By Mark David Blum, Esq.
Go ahead. Ask me what is my religion. My answer will be that I don’t have one. By culture and history, I am a Jew. By practice and faith, I am a non evangelical agnostic. I don’t want to know and I really don’t care. Either way, I will find out when I die who was right. My daughters, whom I have pledged to haunt, had better hope its’ lights out when I die lest they see me lurking in the shadows on dark quiet stormy nights.
So when I do things, there is not a religious foundation to them. I do not act or refrain from acting at the behest of an edict from God. My best friend, Christ, tells me no man or woman is incapable of an unselfish act and brother, Christ will take you to the mattresses defending that position. He even guest hosted on WSYR one day and spoke at length about how no person can act wholly out of beneficence without having an ulterior self interested motive. Christ has argued to me that if not for selfishness, we wouldn’t see as much charity as we do.
Fuck him, say I; obviously with much love because he is my best friend for the last 20 something years and we have thousands of hours invested in heated debate and worldwide and cross cultural problem solving. Not once was alcohol involved. I must still respectfully disagree in that I think that humans can act out of no self interest whatsoever.
Tell Christ that a soldier who falls on a grenade to save her squad is not acting out of selfishness, and Christ will rise up a mighty cough and then tell how wrong you are. His position would be that the soldier’s suicide was an act of heroic bravery and the momentary satisfaction she felt of knowing she saved her friends. Christ would fingerpoint and say, “THAT was a selfish act.” Personal satisfaction; the warm fuzzies we take away from good deeds and acts of kindness are selfish?
One thing I know about my buddy Christ, he is an avowed atheist. He would rather chew off his own hemorrhoids than acknowledge the existence of any god. I tell him it takes as much blind faith to believe in the existence of any god as it takes to not believe. It is not a conclusion based on any fact or logic proof.
This is where Christ and I always part company in our repartees. First, we will never agree that having blind faith in anything is a good thing. Second, Christ will forever debate me that yes I can commit an unselfish act. I do them all the time. And no, I am not the guy who falls on the grenade. Instead, I am the one who runs away screaming like a kid. Once I fell on a sword for a client. That, I assure you was a slow painful MISERABLE near death experience and will never happen again.
Back to the Jews: We are all products of the collective experiences of the life we have lived and the things learned along the way. Trekkies know it as the “V ger” status. Like large mouth baleen whales, we skim through life filtering in those things that come together and make us what we are today. In the immortal words of Popeye, “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.”
Jews have this social and religious concept that does not translate well into English. The word is phonetically, “mitzvah”. Translated, it means “good deed”. But that translation is wholly inadequate and incomplete. A mitzvah is going out of your way and doing something special for someone. It is not a commandment or holding open a door (though that too can be a mitzvah). Mitzvahs are more of a commitment one makes of a part of themselves which they gift over to the benefit of another. To a Jew, doing mitzvahs are part of who we are as human beings. Arguably, I am almost compelled by lifelong now probably hardwired behavior traits. As a young and impressionable child, I was told that mitzvahs are done to please God. I abandoned the god concept a long time ago. The mitzvah training has never left me.
This is where me and Christ fight our war to end all wars. (Actually our real war to end all wars and one which has raged for more than a decade, is the answer to the question of when the second millennium started – 1/1/2000 or 1/1/2001. He almost folded and admitted I am right – almost). Christ tells me I cannot do a mitzvah without some kind of selfish interest. I challenge him and call bullshit because not all mitzvahs yield any kind of personal satisfaction. Some are a real fucking pain in the ass but need to be done and thus, get done. They do not get done out of a personal satisfaction of doing something nice or helpful for another world traveler. Nah, you even do them for people you hate. That rule has always held true with me; with the singular exceptions of my first wife, my father (now dead so not an issue), and the biggest asshole I ever met who lives in Skaneateles. Other than those three, I am hardwired to step up when I see someone in trouble and needing help. If I do get something out of it, that is all the more better. Since its invention by the Phoenicians, money has always been the preferred option.
When a person is given a death sentence, it radically changes them as a human being. Though they try hard to maintain appearances of normalcy, beneath the surface is boiling a cauldron of raging emotions, chaos, and panic. The breeze of the hands whizzing around the clock is always in their face. Time itself is the enemy and people go crazy fighting it back. Some make bucket lists and frantically try to tick things off. Others just let it all just happen and enjoy where they are and what they are doing. Me, I have no idea how I would react as I have never faced that challenge and until someone does, you cannot predict your response. I would hope I would just kick back and live in the moment. It would drive me nuts to be chasing dreams as if I were trying to impress St. Peter with my scorecard. “Lookie at what I did!!!!”
Over the years, I have met many people and watched too many friends go through this process. Diagnosis, heroic efforts, endless pain and suffering, calm acquiescence, and then a slow deterioration until death. It tears me to shreds every time.
People sentenced to death that I have met over the years always tell me the same thing. They spend so much energy comforting others who feel bad and sad that nobody listens to them. Finding someone who has time to sit and listen to all their boring medical crap, tolerate plans being cancelled all the time because they are too ill, someone who will treat them like a human being and not a victim or a sick person, someone who can drill down and talk about issues too sensitive and personal to otherwise share – like suicide or sex or burial locations or medical marijuana. The dying need friends who treat them like normal people.
Guess who has that kind of skill set – who listens to endless hours of bullshit pretending to be interested, wastes enormous amounts of time and money because of other people’s crap, and who are so naturally curious and such expert interrogators they are able to drill deep for information? Lawyers.
About fifteen years ago, my bride’s best friend announced she was diagnosed with lung cancer. At the time, the woman was in her (cough) late 30’s with two young children. It was chaos and pandemonium. Everybody was pouring on the sympathy. One day I was watching this whole drama unfold and when I got the woman alone for a few minutes, I did what lawyers do best. I asked her point blank whether all that conversation was driving her nuts? She agreed. I changed the subject to whether she had a Will. Whether she had a health care declaration and living will. I talked to her about her plans for her death and funeral. Over time, she sought me out because I was the only one who was treating her normally and talking to her about things she was feeling and experiencing. Long story short, this one has a happy ending thanks to idiot doctors who misdiagnosed her for almost two years. It was a lung infection and she went on to live (so far) happily ever after.
That is not always the case. More likely than not, the people I have met who received a death sentence do not heal and come back. When they reach the acceptance stage, there is no better person to spend quality time with. If you think you know the meaning of life, the fact is you don’t know shit until you get a diagnosis and an expiration date. That is when life’s meaning will reveal itself; or so I been told.
It is weird too. Friends cut off contact. The sick person cannot work so they lose their work relationships. Being home and sick all the time while the world goes on leaves a person feeling isolated and cut off. Losing a job means also losing an income. Medical bills can eat up a savings. In no time, someone can be alone, cut off, and unable to afford even a hamburger for $1.09. They have nowhere to go and nobody to talk to. I make it my business to fill that gap as best I can.
I have no choice. It is hardwired in me. I call it a mitzvah. Put whatever label on it you want, there is nothing I can do to stop the pain or disease or death. What I can do is get beyond the wall and become a true friend to the end. I can give comfort and support in ways many people cannot. In hospitals, medical staff fear lawyers and they tend to treat patients with more care when sharks are in the waters. I tease. I provoke. I tell dirty jokes and do my obnoxious thing. I never let the dying person give up until they are ready. When that happens, as I have said many times, as long as they need a hand to hold, mine will always be there. Usually toward the end, there are plenty of family members around such that I can ease away and disappear back into my world. My absence is not noticed by that point. The ‘mitzvah’ if you will, is completed.
Yes I mourn. Regardless of how close we were before the diagnosis, going through the end of life with someone is very bonding. So too is lawyering sometimes. I am used to getting close and then having to let go. It can tear your heart out but after more than 20 years of it, I know how to heal. There is always a mark, a scar, a memory. Some folks are so special they change me in ways I cannot foresee but I do know they become a part of who I am and who I will be in the future. In that way, perhaps in some small way, they continue to live on – in the hearts and minds of those they touched. Me, I die slowly from death by a thousand cuts.
So this is what I do. I cant help it. It is happening again in my world. I dread the pain but I so look forward to the smiles I am going to get. Every one of them is its own reward. That is my selfish payback. Unlike Christ’s perception, I am not motivated by any selfish reason because I must involve myself; its’ a mitzvah. (bah, that is going to set him off BIGtime). That there is a reward, a gift of friendship, the opportunity to share wonderful times with someone, well that’s just blowback. It is not the motivating factor or an expectation. I do what I do because it is what I must do.
What do you do?