Saturday, May 05, 2012


“A free man thinks about death least of all things; his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.”

Spinoza, the Ethics (Part IV. Prop. 67)

My daughter had to remind me this past Monday evening that the above quotation is identified on my Facebook page as a personal favorite. I’ve clearly taken it to heart over the years. Rarely do I think about the topic of what happens to us after we die. Nor do I dwell much on the diseases that could cut our lives short. Both of my parents reached 90, and my mother is still going strong, so long life is something I’ve come to expect. In fact, I have preferred to assume as a matter of faith that myself, my family and my closest friends will enjoy such longevity. That way, I figured, we all can concentrate on making the most of every day and every decade without fear.

This week started no differently. When I came to the office on Monday morning, death was the last thing on my mind. Then, not even an hour later, a colleague walked in to my office and reported that another colleague of ours had finally lost his battle to melanoma. George Vitelli was a Senior Trial Counsel at the Civil Frauds section of the Department of Justice. So am I. He was born in 1960. As was I. He came to Civil Frauds in 1997. Me too. He loved football more than any other sport. Yup, that’s me. He was a lifelong Raiders fan. Like me. He had a wife and two children. As do I. And during the last two years, he has battled his cancer with pure class – always willing to talk about it, but only in an upbeat way, as if there was always a treatment around the corner that would save him. Well … so much for our similarities.

As I thought about my friend George and the incredible way he had comported himself over the years, I could not have been more impressed. He was the true Spinozist. Had I been in his situation, I would surely have kvetched and kvetched and kvetched. Maybe not “Why me?” but more like “this friggen sucks.” Not George. He never wanted to bring anyone down. Until perhaps a month or two ago when even he realized that the odds were not in his favor, he had all his friends believing that he truly would beat the disease.

Monday night was my wife’s birthday, and we went out together with the family. It helped me get George off of my mind a bit, but only a bit. Periodically, I would bring him up and talk about what a mensch he was, and how he epitomized for me what it means to be a family man. He was a hell of a lawyer, and yet he showed not even a trace of arrogance. If he had an ego, he reserved it for friendly competition.

George’s death wasn’t the first time that I had lost a member of my own cohort who had seemed to be more vivacious – more deserving of a long life – than the rest of us. I began to wonder, irrationally of course, if there really is something to the old saw that “only the good die young.” I also began to experience what is commonly known as “survivor’s guilt.” It’s a sobering experience to wonder if you even deserve to be around.

By Tuesday morning, I somehow stopped thinking of George as dying young. I was thinking instead of the week’s second death – the one involving a 24 year old Sergeant named Curtis Hoover. Curtis was from my wife’s home town of Albion, Indiana, and we used to see him, his two brothers and his dad before my mother-in-law moved out of Albion several years ago. The cause of Curtis’ death was a motorcycle accident, and if you ask me, motorcycle rides are accidents waiting to happen. But that didn’t make his death any less tragic. He, like George, passed away on Sunday. I just didn’t find out until Tuesday morning.

On Wednesday and Thursday, I didn’t learn about any more deaths, but simply spent much of time dealing with George’s. Wednesday was the visitation at the funeral home – in the open casket I saw a robust looking man wearing a Yale cap. He played football for Yale as an undergraduate, a source of pride throughout his adult life. Thursday was George’s funeral and his burial. Then, I went back to the office. It was hard to get anything done, but I did manage to hear something that helped me relax a bit. An attorney I know who works for a private firm told me how sorry he was about George. Then he said “He was a real princely fellow. I think that was pretty much universally understood.” I e-mailed the widow to make sure she heard that line. The great thing is, she probably didn’t even need to hear it. It would have been impossible not to love George, he was that kind of guy. His wife of all people had to know that.

Yesterday, Friday, I was finally primed for a long, productive day in the office. I knew I hadn’t shed my last tear of the week, but I had assumed that things would get easier from there on in. And indeed, I managed to concentrate pretty well on my work – just like George would have wanted me to, right? Then, mid afternoon, the third bomb of my week dropped. Michael Hertz, who headed up the Civil Frauds section for literally decades (including my first decade on the job) and who has served since 2007 as the Deputy Assistant Attorney General in charge of my Branch, had lost his own battle to cancer. As with George, this battle had been going on for years. Also like George, Mike remained an employee of the Department until the very end.

Mike Hertz has been one of the great unsung heroes of the U.S. Government since at least the mid 1980s. At age 62, he was as responsible as anyone in our nation’s history for why the Government has been able to disgorge fraudulent companies of tens of billions of dollars and return that money to such victims as the Medicare Trust Fund or the U.S. Treasury. If you’ve never heard of Mike, it’s probably because that’s the way he has wanted it. He’s never been a glad hander. In fact, he was always extremely shy. But what he lacked in gregariousness, he made up for in diligence, intelligence, judgment and, above all else, fairness. His troops – and there were hundreds of us – were fiercely loyal to him, just as he has been loyal to us whenever we were attacked. That said, Mike rarely paid us compliments, rarely smiled at us when we walked in his office, and even had trouble showing us the soft heart that we knew existed under that “Just the facts, mam” exterior. He passed away before his troops were able to give him a retirement party in which we could pay him the compliments he deserved and express our incredible affection for him. No doubt, such an event would have merely made Mike uncomfortable.

It is hardly a strained analogy to say that if the Civil Division of the Justice Department was the Star Ship Enterprise, Mike Hertz is our Mr. Spock. And if you know your Star Trek, you know how beloved and respected Spock was to everyone on that ship, even Dr. McCoy. You also know what a loss it would have been to the Federation for Spock to have died. And indeed, our Government is a lesser place today than it was yesterday, when Mike was still alive.

One week, three deaths. Obviously, I was closer to two of these three gentlemen than I was to the third, and yet how can I not appreciate that the death of Curtis Hoover was truly the most tragic of all. Maybe George couldn’t “celebrate” turning 50 or Mike 60, but at least they reached those milestones. Sergeant Hoover never even made it to 25.

Those of us who seek meaning in life, and who seek a wisdom that is a “meditation not of death, but of life,” what are we to make of weeks like this one? We hear people talk about how God “has a plan for all us,” but do we really think that the cancers that overtook George Vitelli and Mike Hertz before they were able to enjoy their retirement, or the motorcycle crash that destroyed Curtis Hoover while he was still a young man, was the result of a conscious decision on the part of an omnibenevolent deity? Quite the contrary, weeks like this are responsible for why so many people in our society refuse even to consider the possibility that there is a God – lest they come to associate divinity with senseless tragedies. If these are the fruits of God’s will, who needs a Devil?

How, you might ask, did Spinoza cope with weeks like this one? Lord knows he knew them well. Within a period of about four years, leading up to the time he was 21, Spinoza had lost his father, his stepmother (his mother died when he was five or six), a sister and a brother. Clearly, this master of rationality couldn’t possibly take on faith that we should expect to live a long life. Spinoza himself never made it to 45, and spent his later years suffering with bad lungs.

Somehow though, he kept up his spirits. He preached an ethic that equated the present with the eternal – for to Spinoza, everything happens precisely as it must, for it expresses the essential nature of God, of which we are all mere expressions or manifestations. To Spinoza, there is no “before, after, or when” in God. There is just Being itself. And if we are to be conscious of the glory that is Being, that is God, why not revel in it?

As for the idea that terrible, unjust things happen – that princes die prematurely, like the ones who died this past week – Spinoza implicitly addressed this notion as well. He did so in the Appendix to Part I of the Ethics, in response to the so called “problem of evil,” which many today believe refutes the idea that there is a God. Nobody would say that the tragic, premature death of a beautiful soul is an example of “evil,” but it smacks of the same kind of injustice and unfairness that we as children are taught to view as antithetical to the divine will. So how would Spinoza explain the existence of horribly unfair and tragic events in a world in which the “intellectual love of God” is perhaps the highest commandment?

“To those who ask why God did not create all men that they should be governed only by reason, I give no answer but this: because matter was not lacking to him for the creation of every degree of perfection from highest to lowest; or, more strictly, because the laws of his nature are so vast, as to suffice for the production of everything conceivable by an infinite intelligence.”

There you have it – words about life from perhaps our species’ supreme rationalist. Perhaps it comforted him. Lord knows, it has satisfied me intellectually over the years. But some weeks, no amount of intellectualizing can satisfy us. Questions remain, emotional questions. Why George, and not me? Why couldn’t Mike at least live long enough for that retirement party, where he could allow all of his protégées to tell him how much we love him? Why couldn’t Curtis know what it’s like to be a mature adult with a family of his own? Is this really the product of an “infinite intelligence,” or is the problem that much of what occurs does not stem from ANY intelligence?

If Spinoza had just said “Shit happens,” perhaps that would have said more with less.


Mary Lois said...

Dan, you might be interested in a couple of blog posts I made a few years ago touching on the topic of why things happen. The second post more closely addresses what you ask.

Daniel Spiro said...

I'll take a look at it Mary Lois.