My first response to this short story, after P posted it, was “What a stupid and depressing story.”
It made me think of an idea I had expressed to P the night before as we were talking about Mother Teresa (many of my best ideas are created in discussions with P). P said “She never even thought of herself!” which is a statement that has been made about Mother Teresa many times.
The thing is, Mother Teresa would have had to think of herself. She had to mete out the exact amount of energy to help as many people as possible. If she had behaved like the nightingale, and given all of her resources, emotional and otherwise, to help just one single person, she would have been far less able to spread love and healing throughout the world.
This is why I have never had much patience with martyrs. Once you’re dead, you’re dead. You are unable to assist humanity any further.
But then, I thought further to another book I had a vague recollection of, A Tale of Two Cities. I recalled that at the end of this book a man dies in the place of another man out of love for the other man’s wife, dying for love, not unlike our friend the nightingale.
The difference is that in this book the man (Carton) dies for the same reason as the nightingale but lets a man (Darnay) live to take care of his family, while Carton does not have a family. So Carton traded his single life for the at least three lives Darnay was able to support, making his death noble and meaningful.
And, of course, there is Christ himself, who, definitely righteously, died to save humanity. But sometimes I think that we do not treat Christ’s gift appropriately, likening humanity to the foolish Student and his girlfriend. If you are not a Christian, use Socrates. We also executed him for the knowledge he passed down to us. Do we use and appreciate his ideas like they deserve? I think most of us would agree that the answer would be “Sometimes” at best.
In death there are no do-overs. Therefore, in dying for something you make a certain gamble that your sacrifice will work out, because you won’t be allowed to fix it if it doesn’t. The nightingale’s gamble failed and his precious life was wasted. It is not that the nightingale died, but that the nightingale died in vain, that is the true tragedy.