Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Cost of Soul

There's a phrase that's become very important to me. Although it's a common phrase, it struck me forcefully some years ago when someone said it to me. I've been thinking about it in connection with what's happened in New Orleans and the Katrina zone this past month, and not just the awful parts.

Because it's become important to me, I notice it when I hear others say it. In real life (right after 9/11, for instance) and in Star Trek.

The circumstances for me weren't very dramatic. I was in a booth at a neighborhood coffee bar, absorbed in reading and writing. I knocked a pen on the floor but kept reading for a minute. When I looked up, a man was handing the pen to me. He was a custodian for this place but he appeared to have been just passing by. I looked up at him, surprised, and thanked him. He was a black man, perhaps in his sixties. He just nodded and said quietly, "You'd do the same for me."

I think it was the way he said it, with a casual gravity, as though it was something he said regularly, but it also had the quality and weight of a personal mantra of some importance.

It wasn't the first time I'd heard it, of course, but this time it struck me immediately. And the more I thought about it, the more it's come to mean.

Now I see that it sums up entire philosophies and puts many book-length ethical treatises to shame. "You'd do the same for me" is nothing less than the basis of civil behavior, from courtesy to heroism. It is the basis of civilization, the impulse and ethic that speaks for the human soul.

It's a phrase of some importance in Star Trek, in at least two widely separated moments which nevertheless have a lot in common.

The first is towards the end of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Kirk and his crew have defied Starfleet, seen Kirk's son killed and the Enterprise destroyed, in their quest to rescue Spock from death, to literally put his soul back into his body. This has been accomplished, but the revived Spock is not yet whole, not yet "human."

Kirk has already faced Sarek, Spock's father. "Kirk, I thank you," Sarek says. "What you have done---"

"What I have done I had to do," Kirk says.

"But at what cost? Your ship, your son---"

"If I hadn't tried, the cost would have been my soul."

These were the stakes in this endeavor. Not the survival of earth or the population of some other planet, but one man's soul, the Captain's soul, and therefore, it was humanity defining itself through the hero.

Now Kirk faces Spock for the first time. He, too, asks why. "My father says you came back for me."

Kirk responds with a quick, almost throwaway phrase, yet Kirk is telling Spock something he once knew, what he once did (that got him killed in the first place), and who he once was. "You'd do the same for me," he says.

At that moment, it may not be true---Spock is not yet himself. Kirk is telling him who his friend Spock essentially is, who they are.

"You'd do the same for me" is a standard, and it is also a bargain, a contract. I felt this in my little encounter in the coffee bar. By saying it to me, that man was stating both his own moral standard and his faith that others share it in the delicate informal system of day-to-day civilization. In the simplicity of this statement, in its simple assumptions, he was educating me and challenging me to rise to this standard. It is in some ways an ultimate equality, and a testament of faith in human possibility and the human heart.

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