Children on the Fringe: Lives Worth Living?
As I cross the threshold into old age, I find myself dwelling more and more on the question of whether it was all worth it; that is, did all the struggle, the pain, the misery of my life balance out the fun, the joy, the profound emotional rewards. In the end, will the terror of death that we all find hanging over us like the Damoclean sword have been worth the long voyage to get ourselves, finally, positioned under it. The bottom line, it would seem, as to whether having children is immoral comes down to how we answer that question.
In doing my research to compose this blog entry, I found a long, erudite, and difficult-to-read essay by the philosopher William James. He begins by quoting Walt Whitman, that purveyor of poetic joie de vivre who thought life was an unremittingly grand and glorious thing:
"To breathe the air, how delicious!
To speak, to walk, to seize something by the hand!...
To be this incredible God I am!...
O amazement of things, even the least particle!
O spirituality of things!
I too carol the Sun, usher'd or at noon, or as now, setting;
I too throb to the brain and beauty of the earth and of all the
growths of the earth....
I sing to the last the equalities, modern or old,
I sing the endless finales of things,
I say Nature continues--glory continues.
I praise with electric voice,
For I do not see one imperfection in the universe
And I do not see one cause or result lamentable at last."
Oh, please, Walt. Get a grip. And it's amazing that he could think this way after witnessing the horrors of the Civil War first hand as he did his volunteer work in military hospitals.
The point that James eventually makes, if you can wade through the nearly incoherent 19th Century prose, is summed up in these two quotes:
“This life is worth living, we can say, since it is what we make it, from the moral point of view.”
“Believe that life is worth living and your belief will held create the fact.”
That is, life is what you make it. Don't worry, be happy (Bobby McFerrin). A man will be about as happy as he makes up his mind to be. (A. Lincoln) It all comes down to having and keeping a good attitude. But it helps to be married and financially secure.
In a population survey of Great Britain conducted by the Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Wales College of Medicine, Cardiff, UK, it was found that 3.1 Percent of Brits had had thoughts that life was not worth living in the week before the interview. Less than 1 Percent of these people had suicidal thoughts. Still, across a population of millions, that's a lot of not-good thinking.
Poverty and lack of social support such as marriage or meaningful relationships seems to increase people's feelings that it would have been better never to have been born. Suicide rates go up in hard times.
So, Whitmans's flamboyant, unalloyed celebration of life notwithstanding, to think life is worth living, you need to have a good attitude, and having some cash on hand and a good friend of some sort helps sustain it.Living in conditions like these folks here survive in might leave one to consider options other than Whitman's enthusiastic embrace of the joy of a beating heart.
But why agonize over this at this point in my life? In my next novel, a work-in-progress just getting underway, I'm developing this idea as a literary argument: Is it immoral to brings children into this world?
As luck would have it, in a recent New Yorker magazine (April 9th) there is a review of several books on the subject by Elizabeth Kolbert. Interestingly enough, the first book she discusses was written by a doctor who lived in my tiny New England hometown village way back in 1832. One Charles Knowlton of Ashfield, Massachusetts wrote "Fruits of Philosophy: The Private Companion of Young Married People by a Physician."
This scandalous treatise (the good doctor changed history and ended up in jail/fined on a couple of occasions) advises young marrieds that, though the judicious use of certain carefully described techniques, having children could be avoided. In other words, kids need not be the inevitable result of sexual congress.
In another book Kolbert reports the author says simply, if we are going to continue to have kids we ought to come up with a reason--and because it's "natural" isn't good enough. There are a lot of "natural" urges the we manage to successfully control for the benefit of all.
Another argument for producing children is that if you don't, you deny them the pleasures of existence, eating ice cream say. I say, what happens when the ice cream is gone? Or what if there is no ice cream, just starvation in a dusty street in a bombed out dystopia?
An always compelling argument for having children is that they make parents happy. But, no, according to Kolbert, a scientific survey revealed that most mothers reported that they were happier when they were shopping, eating, exercising, or watching TV then when engaged in actual child rearing. Surprised? Me either.
So then, is it immoral to bring a child into this world knowing full well that she/he is doomed to suffer and die? Alas, I think so, yes. When the best you can hope for is the off chance that your offsprings' suffering will be minimized by a buoyant attitude sustained by good companionship, good health, and a reliable and sufficient cash flow we need to think twice before taking that aspirin from between our collective knees. Look at it this way, you wouldn't bet your children's fate on a game of craps, but that's essentially what you do when you procreate. Life's a crap shoot and then you die.
Still, that urge to maternity/paternity is bone-deep, DNA driven, and mandated by an Evolutionary process that causes children to be the fulfillment of most peoples dreams. I witnessed recently my daughter's overwhelming, unreserved joy at the development of her first child and the arrival of the next. I witnessed that joy in myself, in fact. It was all very wonderful and exciting. What we need to do now is load those dice.
Whitman would have approved of the unbridled joy of these impoverished youngsters. But what were their parents thinking?