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November 11, 2014
Richard Handler

Let me begin with a question for Christian believers and agnostics -- or secularists, or anybody...

What’s the value of a misspent life? Christians believe all life is sacred. Western secularists, at their best, believe all lives have value, are guaranteed rights and can live lives of meaning and purpose.

But there are lives that have caused so much chaos, caused so much pain and suffering that to imagine these lives are sacred or valuable, well, I guess you have to be a very charitable Christian.  

On Sunday I attended the funeral of my brother-in-law, Stanley. It is no understatement to say I was not fond of him. In fact, I once helped get him arrested and confined to a jail for at least several weeks.  

Stanley, age 70, died of a massive heart attack. He was found by his landlord in an apartment crammed with stuff (he was a hoarder). He lived in subsidized housing on disability. He was obese, a chain smoker, and his diet consisted of fast food with the odd, charity meal thrown in.   

When he was growing up, he was abusive and violent. His sibling and parents didn’t know what do with him. The police were called many times. They came and went, like regular visitors. My wife would lock the bathroom door when Stanley was having one of his “episodes.” Now of course we know he was bi-polar, and had other “co-morbid” mental disorders. 

There were no “interventions” from mental health professionals. He simply charged ahead and damaged the lives of those with whom he lived, his family, and later, his two wives, among others he would harass. 

Yes, he could be sociable — oozing with slick charm, like some awful, buttery salesman. He was actually bright and graduated from university and tried to teach, but never held a job for long.  

My wife and I used to think it was astounding that with his impetuous, manic behaviour and his badgering phone calls to politicians, he never got into very serious trouble. So we suspected that even Stanley, though sick, knew there were boundaries even he could not cross. 

Therefore, we always thought he must have possessed some measure of self-control, which meant that he was not completely without personal responsibility. He was mentally ill but not insane, which, ironically, caused us to dislike him more. Yes, as my wife used to say, he didn’t choose this life. But he lacked any self-awareness, hardly any consolation to his victims.

Stanley lived with bedbugs and used to flick them on people at fast food joints and city offices. Eventually a doctor prescribed medication though who knows how good he was about taking it. I know how much damage he had inflicted on his family, injuries they carried in their minds, moods and psyches. To me this was his legacy -- the imprinting of scalding memories onto his brother and sister, let alone his parents. 

Was there anything that you can say about this life, but that it consumed the mental energies and resources of his family, and cost the government untold thousands for his multiple operations and his care and feeding? “What worth is such a life?” my wife and I used to say, when we were exasperated.

Yet strangely enough, at the funeral, a collection of friends, part of a “community” of misfits and psychiatric patients made their way to the windswept cemetery north of Toronto. One man spoke up, remembering Stanley fondly, telling the gathering that Stan would attend to him at all hours, even 3 o’clock in the morning if need be.

A few women, haggard looking souls, sobbed; one cried on the shoulder of a distant family member. Did these gestures redeem a life that did so much damage? I have my doubts. But in the end, even terrible, destructive Stanley had his own community, who will miss him now that he’s dead.


Richard Handler - the Stubborn Agnostic - is a former CBC Radio Producer and former producer for CBC's Ideas. He lives in Toronto.

 



Comments

Of course we all wonder how we will be remembered. Richard, my friend, has an impressive catalog of essays and opinions. Even hacks like myself take to writing so that when we are no longer here, something we wrote will be left behind. Still what seems to me the only purpose of life at its end is the approval of Christ. Nothing else matters.
November 12, 2014 | Paul Meyerhoff


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