The full embrace of life, from conception to death, is one of the most basic tenets of our Faith.
There are many ways that we can try to limit this embrace. One of the most extreme is abortion, of which birth control is a subset; another is suicide, of which euthanasia is a subset.
But there are many other ways. I remember lying in bed one morning in LA, gazing out across the rooftops, and thinking, Hmmm, drapes might be a good idea. My next thought was: I’m 50 — why buy a curtain rod now?
Now that 50 seems like mere infancy, the impulse to shut down early arises more and more often. I’m too old to take a trip, I might think, or why plant a garden? The planet will be dead in 30 years, anyway.
In the 2017 Paul Schrader film, “First Reformed,” a climate change activist despairs so deeply when his wife becomes pregnant that he urges her to abort. He wonders how he’d be able to face his daughter when, as a young adult, she’d inevitably demand to know how he could have brought her into this world of suffering.
The absurd idea that shutting down early is a virtue constitutes a denial both of death and of life. The fact is the world is always full of suffering.
Nonetheless, it’s become de rigueur in certain circles to assert that those who really care about the future of the planet will forgo having children.
Taken to its logical conclusion, this line of thinking would mean we all had a moral obligation to commit mass suicide.
True activism, true resistance, consists precisely in an insistence upon life: a yes to life — for the benefit of every person on earth — that, like Mary’s yes, plunges us into the perilous but exhilarating unknown.
For every woman who has an abortion, for example, there’s another who would give anything to bear a child into the world. What if true virtue consisted of the commitment to bear, raise, nurture, and foster the child we’ve conceived precisely, in a way, for the woman who’s not able to?
Servant of God Dorothy Day, co-founder of the lay Catholic Worker movement, spoke of “the duty of delight” (she borrowed the phrase from 19th-century literary critic John Ruskin). Our culture, by contrast, imposes a duty of despair.
If you don’t live in a state of perpetual outrage, the groupthink goes, you’re neglecting your civic duty. If you’re not perpetually exhausted, you’re not working hard enough. If you enjoy a good laugh, you’re not sufficiently remorseful about wrongs committed 200 or 300 years ago. Hope, common sense, humor, a sense of fun, anything smacking of a childlike heart in this anti-life atmosphere is relentlessly slapped down.
Echoing Day, in “The Holy Longing” Father Ron Rolheiser observes, “The opposite of depression is delight, being spontaneously surprised by the goodness and beauty of living. … In Western culture, the joyous shouting of children often irritates us because it interferes with our depression.”
In “Escape from Camp 14,” Blaine Harden recounts the story of Shin Dong-hyuk (b. 1982), at the time the only known person to have been born in a North Korean death camp, escaped, and survived.
People were so hungry in the camps that they ate bits of half-digested food picked from cow dung. A 6-year-old girl was beaten to death for hiding five kernels of corn. Shin snitched out his own mother and brother and was then forced to watch their executions.
After escaping, Shin made his way to South Korea and — free at last — was plunged into an existential crisis. In spite of the horrific conditions in the camps, suicide was practically nonexistent. Here among privilege and plenty, he saw, money and the manic drive for “success” kept people in a state of bondage so complete that they were committing suicide in droves.
I think of my father who, in 1999, was dying in agony, with congestive heart failure, kidney failure, and a gangrenous foot. When we finally had to present him with the dreadful specter of taking him off dialysis, he raised his weary head and croaked, “Geez, ya hate to throw in the towel just yet.”
I think of my late friend Fred, also in agony, dying a slow death from emphysema in the Westwood VA Hospital.
“What do you think keeps us going, Fred?” I mused one day. “Is it the memory of a summer afternoon … our first kiss?’’ He extricated one puny arm from a nest of tubes and waved me off. “Nah, it’s not that. I just wanna see what happens next!”
For every person who wants to prevent or avert new life, in other words, someone else would give anything to live one more day. If Shin Dong-hyuk, and my father, and Freddie Davis, had the heart to want to go on living, do we owe them anything less?
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” exhorted Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Our light will go out soon enough. Let’s keep it burning hard and bright, up to the last possible second.