Tuesday, August 13, 2013

I Wish I'd Never Been Born

This may come as no surprise, but I've never been the best at having appropriate emotional connections to things. I'm usually either far too detached or far too attached. It was worse as a child.

In about fourth grade I collected three bright orange salamanders (which I named after characters from The Westing Game, my favorite book as a child, other than Dr. Doolittle) from the woods behind our house and build a homemade terrarium for them in an old bucket. This was not an ideal situation for them and they clearly began to get sick, lethargic, and started turning white. I needed to put them back in their natural environment, for their own good. However, I recall returning with the terrarium from the woods crying and my mom having to let them go because I was too attached.

All that to say, people were often shocked at how detached and rational I was when talking about life. My wife seems to think it odd I have lots of memories of conversations, as a child, about dying or having never been born. I blame my father's unabashed (and my subsequent, Stockholm-syndrome-esque adopted) love for It's a Wonderful Life.*

I recall telling people that it wouldn't matter if I died tomorrow. I sort of still feel this way. It would certainly matter today, if you told me I was going to die tomorrow, but come tomorrow, I'm just not going to care; I'll be incapable of it. I suppose that sort of logic is hard to deal with.

More difficult, and admittedly troubling, I remember distinctly telling people that, while I didn't yearn for death, it might have been preferable never to have been born. I recognize now, the right of people to be shocked by a single-digit-year-old kid saying such things. It sounds depressing. If it happened today, I might ended up under psychiatric watch - although that could probably be said for a lot of things I did as a child. I was an odd child.

Still, it belies a kind of logic I'd never really thought about until recently. If I'd never been born, for one, I would not have the capacity to "miss" anything. It takes existence to understand existence (unless you're an anomaly on the holodeck). The second theory, I guess, is mathematically, although I will not vouch for the mathematical abilities of my younger self. I guess I figured having no experiences at all would be preferable to having the negative experiences associated with life. The possibility of positive experiences seemed to be outweighed by the tragedy of negative experience.

Now I was an odd child. The things above are only really the breezeway leading into the lobby of the hotel that is my strangeness. However, I don't really have many memories of being picked on or bullied. I certainly recall never understanding how or why people did anything they did, and I don't recall ever really feeling like I fit in, but none of it because of other people.

There was never anyone who said to me "I wish you'd never been born," and I don't even remember wishing I'd never been born; I simply acknowledged that it would probably be better. Perhaps the negative experiences of life simply tainted all the rest for me.

Wow, that was a long introduction, even for me. What I'm getting at is both a complex and a simple question: Life is a guarantee of pain and hardship, but is nothingness, non-existence better than living through pain?

I'm still pretty convinced by the logic of my childhood. It makes sense to me. But now I also have to wrestle with what is a widely accepted theological axiom: life is a gift. That gets a bit confusing when broken down into individual details. It's tough for me to believe life is a gift for victims of torture and genocide, for drug-addicted babies or child sex-slaves. I'm not sure I can see each life is a gift. The world may be too messed up for that.

I do think, though, as much as it defies my airtight, fourth grade logic, that when speaking generally about life, we can and should say life is a gift. There are some logical arguments to be made (chiefly that life is defined by pain and to rid life of such would be to make it something other than life, even if that other state would be preferable to life - we can say non-existence is better than existence, but really we have no perspective by which to judge; you're either one or the other and true objectivity would require both), but none of the logical, rational arguments are all that exciting.

Instead I offer, once again, hope. As a Christian I believe in the parousia, which is a Greek word (or some form of a Greek word, I don't know Greek) which really just means the arrival of a person, but in the Christian scriptures refers to the return of Christ. Christians hold that this "Day of the Lord," as it's often called, is the time when creation will come to fruition.

We believe that the world in which we live, the lives we live, are not complete, they are building to something. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us a glimpse into what this something is/will be, but we're still looking through a glass darkly - trying to make out the world into which we're becoming, but still falling short.

What that means for this discussion is that life can't properly be judged because the life we experience is only immature life. It is not complete. Whatever pain and suffering we experience (and for some people, that is all there is), is only part of the whole. There is still a fulfillment, a redemption, a conclusion yet to be realized.

To be fair, I think it allows us a caveat. IF this is all life is, then yes, it might be better to have never lived. But that IF is a big deal. You see, each of us, every one of us, is actually alive. Never having lived is not an option for anyone or anything anywhere at any time. It's just not.

While you may or may not believe in parousia, I think it's fair to say anyone who remains alive has some hope that things will be better in the future. Even the pessimists harbor some hope, deep down in their subconscious, that they're wrong.

Like the second rule of improv, it never hurts to go big. Why expect a future of slightly better? What sense does it make not to fan your flame of hope into something huge? Possible disappointment? I suppose. But when do big dreams have to be limited to our experience? That's an awfully selfish point of view. Why can't I hope for a redeemed world, a fulfilled life somewhere in the future, even if I never see it?

(Of course, for Christians, this concept of resurrection makes that more appealing, since we'll all see it anyway.)

Life does not have to be futile if the good I work for, the love I share, pays off for someone else.

I'm just going to live as if life is a gift, whether I really believe it or not, because I suspect it's a better way to live. You can disagree with me if you want, and I won't argue. You've got a lot of solid evidence on your side. But you might want to hear the story George Bailey has to tell before you make up your mind.



*By the way, if you have or watch a colorized version of this movie, you are dead to me!

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