- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2005

What starkly different views of life were on display this past Sunday. From Rome, despite a deteriorating health condition, Pope John Paul II appeared at his hospital window and blessed the crowd of well-wishers. It was a sight that has become all too familiar: a man whose zest for life has been so publicly apparent these past 26 years now trapped in a body that causes him constant suffering.

On the same day, half a world away, cameras were being aimed at public figures of a different sort. Like ducks scrambling for scraps of bread thrown by giggling little children, the media flocked to catch a glimpse of the parade of Hollywood celebrities bedecked in dresses costing more than most people can make over years of hard labor. But all the jewelry and thousand-dollar hairstyles at the Academy Awards were just the veneer of something far more real — something diametrically opposed to what was being shown half a world away. Beneath the glitter, behind the hospital window, underneath the faces of smiles and anguish were two drastically different views of life.

In the Hollywood view, life is measured in a materialistic sense. What are we wearing? Where are we living? What are our pleasures? How satisfying is our sex life? It is a view that is obsessively self-centered — a view that sees self-gratification as the highest aim of life.

This view considers any restrictions on self-indulgence to be acts of injustice, an unacceptable oppression of our right to do whatever we want and say whatever we want. As the TV commercials proclaim: “Forget the rules.” “Unleash the desires within you.” “Indulge yourself.” Pleasure becomes the measure of life. But if self-gratification is the whole point of life, then what is to happen when one’s self is no longer being gratified? That’s a question for which the only answer Hollywood can provide is: more Prozac.

The Hollywood view may have its fleeting glamour, but it is as empty as a water bowl left out too long in the sun. Hollywood celebrities are all smiles when they are walking the red carpet; they are so emphatic when denouncing moral rules and religious values that warn against self-indulgence and sexual promiscuity; they speak so certainly when they talk of their own importance and how everyone should live as they do. But when those celebrities are no longer as famous or popular, when they are flocking to psychiatrists and self-esteem gurus, when they are clamoring for anti-depressant drugs, that certainty is gone. That self-indulgent love of life is gone. And then begins their retreat from life, as if they no longer have any reason to live. What a contrast it is from John Paul II, who is living as profoundly in his suffering as he did during his youthful vigor.

There is something inspiringly consistent about John Paul II. He has always preached the value of life in all its forms, and now he is a living example of that message. He endures every day the pain and sickness of Parkinson’s Disease, but he does not let this suffering diminish his life. The pope does not shrink from public life because of his suffering, nor does he treat it as an unfair injustice visited upon him. Instead, he uses it to teach the lesson of compassion, because only through suffering can we truly experience compassion. Only through suffering can we experience true hope.

In the pope’s 1984 treatise on the redemptive power of suffering, “Salvifici Doloris,” he wrote that suffering is not a punishment imposed for some transgression; it is a fact of the human condition. And it is a path through which persons can transcend their materialistic world and their egocentric selves.

Hollywood portrays suffering as a wrong, as something that turns us into victims. The pope, however, shows us that we cannot love life without accepting its suffering. Instead of making us a victim, it can help us to reach past our physical life and into our souls, where our true humanity lies.

Through his suffering, John Paul IIreveals the true meaning of a pro-life view. While Hollywood activists crusade for the ending of all prohibitions on stem-cell research, even though the usefulness of such research for diseases like Parkinson’s is highly questionable and even though such research involves the destruction of human life, John Paul II shows us how to live during times of pain and sacrifice. The question is: How does he do it? What does he have that enables him to go on so courageously? What does he have that Hollywood celebrities who fall into despair once their stardom ends don’t have? This pro-life view tells us that life is not cheap; it does not come free of sacrifice. It is a message so broad that it can even provide the answer to Social Security reform. It tells us that life is precious — not something to consume in careless indulgence, but something of which to be careful. It is a message that can stop calloused violence, drug use, cultural degradation and environmental waste. It is a message which, if we listen closely, can answer all the questions of life.

Patrick M. Garry is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota School of Law.

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