Happy to Have Been Born

If one were to take a survey on the subject the great majority of human beings would most likely answer that they are happy to have been born – or, in the words of D. H. Lawrence: “He dashed his glass to the ground and declared, by God, he was glad he had been born, by God, it was a miracle to be alive.“ (Lawrence, Women in Love) Now, firstly, this question “are you happy that you were born?” is an extremely crude all-or-nothing question and, secondly, we must, when such a “big question” as this one is posed, consider the possibility of cognitive distortions. In this case particularly the phenomenon of substitution (cf. Daniel Kahneman) needs to be taken into account; which is to say that it may be that a simpler rather than the true, larger question is really being answered here. Such a simpler question – which, instead of the larger question that is seemingly posed, is in fact being unconsciously and involuntarily responded to here – might, for example, be: “Are you happy that you can, at this moment, go on living?”

In order, then, to arrive at some genuinely nuanced and differentiated conclusion regarding the question of whether human beings are happy that their parents acted in such a way that they began to exist we must make use of a subtler way of proceeding. If it were really the case that human beings were happy to have been born then it would be to be expected that their lives, and the continuation of these lives, would be something extremely valuable to them and that they would never engage in any sort of behaviour which might in any way be detrimental to the quality of these lives and to their continuation. But as the antinatalist Sarah Perry explains in her book “Every Cradle is a Grave”, this is not the case. What we observe, on a very large scale, is rather types of behaviour which take great risks with future quality (and duration) of life in order to make the present more bearable. One form of this behaviour has been given the apt appellation “desperate partying“. Consumption of Narcotics and other dangerous leisure-time activities or types of sport strongly indicate that it is not suicide alone that constitutes a sign that life is not generally or consistently very highly valued by human beings and that it must rather be made bearable by certain types of behaviour detrimental, in the longer term, to life (cf. Perry).

Balzac provides a masterful description of such “desperate partying”: “These primates work day and night, slaving away, never pausing for a moment…Then, however, they show utter disregard for the future and, avid for pleasure, throw away in the tavern, great lords for a day, all the money they have sweated to earn…” (Balzac, “The Girl With the Golden Eyes”) Balzac speaks of the “unhappy ‘happy people’” (ibid.) whom we need always to bear in mind when evaluating answers given to the “big questions”, among which there counts the question of whether someone is happy to have been born.

What ephemeral factors the answer to such a question can depend on is clearly shown by a study in which two groups of subjects were asked to answer two questions – firstly in the sequence AB and then in the sequence BA:

A How happy do you currently feel?

B How many dates have you had in the past month?

and

B How many dates have you had in the past month?

A How happy do you currently feel?

When the questions were posed in the sequence AB, no greater degree of happiness, surprisingly, was reported by those who declared that they had had many dates; the correlation was, in fact, practically zero. When, however, the same questions were posed to another group in the sequence BA, a significant correlation was to be noted: those who had had many dates stated themselves to be happier. Clearly, what was at issue here was a certain emotional resonance: among the persons questioned, those who had had many dates were reminded of happy phases of their lives, which in turn influenced their answer to the second question (see Kahneman).

 

Gambling With One’s Life

Far from looking upon one’s own life as the highest and most unassailable of values, the famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner recommends a certain “gambling” with one’s own life as an appropriate reaction to the fact that one’s existence began heteronomously: “A human being is simply thrown into life, or he suddenly finds himself ‘there’ with a certain stretch of time at his disposal in which he can ‘gamble’ with his own life, that’s the way I see it (…) And one can really only gamble with one’s life if one recognizes that one has limits, that sooner or later one is going to die. As soon as one realizes this, it becomes unimportant when exactly this happens…“ (Reinhold Messner, Mein Paradies, die Berge, in: Paradiese, Saphir Verlags GmbH, Munich 1978) By the same logic it would, then, already have become unimportant that, at a certain point, one began to exist and it can no longer be looked on as imperative that one act in such a way that some new human being begins to exist – the right existential attitude for whom would now, in any case, consist in likewise “gambling” with a life that would become for him, once he had gained insight into Thanatality, something unimportant.

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