When I was in my late teens, my mother became friendly with Beth, a woman she occasionally worked with on the post-partum unit of the local hospital. Beth had two children a little younger than I, however, when our moms got together outside of the workplace, we (the kids) sometimes found ourselves thrust together.
I don’t recall how the conversation began on this particular day, but Beth’s children were complaining (within earshot of their mother) about life. They were sour on the experience. “You’re born and then you die.” They didn’t seem to have much enthusiasm for the possibilities available to them before death. Their mother asked them, “Would you rather just not be?” Their answer, an unequivocal “YES,” surprised me. It resonated with my own feeling at the time—one that I had not dared articulate.
I remember Beth being quite religiously conservative. No doubt that helped forge the bond of friendship she and my mother enjoyed. My upbringing was in a non-denominational, fundamentalist community that read the Bible literally. The “fires of hell” that would burn unbelievers forever and ever were real. To escape that fate, all one need do is “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.” I never knew exactly what that meant—still don’t—but for years, I feared that the “fires of hell” were a fate awaiting me. Since I was never sure my belief “took,” I was given to melancholia. Wouldn’t it be better never to have been born?
“The New Yorker” published Joshua Rothman’s article, based on an interview with David Benatar (11/27/17), titled “The Case for Not Being Born.”
David Benatar (b. 1966) is a South African philosopher, vegan, and anti-natalist who writes in his 2006 book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence: “While good people go to great lengths to spare their children from suffering, few of them seem to notice that the one (and only) guaranteed way to prevent all the suffering of their children is not to bring those children into existence in the first place.” He believes that life is so bad, so painful, that human beings should stop having children for reasons of compassion.
Does Benatar have a valid point? He writes, “The quality of human life is, contrary to what many people think, actually quite appalling.” We are almost always hungry and thirsty, too hot or too cold, tired, yet unable to sleep. We suffer through sicknesses as well as “frustrations and irritations.” Hope for a better world in the future “hardly justifies the suffering of people in the present.” He believes “a dramatically improved world…will never happen. The lessons never seem to get learnt.”
David Benatar put into words what Beth’s children must have felt. Some have asked Benatar, “If life is so bad, why don’t you kill yourself?” His response is that life is bad, but then, so is death. Life is worth continuing—there are good things about it, but life is certainly not worth starting.
If we do arrive amongst the living, how do we handle our inevitable extinction? The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) reflects the doctrinal standards of many Presbyterian churches. The tenets in that catechism were accepted in my parents’ religious community as Truth. The first question: “What is the chief end of man?” The response: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” What does it mean to “glorify God?” What does it mean to “enjoy him forever?” I didn’t know then except in a vague sort of way, and I really don’t know now, but in the community that spawned me, there were men in charge who knew exactly what that meant and did not hesitate to go about shaping their congregants into their own idea of such—their own image. I spent far too many years trying to comply.
Many scholars think the Neanderthals were the first to create a counter narrative to the reality of death as a way to come to terms with the experience. They buried their dead with tools and weapons, indicating a belief in a future world beyond the grave. Perhaps this was the beginning of the phenomenon we call “religion.”
Today, despite their wide variety of expressions, religions address what all of us eventually experience—death. Many religions, most notably Christianity and Islam, assure their followers of a peaceful, happy place on the other side of the grave contingent, though, on beliefs and behavior on this side.
Buddhism, if nothing else, is practical. The Buddha never claimed divinity. He proposed a way to alleviate human suffering in this world. “I am awake.” he said, upon reaching enlightenment. Awakening is the realization of universal transitoriness. Nothing remains static. In a nutshell, accept and embrace that inevitability (including transitioning to death) while living compassionately in the present.
Hinduism, using the image of Nataraja Shiva, invites us into the dance of life—a dance taking place within a dangerous ring of fire illustrated by the tongues of flames encircling Shiva. The symbol assures us that a power greater than ourselves can remove obstacles we encounter—indicated by the elephant trunk pose of one of Shiva’s left arms. In addition, Shiva tells us not to be afraid demonstrated by the “fear not” position of his open right palm.
Wrestling with the anguish that life inevitably brings finds expression in popular culture as well. The country singer, Garth Brooks, thinks the suffering that comes with being alive is worth the hassle. He croons, “I could have missed the pain. But I’d have had to miss the dance.”
Benatar says, “The madness of the world as a whole—what can you or I do about that? But every couple, or every person, can decide not to have a child.”
Something to ponder.
Today the “fires of hell” don’t concern me, however, as much as I’d rather they didn’t, Benatar’s words do resonate.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.