If you give me twenty minutes, I will blow your mind. What follows is a look at the amazing story of a man known as “Sixty-Six Garage”, and what it means to me about values such as wisdom, caring, social welfare, brotherly love, absurdity, existentialism, God, life, meaning, and death. Even if you don’t stick around for my commentary, the fifteen minutes it takes to learn about Sixty-Six Garage will be well-worth it. It’s an amazing and illuminating story for lovers of science, believers in God, and folks who pay taxes. Undoubtedly you are one of those three types 🙂
Here is about as much as I can share with you without getting into copyright infringement territory. It should intrigue you. Very artfully worded.
SAN DIEGO — It was his 34th birthday and the icing from the cake was his first taste of food in almost 17 years. He didn’t react when the dollop of chocolate settled onto his tongue. Maybe his taste buds had stopped working. Or maybe he had just forgotten what real food was like.
What else had he missed all these years he’d been confined to a hospital bed? How long had it been since he heard a dog bark or a baby cry? Since he squinted from the sun in his eyes or felt rain on his cheeks? Since he was held by someone he loved?
He’d been kept alive with breathing and feeding tubes, and until a month before his birthday party in January 2016, he’d been known only as “Sixty-Six Garage.”
Wow, right?! I believe that story is on its way to winning a Pulitzer Prize. Absolutely stunning. Rife with meaning and richness.
The way Joanne Faryon describes the moment she saw something she was looking for provides a glimpse into the power of meaning. She writes:
Garage was in a vegetative state, which meant he wasn’t aware of his surroundings or even himself. So each time I saw him, I looked at him as though he wasn’t a person — like he was someone with no thoughts or feelings. Until one day, early in 2015, he smiled at me.
It is difficult for human beings to devalue human life. We come pre-wired with a sense that life – and human beings in particular – are valuable. This is the reason why people do good things for strangers, why we cry when we read stories like this piece about Ignacio, and why soldiers in times of heated battle tend to have an amazingly bad “hit rate” (the reason is that it is actually difficult to get soldiers to want to kill the soldiers from the other side; the military has to beat that out of them, and even so, as the Civil War made famous, the hit rate might be 10-20% in any given battle; 80-90% of the time in the Civil War, soliders intentionally shot high so as to not look cowardly, but not get hanged for desertion, either). Finally, when one studies the nature of Nazi Germany, it is clear that sure, you’re going to find a certain number of sociopaths in any population who will willingly and eagerly kill others; but typically, it takes a lot of pressure and a lot of mental manipulation to convince a populace of otherwise Christian-like individuals that, for example, Jews are vermin – subhuman, unworthy of dignity and respect, and needing to be murdered. It’s not the norm, and it’s not easily accomplished.
Point being, human beings such as the author of the article, Joanne Faryon, are primed to see humans as alive, as thinking and feeling entities, and reflective in some senses of oneself. It takes a lot of slow, vicious teaching and examples to turn a kid rotten. Most normal people with good enough environments growing up would naturally see a man in a vegetative state as having life in there somewhere; we always impose meaning and other values onto stimuli that are neutral or blank or ambiguous.
“What is the verdict of the vastest mind? Silence: the book of fate is closed to us. Man is a stranger to his own research; He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes.”
Where do values such as meaning, wisdom, care, and empathy come in? Human beings are animals, and animals evolved through mutation and natural selection. We evolved to have certain tendencies, traits, loves, avoidance responses, needs, etc. We are social creatures, born to affiliate, and to value other members of the species. That is, incidentally, part of the reason tribalism is now playing such a role in our dysfunctional political and social media worlds: we evolved to care for our tribe, not for every other person on the planet. Nevertheless, I do believe when a neutral person such as Ignacio appears to smile at you, it’s virtually impossible to fail to find meaning in that act. We get the same impulse an anthropologist does when they analyze ancient bones: there is meaning here and I am going to find it!
Meaning is what the author was looking for; she just needed to get to the bottom of the mystery: Is this man “in there” or, astonishingly, has he been in some horrible state, hovering between life and death, kept in this purgatory by modern science? What does this situation mean, that a boy was made vegetative by an accident all those years ago? Is his personality still present? Is he in a horrific state of cognizance of being “alive” in a “dead” body? Can I love him by investigating this and perhaps saving him?
Wisdom needed to be satisfied, too. How can it be that a person can be made “vegetative?” How does a human exist when in a vegetative state? One would naturally ask how society is right (or wrong) by spending $4,000,000 to keep an illegal immigrant in a permanent vegetative state (and, possibly, in a state of living hell). What value does one human life have, and under what conditions is that value present, and when it is void? I think about these things, myself. I didn’t want to see my father when he was in his casket; it just felt like it would be too unnerving and haunting to see his corpse with the life completely bereft. Heck, I shot a dove once when I was 15; I never forgot that act of mindless cruelty. I changed forever on that day.
“Fate has terrible power. You cannot escape it by wealth or war. No fort will keep it out, no ships outrun it.”
It is truly caring and empathic – almost beyond belief – to spend the time and resources that it takes to concern oneself with a man who for all intents and purposes is absolutely unable to benefit Ms. Faryon in any typical sense of the word. Most of us don’t even stop to look at or give a homeless beggar anything when we’re in a big city, and this woman took the time to experiment, to bring out an expert, to be there on his birthday – his fucking birthday! She wanted to know what his name was; she would put herself out to get the Mexican consulate involved; to talk with the Border Patrol; to contact his sister. Truly amazing act of care and of empathy that has great meaning to the writer of the story, Ignacio, and Ignacio’s family. And, I would say, to the reader. It was a very touching piece.
The juxtaposition of this wonderful woman (both human being and writer) and this “virtually lifeless former human being” (if you will) is remarkable! There are a thousand thousand victims of fate, prisoners of circumstance, and pitiful dead-enders in this world. Opioids claim victims every day; mass shooters take lives many times a month now; the earth is warming to the point that humanity may die out at some point this century, and Joanne Faryon created this amazing story of love, of pain, of heartache, of resolution, and wrote an artful piece on it.
Trenchant Tangent: The Amazing Video for the Song “What It’s Like”
I wonder if the story of Ignacio, whom his heartbroken family called “Nacho”, is a story about God having abandoned us long ago; of the utter misery that this universe has in store for many of us. Many Jews felt that way in the Holocaust, and I don’t know if that was ever resolved. The problem of evil is surely a strike against one who would claim that God not only exists, but it is a “he” and it is all-powerful, all-knowing, and benevolent. Maybe God is watching little Nacho all grown up and there is some purpose I can’t fathom. Maybe God made Nacho poor, get hit by that car, and enter a netherworld of pain or nihilism.
I think about my friend, whose son recently died of a drug overdose – and how opioids now kill more Americans than car accidents. I don’t know exactly where human beings’ personal responsibility come into the picture (the car crash, the illegal entry into the United States). I think of immigration, of America’s history of immigration, of America’s history of the massive importation of Africans to act as slave laborers for their entire lives (and their children’s lives, and their grandchildren’s lives). It’s incredible that the State of California would spend that kind of money to keep a heretofore anonymous illegal immigrant on extremely sophisticated life support, considering all the other uses of those four million dollars that would have more than one iota of social worth. It’s all very sad, and embarrassing, and angersome.
“Fate seemed to be playing a series of extraordinarily unamusing jokes.”
Trenchant Tangent: Johnny Cash’s “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” (with lyrics)
Look at his photo and think about the nature of a person, of identity, of the love of a child, of the sanctity of life, of hellish torture, of social stupidity, of fate and of responsibility. That’s what I am doing right now.