A Burden Tender and in No Wise Heavy

Playing Chess With Death

As a nation, we are playing a game of chess with Death. We are Ingmar Bergman’s knight, Antonius Block, forestalling white-faced, black-cloaked Death with a dangerous challenge. Lose and we die. Check mate the Grim Reaper, we win.

A reference to Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal, is a bit over the top, you say? Consider this: We are arguing about whether we should save the lives of our fellow Americans and reduce the suffering of millions who, for reasons not of their own making, do not have access to adequate medical care. There are no economic, medical, or technological barriers. We can do this.

Imagine a toddler splashing happily in one of those colorful, inflatable wading pools. You stand with the child in the calf-deep water. Suddenly, the child topples over and her head disappears under water. She panics and cannot right herself. You could easily save her, at no risk to yourself. Health care reform could be as easy as saving the toddler. We could save millions of lives with an effort so minimal we might not even remember it.  And yet….

The awful spectacle of our health care debate is almost more than can be stomached. Death is out on the street, and some among us are pushing their friends and family out the doors. "Take her! Take him! Not me. Not me." This is what America has come to.

And this is why I say we play chess with Death. If we lose this game and let the child drown, the child’s dream, the dream of democracy, dies with her.

Recently I came across a story that perfectly captures the moral worldview that informs, or should inform, the health care movement. The story was told by Antoine De Saint Exupery in his book, Flight to Arras.


It’s 1940 and Saint Exupery, who will in two years write The Little Prince, is a French reconnaissance pilot. The German military subjugation of France is almost complete.

Saint Exupery is assigned a hopeless mission, an insane one because any intelligence he might gather will be unusable by the time he gathers it, as his superiors well know. Here he captures the surreal horror of war’s mortal danger:

Each burst of a machine gun or a rapid-fire cannon shot forth hundreds of these phosphorescent bullets that followed one another like the beads of a rosary. A thousand elastic rosaries strung themselves out towards the plane…The bullets were transformed into lightning. And I flew drowned in a crop of trajectories as golden as stalks of wheat. I flew at the center of a thicket of lance strokes.

Tracers as "golden as stalks of wheat" and bullets "like the beads of a rosary."  This is metal death as life and life everlasting, wrenching metaphors from the imagination of a pilot navigating a sky on fire.  

Saint Exupery and his crew survived that mission. That night, he retired to the farmhouse where he was billeted. A farmer, his wife and niece are at table. Saint Exupery, only hours from surviving this chess match with Death (he will die on a similar mission in 1944), is invited to join them.

He is at once overcome by a feeling of responsibility, responsibility for the farmer, his family, their village, and the community of France. If ever he was owed a moment to pat and pinch himself in guarantee of sound flesh and selfish identity, this was that moment. But it’s the full, heart-swelling presence of the farmer’s family, the transcendent power of compassion and communion, which commands the attention of his soul.

Behind the silence of these three beings there was an inner abundance that was like the patrimony of a whole village asleep in the night – and like it, threatened. Strange, the intensity with which I felt myself responsible for that invisible patrimony. I went out of the house to walk alone on the highway, and I carried with me a burden that seemed to me tender and in no wise heavy, like a child asleep in my arms.

A burden tender and in no wise heavy. It is the slight weight of the responsibility we bear for one another. Slight, because our very being depends upon it. We grow heavy from shirking, not from bearing the tender burden. It comes from no mandate, no order from authority outside one’s own conscience. You can’t pretend to carry it; you either do, or you don’t.

This is the moral view that should inform our prayers for reform of the American health care system. We may yet save the drowning child and find her asleep in our arms.

Speaking of France’s failure in 1940, Saint Exupery said, "…had we stood for [the] communion of men, we should have saved the world and ourselves. In that task we failed. Each is responsible for all. Each is by himself responsible. Each by himself is responsible for all."

Check mate. 

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