Life and Death or the Adventure Between?
My wife and I are expecting our first baby this December. Right now he is a little 2.5 lb boy kicking around and, we imagine, enjoying himself.
A couple of weeks ago one of my wife’s coworkers was diagnosed with cancer. She died last night. Two weeks ago she was in the office, feeling a bit unwell, and now she is gone.
Life and death.
I am constantly amazed at how strange and remarkable these two events seem. It astounds me to feel my son growing and moving inside the womb. It was almost unbelievable to hear of death taking someone so suddenly. Surreal. These two events seem remarkable, unparalleled, amazing, special… how else can the astounding nature of them be expressed!
And yet the more I reflect on these sort of events the more confused I am about my own reaction. There is absolutely nothing more common to the human experience than being born and eventually dying. It has happened and will happen to every single one of us, categorically.
In this respect, these events are totally unremarkable. This probably comes across as a bit… jaded? calloused? anti-climatic? I’m not sure… But my point here is this: if birth and death happen to everyone then, in that sense, there is nothing particularly special about these events. (I am careful here not to say “people” here; I will talk about that in a second.) I think part of the reason that these events are taken the way that they have been so far removed from our daily experience.
I read an article once, and I have since tried and failed to find it again, that made this point. In most of the world birth and death are part of everyone’s every day, or at least every month, experience. Someone is born or dies right before their eyes, probably within their home. Most people will see each of their younger siblings born and they will be present as their older friends and relatives die. This is not the case in the West, where these events are confined to hospitals and hospices. In my 31 years I have never seen anyone born, and I have never watched any one die. The most common of human experiences is completely absent from my own first hand experience, and that’s why they seem so intense.
Its good to remember this. When people ask me if I am anxious about becoming a father I have to remember that what Mary Blake and I are embarking on is wildly exciting, but not wildly unique. If I thought of the event of bringing a child into the world as a feat of tremendous accomplishment I think I would be much more anxious, intimidated, nervous, etc. But I have to remember that its actually quite a normal thing. Wonderful, but normal.
The same, I guess, goes for death. I have never watched anyone die, and no one truly close to me has ever died. I just don’t know what that will be like. I think that, perhaps, that scares me more than bringing a child into the world. How will I deal with that? Again, its good to remember that what is, for me, a totally new and terrifying prospect, is something that billions have experienced, and that each of us will experience. Terrible, if not wonderful, but normal.
Nevertheless, however unremarkable the events of birth or death is in the larger scheme of things that in no way takes away from the persons who are involved. Very soon I will be holding this new person, this new son of ours and he will be someone like no other. Someday I will have to say goodbye to a beloved, and that will be the departure of a unique and unrepeatable person. What makes these people remarkable, however, is not that they were born or that they will die but the life that takes place in between. It is this much more than any single event of origin or termination that defines them. This is something that, I think, my generation is in danger of forgetting.
We have all probably heard the usual diatribe against the “trophies for everyone” culture that defines the last 30 odd years of western (or at least American) culture. I have been particularly aware of this playing out in the two areas, birth and death, discussed above. I listen to people talk about having children as if it makes them some sort of hero, or dealing with death as if some unparalleled disaster has overtaken them. We want trophies for showing up: having a baby, burying a loved one. This is the point at which I am in the great danger of sounding calloused or downright mean, but I think it has to be said: these events are normal, common, the opposite of unique.
What really matters are the people, and what really defines the people is the life lived, the adventure in between these two unremarkable points. What makes birth amazing is that it is the beginning of a human life, and further it is the kind of human life that really matters. The same, conversely, can be said of death. So I while I am not too intimidated (or trying not to be!) about the event of becoming a father, I certainly feel the great weight of fatherhood. What kind of person will this little boy become, and how will I effect that? When he finally dies who will he be? What will make this man something remarkable, something worthy of comment, is not the inevitable fact of his birth, or death, but the quality of the life lived. What will make me a remarkable father is not the event of my son’s birth, but how I live my life in relationship to this person.