One day as I sat working quietly at my county job, my nervous system suddenly went to red alert as the roars of an enraged man resounded through the nearby cafeteria. From a window overlooking the area, I saw patrons standing at their tables staring uncomfortably at something just out of my range of vision. As I raced down the stairs, speculations competed in my mind: Could a demented prisoner, destined for the courts, have escaped his escort of deputies? Could one of our normally harmless street people have slipped over the edge into a violent psychotic episode?

When I got down to the cafeteria, I discovered that the source of the disturbance was a severely disabled man. As his two attendants struggled to keep him under control, the man howled, jerked, and grimaced, a thick rope of saliva oozing from his mouth. Over the next several weeks I saw him almost daily in the cafeteria. His eyes were pinched, suggesting blindness and giving his face a dark fierceness. He moved awkwardly, shuffling on enormous, padded shoes. He would often emit loud, hoarse cries and fling his arms about, startling passers-by. Less frequently he just sat and drooled onto his plate. His body and the area around him were usually festooned with whatever he was eating.

One day as we made our way past him, my friend Marty said to me, “Caroline says that’s an abortion that should have been.” I was momentarily stunned by her words, coming in the midst of what had been a casual conversation. Then my mind erupted in a cacophony of anxieties: How should I respond to this? I can’t pretend I agree, or it’s no big deal. But I don’t think she even believes in God. Where can I even start? I really like her—I don’t want her to be angry with me. But I can’t not respond to this. Well, that’s the end of this friendship. Come off it, this is Marty.

Finally I said, “I’m afraid I can’t agree.”

“Well, look at him,” Marty protested. “What is there for him? And what about the people around him? His poor attendants. His family!”

I knew Marty didn’t want a lecture, so I tried to keep it brief, but I was nervous. I stumbled and babbled and rambled, all the while watching Marty closely for signs of impatience or anger. But she just alternated between looking confused and thoughtful.

I was thankful. The last time I’d tried to say anything about abortion was in a business seminar on making presentations. It was traumatic. I gave a five-minute talk in which I tried to make the fairly innocuous (and obvious) point that the key issue in the abortion controversy is whether the fetus is human. Everyone, I said, would agree that human beings ought not be killed for trivial reasons. Choice per se is certainly trivial; if I tried to argue that I had a right to kill my neighbor because that was what I chose to do, the courts would choose to give me the death penalty, if they didn’t choose to lock me up in an asylum instead. I concluded by saying that until the issue of when a human becomes human is solved, opponents in the abortion debate will continue to talk past each other.

At this point the other participants were supposed to evaluate the presentation: Was it logically organized? Was it “jargon-free?” Was it interesting? On that last point I’d evidently scored very highly with one particular lady who fairly vibrated with “interest.” I had barely stopped talking when she jumped up and let me have it. I can’t remember much of what she said, but she was definitely far more interested in the substance of my talk than its form. Fortunately she was also more interested in blasting me than in hearing a response to her objections, for my brain had frozen into gelato at the first salvo, and I was able to get by with mindlessly repeating, “This seems to be something about which you have strong feelings.” Needless to say, I was not anxious to repeat this experience, and I was grateful for Marty’s response.

The next day, however, as Marty and I walked out of the cafeteria, Caroline walked up and Marty said, “I told Margaret about what you said, about the abortion that should have been, and she didn’t agree.” Thanks, Marty. Caroline was looking at me like they must have looked at Benedict Arnold. Where had I seen that look before?

I quickly decided that I had one shot, and I’d better make it good. It just wasn’t clear to me, I said, that this fellow had a worthless life, which seemed necessarily to be implied by the idea that he should have been aborted. Caroline was not happy with my inference. In the subsequent, rather tense discussion, I gradually realized that she was a kindly person who felt grieved and helpless at the pain she saw. Without particularly thinking about the issue of abortion in all its complexity, she reasoned that if this man had never been born, he would never have suffered so terribly; therefore, it would have been better if he’d never been born. The look she’d given me had apparently arisen from an expectation that I was about to attack her.

I suggested there might be a purpose to the man’s pain, something that could be accomplished no other way. Here we were getting into another complex philosophical question, the problem of evil: If God is good, presumably He’d want to eliminate pain and evil. If God is all-powerful, presumably He’d be able to. Since pain and evil exist, it might seem that God is either not good, or not all-powerful. However, what if, paradoxically, pain and evil have a role in their own demise? That is, what if they had to exist at some point in the history of the universe in order to be eliminated entirely later? That would mean that pain and evil exist, not because God is not good, or because He is not all-powerful, but because He is not finished. Caroline became disdainful at the idea, however, and I suspected that at some point in her past she had suffered greatly and had been offered glib answers. We parted, agreeing simply that the disabled man’s situation was very sad.

Reflecting on our interaction later, it occurred to me that, whatever else might be said for pain, there was nothing like it for making us ask the big questions, particularly that biggest of questions, “What is the meaning of life?” Now when I say, “ask the big questions,” I’m not talking about an intellectual exercise. I’m talking about what C. S. Lewis did toward the end of his life, after writing prolifically and profoundly about all sorts of philosophical and theological issues, including the problem of evil, when his beloved wife of only a few years died. Suddenly the question came home. All his old answers didn’t work any more. Now it was real in a way it had never been before. He was shaken to the core.

Imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Viktor Frankl, a young Jewish psychiatrist, had an opportunity to witness that kind of shaking many times over. Here was a group of people who had experienced loss so total it boggles the imagination. Some gave up, either running “into the wire,” an electric fence that surrounded the camp, or wasting away after lapsing into an inertness even beatings couldn’t dispel. Others became animals, as ruthless in their way as their captors, determined to survive at any cost. But Frankl also observed men who “walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.”

Frankl wondered what made this last group different. As he documents in his extraordinary book Man’s Search For Meaning, he finally concluded that these men had managed to find meaning in what was happening to them. He quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” These men had a why, and it was rooted in something that could not be taken from them, since virtually everything that could be taken from them had been. And what was this thing, this anchor of the soul? Frankl quotes Dostoevski: “There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” It was the love of goodness, the desire to be worthy, to respond rightly.

When these men were shaken, inside themselves they found a rock. They discovered that there was something they valued more than life and comfort, and therefore death and pain held no ultimate threat for them. Frankl calls it “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.”

If we were to evaluate all of these prisoners in terms of how they reacted to their situation, it is hard to imagine anyone not agreeing that the response of the last group revealed them to be great men. We may feel compassion for those other responses and call them understandable, but for the last response we feel awe, and we call it noble.

If any lives could be said to have worth, surely these last could. But what did they do? If the essence of their greatness was in inspiring words, then Dale Carnegie is surely greater than they. If the essence of their greatness was in providing food, then Safeway has them beat by a mile. What they did was not much; it couldn’t have been otherwise—in their situation there wasn’t much they could do. However, that did not stop them from being great, and in consequence, having lives of incredible worth. Obviously, what made them great was not what they did, but why they did it, that is, who they were.

But this means that what a person does is irrelevant to the question of whether his life has worth. Perhaps this sounds too strong—surely what someone does is a consequence of who he is. If someone performs a great act, then doesn’t that make him a great person? Yes, but how do we recognize a great act? Imagine the situation in which a grenade is hurled into a group of soldiers, and one of them throws himself upon it. We applaud his behavior, until we find out that his fiancee had just broken off their engagement, and he wanted her to be tortured by guilt the rest of her life for having rejected such a hero. His falling on the obliging grenade was not only not a great act, it was an act of profound cowardice and malice.

Conversely, the absence of “great acts” does not necessarily mean the absence of greatness. The poet Milton recognized that greatness was to be found in serving God, and in his Sonnet XIX, he laments that he is unable to serve God because he is blind. But then Patience, the virtue personified, remonstrates that God does not need man’s work; indeed, anything with which we might serve Him was a gift from Him in the first place. Those serve Him best who “bear his mild yoke.” God has thousands at His command, unceasingly going about all His immense business, but “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Blindness, Milton is saying in his poem, may be regrettable for many reasons, but not because it is a hindrance to greatness. Greatness is not a function of health or intelligence or opportunity or anything else external to a man. Rather, it is something about the internal man, who he is, what he loves. This was Jesus’ point in calling attention to the widow and her mite.

About the disabled man in the cafeteria, Marty had asked, “What is there for him?” I now answer, “Everything.” His disabilities do not invalidate his life; they are merely the framework in which his life is lived. As with anyone else, he must decide how to respond to the situation in which he finds himself. As with anyone else, his decisions will reveal greatness, or not.

Jack Crabtree once summarized these ideas by saying, “It’s not what you do; it’s who you are.” For a while, as a young Christian dismayed by an increasing awareness of my failures in the area of behavior, I took comfort in that maxim. Then one day I was stricken with horror when I realized that what I did didn’t hold a candle to who I was in terms of grubbiness. Where did I think all that behavior was coming from, anyway? At least I had a chance if all I had to do was the right thing. But if I had to be the right kind of person, how could I possibly pull that off?

I was young, but in my mind I could project myself forward to my death bed and ask, “Have I lived a worthy life?”, and with my new criterion it didn’t look good. I was not made of the same stuff as that third group in the concentration camps. Unless something changed radically, I felt doomed to discover that I’d wasted my life, that it would have been all the same, or even better, if I’d never been born.

Then one day I was grieving over someone I love deeply who is almost at the end of a life characterized mostly by bad decisions which hurt people significantly. I wondered how, if she ever began reflecting upon her life, she could avoid dying from sheer sorrow at the realization of what she had done with it. I could imagine such a thing—it was what I feared for myself. But suddenly it occurred to me that if she did look back on her life and acknowledge the reality she saw there, it would be incredibly courageous. To love the truth so much that you were willing to face it even though it showed that you’d wasted your life: that would be heroism. That would be greatness. That would redeem your life.

It now seems to me that there are moral disabilities as well as physical ones, in the sense that they also are part of the framework in which we live our lives. Paradoxically, they do not have to be stumbling blocks to greatness, as long as we are willing to call them what they are—wrong, evil, sin, failure—and repudiate them. If this were not the case, there could be no one great, for there is no one not so disabled. Only in refusing to acknowledge that fact can a person truly waste his life.

In my seminar presentation I said that the key issue in the abortion debate was whether the fetus was human. But since that time I have met people for whom the humanity of the fetus would make no difference, and they do not even pretend otherwise. Ironically, however, those who treat inconvenient lives as worthless make themselves as worthless as it is possible for something in the image of God to be. No human being can ever truly be worthless—which is why judgement is such a tragedy, but why it is a necessity also: we are not broken tools to be discarded, but rebellious sons to be held accountable. Milton, Dostoevski, and the invisible heroes of the Holocaust were right: worth and meaning come from pursuing the good. Therefore, those who live their lives as if goodness does not matter render themselves worthless; they abort their own souls.