‘Aegroto, dum anima est, spes esse dicitur.’
‘For a sick man, it is said that while he has breath/life, there is hope.’
– Cicero, quoted by Erasmus
The etymology of the word life is as complicated as the state/thing it signifies. Every early language upon which English is built – Greek, Latin, and Hebrew – had at least one word that seems at least to signify the thing we call life, and in most cases there is a strong reflection that life is paired with something else.
Greek had zoe which seems to signify the biological sense of life(1). They also had psyche which at times means life and at times means soul and often means both at the same time. The Hebrew had their own word to point to the same mystical pairing. For as much as the Romans stole from the Greeks, they chose to pair their word for life with something else. Their biological sense of life was signified by vita(2), but the more poetic, esoteric sense was given in the word anima(3). Along with signifying a combination of life and soul, anima brought about thoughts of breath, of breathing, of expiration and inspiration.
Hence, the title of this piece: Animam pro anima. A life for a life. This comes to us from the book of Exodus(4) and is usually subservient to the much more commonly quoted phrase that follows it: an eye for an eye.(5) It’s a warning most stern given by an Old Testament God in a passage about rules and judgment.(6)
But to subvert two-thousand years of study and research in a likely vainglorious attempt to make my point(7), I submit one riddle: When is a warning not a warning?
Three years ago today a young person’s life was lost. Out of that darkness, she and her family made a choice. Out of that choice, a life was regained from darkness. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
Animam pro anima. A life for a life. A breath for a breath.
When is a warning not a warning? When it is a gift.
This gift, this love, is a gift not just to Ashley. It is a gift to all of us who are touched by her, whose kindness knows no bounds and whose compassion surpasses that of all but one of today’s social, political and religious leaders.(8) She is as lovely as the gift that was given. E unibus pluram. Out of one, many.
For three years Ashley has tried to find the words for the person and the family who gave this gift, this breath. This life. She’s struggled, feeling the pain of their loss even as she brings so much love and joy to those who know her. She can’t reconcile comforting someone whose loss comforts her. She doesn’t know how to say I’m sorry while also saying Thank you.
To her I say: You do this every minute of every day. Every molecule of air that you pull into those lungs that you share in life with someone else is an inspiration for those of us who love you. And in loving us, you comfort the family whose love was not lost but transferred. Like Eva, she had reached the end of her life but not her love.
That’s the true gift: the love and compassion behind that family’s decision.
And this is the gift hidden in the warning that God gave to Moses: A life for life is a phrase left for us to interpret as we will.
The young woman whose life was taken has given so much life and love to you. You, in your graciousness, kindness and humanity, give that life and that love to me and to all of us blessed enough to know you. So it is not merely her and her family who deserves gratitude, but you.
A love for a love.
For understanding animum pro anima, and for teaching it to all of us, I thank you. Because for me, while I have breath/life, there is hope. And you, my love, are no small part of that hope
Life, like breathing, isn’t always easy, as you well know. But love, my friend, is.
And I, I love you.
- Think zoo, zoology, and, most closely, zoism.
- Think vital, vitamin.
- Think animal, animate, and magnanimous (literally meaning ‘big soul’).
- 21: 22-23.
- I might suggest that the obvious revulsion and violence implied in the later phrase results in its popularity. It’s difficult for most people to imaging losing a life; it’s easily to visualize losing an eye.
- The Ten Commandment are contained the previous chapter.
- Which, said point has little or anything to do with the Bible and the trick here will be to see if this little digression pays off.
- The Dalia Lama might have her beat. But only maybe.
- I feel it important to note that I’m not a religious person, exactly, nor am I a Christian. Nevertheless, the Bible, like the Torah, the Quran, the Upanishads, and the teachings of Buddha, has some really cool things to say about how we should live our lives and how we should treat each other.