcrop who had sucked his mother and five additional wet nurses dry. Further, he was eating a great deal and behaving very strangely. The man was told that he should take the child on a pilgrimage to Hockelstadt to praise the Virgin Mary and to have him weighed there. The peasant followed this advice and set forth, carrying the child in a basket. But when he came to a bridge over some water, a devil in the water beneath the bridge called out: “Killcrop! Killcrop!” The child in the basket, who had never yet spoken a word, answered: “Ho! Ho!” This startled the peasant. The devil in the water then asked: “Where are you going?” The killcrop said: “I’m on my way to Hockelstadt to Our Dear Lady, to have myself weighed there so that I may grow.” When the peasant heard the changeling speak, the first time this had ever happened, he became angry and threw the child into the water, basket and all. Then the two devils came together, shouted “Ho, ho, ha!,” played with each other, rolled around with each other, and disappeared.
      Satan plagues mankind with such changelings and killcrops by substituting them for real children. Satan has the power to exchange children, placing a devil in the cradle in the place of a child. This devil will suck and eat like an animal, but it will not grow. Thus it is said that changelings and killcrops do not live longer than eighteen or nineteen years.

      It happens often, that babies are exchanged during their first six weeks, and that devils lay themselves in their place, making themselves detestable by shitting, eating, and crying more than any ten other children. The parents get no rest from such filthy beasts. The mothers are sucked dry and are no longer able to nurse…. However, changeling children should be baptized, because they cannot always be recognized as such during their first year.

  5. ~Ana Paula~A Católica

    A Big Hello fro BRASIL, Jennifer!!

    Over here in my country we have a very inteligent columnist in one of the most famous magazines, whose son was born with a serious problem in his brain (what a coincidence with the child in your Post, Jen). BUT unfortunately I heard that the disease does not push the journalist to the arms of God, doens not made him to Believe in Him. He has continued a skeptic person.

    I am forced to think that FAITH is really a Grace of the Heaven. There are people which does not matter what happens in their life: they will always be unfaithful. And those are who most need of our prayers: cause when we do not have Faith, actually we do not have nothing that matters at all.

    God Bless You, Jennifer,
    God Bless Your Family,
    God Bless Your Country and specially
    God Bless All Your Readers!!

    • ~Ana Paula~A Católica

      Hi again from BRASIL, Jennifer!

      Just to invite you to read a essay (or we call it a chronicle) which I wrote yesterday! It has nothing to do with the theme of your Post today, in fact.

      Its subject is the way we (or most of us) do “much of noise about nothing” over the problemas we have…
      … And what is worst: because of things that bothers us, our face become so palid and sad to our brothers to see it!…

      In fact, we, as catholic people, have the obligation to show the Joy of God in your way to live life and specially in our own face. The way we look, the way we talk, the way we smile affects other people, right?

      Thank You. Stay in the God’s Peace!!

  6. Magda

    Thank You for this post!

  7. priest's wife

    beautiful post and article!

  8. Amy

    Great article. There is a new documentary called “Blood Money”. Its a powerful documentary about the abortion industry. My eyes were opened and my defense for life has been renewed. http://www.bloodmoneyfilm.com/

  9. Adell Neulander

    Don’t you love it… the way God reaches, touches cold coolish hearts and warms them to love fully love. BBGF

  10. Genny

    Wow. That article was powerful. Thank you for sharing the link…

  11. Allison Welch

    This reminds me of an amazing little boy I “met” on youtube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=th6Njr-qkq0 I teach morality to 10th graders and he taught my class about the value of life better than I ever could have. Without uttering a word he (and his parents) testify to millions: Life is a gift. All life. Every life. Choose life!

    I gave an assignment to write an essay supporting the statement “The dignity of life is the moral foundation of society” and one of my students wrote this quote that gave me chill bumps – “There can be no civilization when the past is euthanized, the present is suicidal and the future aborted.”

    Thanks for a great post encouraging all to, in the words of Pope Leo the great, “Christian recognize your dignity!”

  12. Ray Ingles

    “The article makes a profound statement about the limits of a purely rationalist worldview, and about the power of love to change hearts.”

    Of course, if you love someone, caring for them is entirely rational, is it not?

    From the article: “For many of those folks, someone with August’s caliber of cognitive and physical disability raises the question of where humanity leaves off and animality begins. But that animal-human divide is spurious, a faulty either-or.”

    Cases like this make me wonder. I don’t believe in magic souls, but I also agree that even people like the author’s child deserve care and love and respect. So what if it’s not that people like August deserve less respect… but rather that animals with similar cognitive capacity deserve more?

    The history of moral development has involved gradually expanding the circle of who ‘fully counted’ morally. Grown males of one’s tribe, then even those of other nearby tribes. Slowly the circle expanded to include males of other races, then women, even children. What if today’s attitudes towards animals will be considered as incomprehensible (and reprehensible) as we find the prevailing attitudes towards slaves were in the 1800s?

  13. Elizabeth Mahlou

    After Noelle was born with a variety of physical disabilities, I would say that I could handle anything except mental disability, so I felt fortunate. Well, God has a sense irony, for sure, because four years later, along came Doah, who is severely mentally disabled. He is loved no less than any of my other children, nor does he contribute less to the world around him. Thanks for providing the link.

  14. rudipatz

    After my nephew was born, her mom immediately knew their is something in him, but denied it to herself for awhile. It was a moment of realization on what to do with the kid. I told her the baby was a gift from God, God never told us to take care of normal kids only, just like Him we should give unconditional love to this little creature. At first she cannot decipher what I am telling her and slowly realize day by day that this little miracle was God’s gift to her. She is a steward for this very special person.

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