Deaths in Reeve family shake us to the core
By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist
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I hadn’t given much thought to Dana Reeve until she died, but I felt something when I read about her.

It wasn’t grief that kept the thought of her death in my mind long after I’d put the paper down. It was a deep sense of unfairness. Her death was an assault on some innate need for fairness. As unfair as we can all be in our behavior toward one another, we still have a need to believe the world is not composed of random happenings.

Gordon Parks died this week, too. I knew more about him and respected his work, but he was 93 years old, so I didn’t think he’d been shortchanged.

Reeve was 44, but it was more than her age that bothered me.

Reeve, as you know, was married to Christopher Reeve, the actor who became famous portraying Superman in several movies. He was paralyzed in a fall from a horse, and for several years Dana cared for him and joined with him in trying to improve the lot of other people who were paralyzed.

That would have been enough to elicit my sympathy. Here was a young couple whose lives were thrown by a chance event no one would have chosen. And their response was to make something good from it.

Then it got worse. Right after he died, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. Oh, and she didn’t smoke.

I thought about the story of Job. Is there a lesson in here that transcends her pain and makes it all worthwhile? Sure, somewhere, and maybe someone out there will see that his life isn’t so bad, but that’ll last about two minutes.

Then it got worse. She died and left behind a 13-year-old son. Thirteen is a painful, confused, scary time of life. Transcendent lesson? The word that occurred to me can’t be reproduced here.

My feelings, of course, weren’t really about Dana Reeve, or her son. They were about my need to believe against all the evidence to the contrary that life is fair.

People put a lot of effort into imposing fairness on the world.
We have rules and regulations to enforce it, and when we can’t make it happen, we invent visions of it.

I remember being a kid and learning for the first time that babies in Africa were starving to death every day. I wanted to know how God could allow that. How could we allow it?

People have lots of answers to those questions, but they all seem to be inventions to make it seem not so unfair, often by placing blame on whoever is suffering; in the case of those babies, on their parents, or their leaders, anything to make it understandable.

We need to believe in fairness because we want the world to make sense, and because we want security for ourselves. There is no security in a world where chance rules.

So we constantly examine things for their fairness.

When someone wins the Lotto, doesn’t some part of your brain automatically rate their worthiness?

No one wants good things to happen to bad people or bad things to happen to good people. Hey, we’re good people, so good things should happen to us. That’s the way the world ought to work.

You saw that study reported a few weeks ago, in which people played a game with some volunteers, some of whom were honest and some obvious cheaters. The subjects were then hooked up to brain-scanning machinery while they watched other players receive a shock to the hand.

When an innocent player got a shock, people’s brains registered activity in pain-related areas. We don’t like seeing innocents suffer.

Women’s brains empathized even with cheaters. But when the cheaters got a shock, men showed no empathy, and in fact got a little pleasure from the punishment.

He had it coming to him, is a classic guy line. Life, however, isn’t so neat.

The Reeves recognized that life isn’t fair, but they worked to make it better, which is about all any of us can do.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at www.seattletimes.com/jerrylarge.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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