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Short Story

Why should I live when others die?

A short story in which Arthur Chappell sees his life flash before his eyes.

I am writing this, in the likelihood that I do not survive the next thirty minutes. I am unfortunate enough to be a passenger on a jet aircraft which is in danger of crashing into the Alps because of severe engine failure. The plane needs to climb to a higher altitude quickly or all hundred and fifty travellers are doomed. All luggage and the seats and anything not essential to the function and fabric of the aircraft have been jettisoned. The only thing left to do is for about five of the passengers to be sacrificed by having them jump willingly out of the plane, unless the other passengers throw them out. I, like the rest of the passengers, am invited to make a case for why my life should be preserved, and spared or not, as the case may be. Will I pluck up the courage and volunteer to die? Will I have to be killed off! Should I die, another passenger will bring this testament to the eyes of my next of kin. Strange how you suddenly start wanting to live when your life seems in danger of ending. Sartre felt more alive than ever when fighting for the French Resistance in the war, knowing the Germans could get him at any minute. I want to live. I really, desperately want to live.

The pilot of the plane is guaranteed his safety, as he is clearly needed to keep the plane flying at all. Also, in the great stiff upper lip tradition of disaster crisis management, the men have collectively granted the right to live to all the women and children on board our flight.

We can’t draw lots, as anything that could have been apportioned as lots had already been thrown out as we approached Switzerland. A game of one potato-two potato takes too long, as perhaps will any philosophical debate on the value or worthlessness of each individual life on board.

Who then, out of the seventy-three male passengers are to die?

I had been involved in a brief speculative discussion of such a moral dilemma in my childhood. My youth club leaders had first hit me with such a scenario to pass the time when I was travelling out on a coach trip with the club. I wish I’d taken it more seriously. I listened as one by one, the other youths made speculative ‘respectable’ careers for themselves; One boy was The Pope, bringing religious hope to others, and praying even then for the miracle that would save our transportation (it was a hot air balloon rather than a plane then, if I recall correctly). Another lad was our then Prime Minister, Ted Heath, (Kill him, we junior Socialists shouted) and we had an unlikely plethora of well known and well liked TV personalities, doctors, jolly good eggs, etc, all travelling together in one balloon basket. By the time it was my turn all the safe, secure jobs had gone, so I flippantly became the gun-wielding maniac who would kill anyone trying to force me to jump. The problem with our juvenile reasoning, (accepted at face value by our adult supervisors), was that we took on extreme fantasy roles to give our lives some worth. We were after all, young children, with no real sense of what our futures would hold for us.

Now, I am thirty-five; grown up. The unlikely problem faces me for real. No one here can claim such fantastic or imaginative career or celebrity-based grounds for personal salvation. We are all ordinary unexceptional people. To my horror, my own answer to the question hasn’t improved. I find to my shame that I wish I had smuggled a gun on board. Sadly, asked now why I must survive, I realise that being a mere warehouse worker, a Secular Humanist, a writer and a philosophy/literature graduate will probably serve as my death sentence.

I would like to think I would be willing to kill myself to save the other lives, but cowardice overcomes me and I feel as though I must try to find some rational reason why my life is worth living. Perhaps I might talk of future family, children, and so on, but other passengers will have those too. Will we end up arguing about the size of our families and our potential for future fertile procreation? Will those who have had vasectomies be obliged to die?

Men whose wives are on board the plane argue convincingly that they wouldn’t want to be seen dying in front of their weeping loved ones. Alas for me, I travel alone. What of the physical and mentally disabled among us? Will we become so ruthless as to set our worth by appearance and physical ability? I realise that I am bald and overweight. Help! Another avenue closes for me. Being fat is definitely not good for me here. The passengers might argue that if the obese passengers go, we might get away with killing four people instead of five. I’ll keep quiet about that. I don’t want to put ideas into their heads.

All too often we judge our lives and our worth by our profession and how well we do for our families. Our curricula vitae, salaries and bank balances serve more than just our employment chances. Most of the few lifeboats on the Titanic were in the first class accommodation areas. The majority of the male working class passengers drowned. My income might well seem limited compared to that of the other passengers. I feel sorry for the young man sitting nearby who hasn’t got a job at all. The unemployed traveller will have little to argue with or bargain with on such selfish terms.

Will my education give me sufficient rhetoric to argue a more passionate and articulate case for my survival? Would that be honest of me? Will they throw me out because no one likes a smart Alec? How many jobs have I been turned down for now because I am overqualified? Will such criteria be used to sign my life away too?

I can see it now. Philosopher, eh? I read about that Socrates bloke. Hemlock or the cargo hatch. The end result is the same to us. Heave ’im out lads.

Referring to religious belief or lack of it isn’t likely to be much of a case for an individual human survival either. Christians can hardly claim an exclusive right to live while others perish, any more than Jews, or Muslims. Even the Pope, were he travelling with us, would not be that safe. After all, a new Pope can be elected. Perhaps his God would want him to die to save us. Perhaps mourning for him would make world Christians reevaluate their faith. Perhaps his sacrifice would be the ‘Christian’ thing to do? Ah, but the Catholic God doesn’t approve of suicide, does he? Other Christians are hardly likely to support their Pope’s involuntary demise either. If the believers outnumber me, they are more likely to denounce me as the immoral heretical, atheistic infidel. They might become convinced that their God is punishing them for tolerating my non-belief, which might result in their deaths too if they don’t kill me. I can’t help thinking I am doomed. There can be no more dangerous question for any philosopher than, ‘What is the value of your own life?’

We are arguing our respective cases for self-preservation. There is much wailing and begging going on. Some of it comes from me. Anger is setting in. Few are persuaded that any other passenger is more worthy to live than they are themselves. We are starting to pick up on the weaknesses of other passengers instead. My weight problem has been noticed by one of the male models who works out and runs fiftymile marathons every weekend. I counterargue with reference to his pompous vanity and eagerness to set surface appearance over inner qualities. I’m accused of being egotistical. I’m know I’m not brainier than anyone else. I just happen to have done the philosophy course I have referred to as one of my proud achievements in life. There are many practical things I can’t do. I couldn’t put a kitchen shelf up, and I was daft enough to get involved in a cult for five years. Taking a degree was how I got my act back together again. Why do I keep using my philosophy degree as a defence? I tell myself I wasn’t stupid in getting into the mystical phase in my life, because of what I achieved later. Have I got a chip on my shoulder? Am I really so arrogant? I know others could get the same degree by reading the books and putting the work in. It’s just something I did. Do I deserve to live for that? I seem to wield my philosophy pass as a certificate of being sane again. Hope no one here learns of my past. “Cult crackpot; open and shut case. Throw him out.” That my cult belief days are behind me now won’t wash with them. Do all amateur and armchair philosophers, like me, if not the professionals, hope to be seen as ‘clever’ for having studied higher ideas? Is philosophy rooted in a sense of insecurity about not being bright, or intelligent enough to survive the pratfalls and obstacles life puts our way?

It’s now quite possible that a fight will break out as high ethical reflections give way to simple survival-of-the-fittest violence. Alas, I was never a very good fighter.

We have also run foul of the racists among us who are trying to defend themselves on grounds of racial purity over the other races on board. Those who are shocked by their attitude want the racists thrown off the plane. Who is more intolerant? Vigilantism overcomes our principles.

They say that faced with death, your whole life flashes before your eyes. Mine has gone by too quickly. There’s nothing of value left for me to use to defend my right to live. I knew I should have got legal representation to present my case from the lawyer I sat next to, but he’s panicking too and demanding that we kill the estate agents.

Time is running out, as the pilot informs us. Desperately, we’ve started arguing about each other’s crimes and misdemeanours, and we are trying to choose those who must die by whether they are adulterers, divorced, convicted criminals, etc. Will our doomed five men be killed as executions for their indiscretions and their ignorance, or through mob justice? Will it be merely a case of us condemning them with our moral rhetoric to save our own selfish skins?

Perhaps I should die after all. I’m burying myself deeper by the minute. As a last gambit, I cite my writing work and ambitions and how those who read my scrawl think I might become a respected author one day. Sadly, my argument is blown out of the water by the man who observes that my young untimely death might be just what it takes to bring my work to the publishing world’s attention, as death worked for James Dean in relation to films.

In many ways, I am in a situation where I must declare myself somehow better and different to the rest of the passengers, but the more individual, and idiosyncratic my case for self survival becomes, the more I put myself in danger of parachute-free descent towards the ground. I feel as though I am clutching at straws.

Our survival takes on a competitive tooth and claw edge. We may end up lying about our worth.

I’m thirty-five, which may be young compared to the elderly, who are closer to dying anyway, but for many, age represents the wisdom of experience. In some cultures, ancestor worship is highly regarded. Confucianism is an example. An ancestor who wastes his life on the saving of the young might lose their respect.

My trouble is that I want to survive. I like life, but I know that for me to live to see the airport, someone else must die. I am savagely torn between egotistical pride and my sense of altruism. Perhaps such moral confusion condemns me too. If I was more assertive, I might survive. I expect my only hope is to argue effectively why others must live among our passengers, so that they will be grateful enough to me that they will let me live too. If I don’t die willingly, I am obliging the passengers to play a part in my involuntary euthanasia. Can I allow them to live with my blood on their hands?

Thoughts of my mortality assail me. How will I be remembered after I die? My parents might weep, and as a Humanist expecting a non-religious cremation, I won’t even leave the traditional stonemason’s chisel chipped grave marker bearing a ‘ – ‘ between the date of my birth, 1962, and the date my body is scraped off the Matterhorn with a spatula. Will that uncarved dash be all my life amounts to? I remember wanting to join the police and not getting in. Would having become a policeman make my survival any more essential? No. I doubt it.

I decide at last to take my life myself. I am depressed enough now to doubt if it amounts to anything anyway. I hand my notes to one of the female passengers with instructions to deliver it to my loved ones. I move to the door, and prepare to jump. Someone pulls me back. “Don’t. Five men have jumped already. We’re safe now.”

I sit down again. My notes are returned to me. I’m torn between elation and a sense of shame at my cowardice and hesitation. My death would have saved one of those men. I feel like killing myself now, but despite my depression, I feel obliged to make my life worth the sacrifice the heroes of Flight 13-666 made. I wonder what I should do with the time I have left. Write? Work my time away in a warehouse? Be a principled Humanist? Be eternally guilty about living on? Even now, my life is nothing special and I’m using up the planet’s rare and scarce resources for my self-preservation, eating, drinking, spending, buying, etc. HELP! The dilemma is still with me. I don’t know what my life is worth. I guess it will always be so, for all of us.

© Arthur Chappell 1998

Arthur Chappell is a writer and lives in Manchester.

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