Maybe sometimes you’ve been so very depressed that you wished you’d never been born in the first place. Life would have bypassed you. You simply would have never existed. You would never have had to suffer this much. You would never have become such a burden to others, and never have felt so alone. You would never have needed to think about suicide. And because you never existed, no one would ever have missed you. Right?
On the other hand, this also means you would have never known what it is to breathe, touch, laugh, kiss, or cry. You would never have seen any light, the sun, the sky, never have been fed and fondled by your mother, never have smelt a flower or a coffee or a salty breeze from the sea, never have heard a song or the voice of someone talking to you. There would have been nothing at all.
The Nothing, this same empty void from when you did not yet exist, would merely have continued forever instead of springing alive. And you wouldn’t even be there to recognize that void.
I admit that often I’m jealous of those among us who are able to state simply that our life is a gift from God. This is an understandable and honorable perspective, and one that solves a lot of nagging problems in one swift and clear stroke. For one thing, it gives us a much better defined motive to be grateful for life.
But somehow – I hope I won’t offend you by confessing this – I myself just cannot imagine a God sitting up there in Heaven, handing out the present of life like a kind of lottery tickets. It leaves me with all kinds of questions, like: would God also in some way consider who has a right to get born, and who hasn’t?
The never-born remain forever unknown. Therefore no one thinks very frequently about them. But however weird this may sound to you, sometimes I do feel the urge to imagine them, to pay them a little respect. Why? Maybe (and probably you’ll find this weird or pointless, too) because it seems unfair that they never got a chance to enter life like we did.
To illustrate this, an extreme example. Here is a photo that in 1944 was taken by an SS man: of women and children arriving on the platform of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.
Within a few hours after this photo was taken, most of these women and every one of these children had been killed in the gas chambers and burned to ashes.
I don’t need to remind you how over 6 million people died in the Holocaust (or Shoah: no name is adequate for this unprecedented mass murder). It also meant that many more people never even got a chance to be born. Look at the children in the picture. In a normal world, each one of them would have grown up. Around 1960, many of them would have had children of their own. Around 1980, there would have been grandchildren. So when I commemorate the actual victims, I cannot help to also think for a moment of all those never-born ones who were robbed of their lives before they even got it. Who should have been among us today.
Unlike the actual victims, these never-born did not have to go through the ultimate horror, panic and pain of dying in a gas chamber. They will never even know that the gift of life was denied to them.
Personally, I have trouble to accept that it was God who refused these never-born the gift of life. In this particular case, I’d rather blame just the Nazis. But to me, this also makes it more hard to accept that it was God who did bestow that same gift of life on us, who happen to have been born.
At the same time when this Auschwitz photo was taken, my father (pictured here shortly before his death) was a young Dutchman, in his early twenties. I’m really proud of him: as a staunch and principled Protestant, he was one of the very few who dared to actively resist the Nazi occupiers. He had joined an armed underground resistance group. They tried to sabotage railroads and raided administration centers for precious blank identity cards to provide “divers” (people in hiding from the Germans) with a false identity. My father had some narrow escapes, including a shootout with Nazi guards. Had they caught him, he certainly would not have survived. He was very lucky. Others were not.
My point? Had my father been killed by the Nazis, I would never have been born in the 1950s. I would have remained nonexistent: a never-born person, not a person at all. You would not be reading this blog today.
Now did I deserve the gift of life any more than all those never-born people I talked about before? Of course not. If life is indeed a gift, it looks more like a random kind of gift: the result of coincidence. My father’s good luck, combined with a whole slew of other chance events, eventually led to the fact that I exist today. My existence is the result of coincidences.
And if you want to think about it, so is yours.
What if on that one evening long ago, your mother had just happened to run a flat tire on her way to her friend’s party? This party where unexpectedly she bumped into your father and fell in love with him? They might never have met. Probably, in due time, some other never-born children would actually have been born. Not you.
Does this randomness, this accidentality of the gift-of-life make our existence any less valuable? Does it make the gift of life less precious? No. On the contrary, I would say. The fact that we might just as well have not existed, makes our existence only more unique and special. It gives us only more reason to be grateful for having got this very accidental chance to enter life, even if we’re not entirely sure about who or what we should have to thank for it. Even if life is not at all what we would want it to be.
Which brings me back to where I began. How severe depression sometimes can make us wish we had never been born.
From the depths of unbearable misery, this may seem understandable (at times) but at the same time it is a pointless, unproductive wish. Like it or not: we were born, we got that unique chance, that one-time gift of life, and we simply cannot go back in time to undo the chain of events that led up to it. We cannot cancel our own birth and our own life after the fact. Even if we were to commit suicide today, it would cancel only the future, not the past (although we would be no longer around to remember it).
Given the fact that we do exist now, wishing that we had never existed comes down to wishing the impossible. We might just as well wish that Planet Earth had never existed, or that the force of gravity did not exist, or that this mysterious Big Bang had never expanded into a vast universe full with starry galaxies. Or, for that matter, that in 1889, in Braunau-am-Inn, one Adolf Hitler had not been born. All such wishes are just fruitless in their futility.
Conclusion? When we cry out that we wish we had never been born, this is not a real wish. It is our terribly depressed feeling that is disguised in the form of a wish. An impossible, unfruitful, and maybe even ungrateful wish. This wish is just a kind of rhetoric: a formula to express boundless feelings of utter failure and desperation. Expressing them in the strongest way we can think of.
Still I do see a small positive thing here. Crying “I wish I was dead” may in fact be more dangerous. For that is something you might single-handedly make come true – in a suicidal impulse, irreversibly. If on the other hand you cry “I wish I had never been born”, then apparently you still prefer to put your feelings in the form of a less direct, more symbolic wish. One that taken literally, can not be made true. It leaves open the backdoor of having to accept your birth and your life as a given fact, even when asserting you’re deeply unhappy with it.
I am not in a position to tell you, in a moralist manner, that you ought to be more grateful for the gift of life that God or your parents or blind coincidence made into reality. Nor do I have that easy, well-meaning superiority of some people who simply counter with something like “well you’re alive, so you’re obliged to yourself and others to make the best of it.” As right as they may be, I’m afraid those people don’t really understand the full weight of depression.
The only thing I can say is that, regardless how you look at your life, regardless how excruciatingly painful your present feelings may be, having been born does mean you are now more than nothing. Even at the bottom of your depression, your life is a one-off product of birth, something unique. Would you really prefer to have remained nothing? Absolutely nothing? An unknown, empty, traceless void?
– Said enough. I’m sorry if I tried to say perhaps too much this time.
Now for reasons not quite clear to myself (I see no direct connection, but apparently somehow there is) I want to include the song Veda’s Waltz here, from the album The Last One Standing by the Canadian singer Christine Fellows:
(if the player does not work, install Flash)
• tip: Next time you find yourself muttering “I wish I had never been born”, try to remind yourself that this is just a kind of empty formula. Try to rephrase it in actual words for your actual feelings. Try to unravel and say why you are wishing you’d never been born.
For example, rephrase it as “my life has been nothing but one long series of failures” or “nobody has ever really loved me” or whatever it is what’s really at the core of your feelings.
Sure, this is not positive either, for the moment this may not help you at all, but at least such concrete statements can be weighed, scrutinized, verified or falsified, discussed with others: you can do something with them.
In the long run, perhaps this is more fruitful than repeating a meaningless I-wish-I-had-never-been-born formula.