Once I heard a futures trader explain the thought processes behind his job, and the way he explained it illuminated a mindset about earning a living alien to my own. Oh, I already knew the basics about his daily activity: buying and selling futures of commodities, with the aim, of course, of buying as close to the low and selling as close to the high as possible, so as to maximize profit.
But it soon became clear that my futures trader viewed success and failure in extreme and even perfectionistic terms: If he didn’t judge the bottom and the top pretty nearly exactly, and if he didn’t manage to locate the buyers and sellers he wanted at the optimal points for making the highest profit, he concluded that he had “lost” money. Failing to make as much money as it was theoretically possible to make on a trade, on a day, on a cycle was equated with “losing” some of the profit he could have made. That’s an interesting pocket of perfectionism that I had not previously encountered. It must make for perpetual second-guessing and dissatisfaction. All this because of a disproportionate view of reality that is, if not untrue, at least not the whole truth. He reminded me of the economists who fabricate models according to the purely rational choices of “Economic Man.”
But I do recognize the temptation to all-or-nothing self-judgment in another context. Something like that mindset often threatens those of us defending the unborn, the handicapped, the old and seemingly useless whom others view as ripe for assisted suicide. Despite many intermediate successes over decades on the pro-life front in state legislatures and even in Congress, despite many election wins and many court appointments over the years, despite ever more ingenious strategies and campaigns to raise awareness, persuade hearts and minds, and offer support to women in crisis pregnancies, our minds naturally ruminate on the defeats and on the enormity of the breakers ahead of us. And of course Gov. Cuomo’s recent success in ramming through New York’s abortion-bill-on-steroids and Virginia’s looming expanded abortion bill (temporarily but probably not permanently taking a back seat to the multiple scandals among the state’s Democratic leadership) can rouse in us memories of King Canute demonstrating his inability to halt the incoming tide.
In the assisted-suicide arena, perhaps a better analogy is to inhabitants of a besieged town watching the encircling army come closer and closer to successfully overrunning the castle walls as, year after year, legislative proposals are reintroduced in state after state. It is true that most of the 270-plus legislative proposals introduced throughout the U.S. since 1994 have been defeated (the numbers are from Rita L. Marker’s recent count in her Patients Rights Council Update for the beginning of 2019) and that, even now, “only” seven states and the District of Columbia allow doctors to prescribe lethal overdoses to enable the suicide of their patients. However, the chip-away, chip-away approach goes on (my own state of Maryland currently has a House and a Senate assisted-suicide bill pending, for it feels like the umpteenth time).
Understandably, it can be difficult, when watching the waves of new legal, political, scientific, and medical attacks on the rights and dignity of human beings at all stages and in all conditions, not to focus on what we have not yet achieved, on what lives we have not successfully defended. Even when there are documented improvements in the pro-life scene—such as the decrease in post-Roe yearly abortion rates from, at the height, 1.5 million-plus in the late 70s to the mid-90s, to current levels below a million per year (according to the Guttmacher Institute). That’s progress, of a sort, though I’m not sure how my futures trader friend would feel about it. But it is hard not to dwell on those who don’t make it safely through the birth canal—and perhaps particularly hard not to dwell on this unproductively.
At the end of the movie Schindler’s List, there is a memorable scene where Oskar Schindler, the Nazi-era businessman who ended up saving some 1100 Jews, breaks down as he cries over and over, “I could have got more out. I could have got more . . . I didn’t do enough!” At that moment the great number of Jews that owe their lives to him seems paltry next to those his mind sees filing into the gas chamber. And of course in the face of the enormous tragedy that was the Holocaust, of the millions of Jews that died despite the efforts of those who stepped forward in various ways to intervene, we more naturally dwell on the dead with frustrated, impotent sadness, than take inspiration from the human lives snatched from death.
And yet, the Jewish Talmud reminds us (as does Schindler’s List, which also references this quote) that “Whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the world.”
We do not want to ever become complacent with our accomplishments in the pro-life arena—but complacency is not currently a besetting sin of those active in this movement. Of course there is always room for rethinking approaches, analyzing where we have gone wrong—and even where we have gone right. But when such rethinking leaches our energy, as it sometimes does, by causing us to beat ourselves up, doubt the usefulness of our efforts, or despair at the thought of how much is left undone, it is counterproductive to ourselves and the innocent lives we attempt to defend. Our perfectionism and our anguish at the extreme imperfection of our country’s treatment of the unborn can then interfere with how well we work to ameliorate it.
There is a delicate balance to be struck between complacency and despair, between deciding that what we have is good enough—the best that can be expected, after all—and withdrawing in weary despondency. Paradoxically, achieving that balance requires rejecting utopian illusions about the possibility of completely and forever eliminating the evil of abortion from the face of the earth. Someday, whether 5 years from now or 10 years or 50 or 100, when abortion is again illegal, some women will still be driven to the desperate measure of killing their unborn children. As Jesus once said, “The poor you will always have with you,” meaning not that nothing need be done for them, but that we should never conclude that our efforts are unnecessary because the problem is solved, nor useless because the problem is unsolvable. And when—we hope it will be soon, however much we fear it may be later—the time comes when abortion is illegal, there inevitably will be other profound human evils crying out for relief, other still-tolerated ways of preying upon human innocence through human depravity.
Abortion and assisted suicide are matters of life and death. Nationally or (in the case of assisted suicide) in certain states, they are quite legal. Our sense of urgency and responsibility in the face of such injustice must not lead us, especially in these challenging times, to think either that victory is hopeless or that, if we just did this or that, if we just formulated the perfect pro-life pitch or the cleverest legislation or the most unanswerable legal argument, if we just spent more hours doing more things, the problem would be solved. There is always more to be done, in this as in most other areas of our lives. And though there always will be defeats, there will always be victories too. And each victory, for that moment, is enough—because each life saved is as though the whole world was saved.