Never Born

DoodleMaybe 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.

Gift of Life (after Michelango)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.

Women and Children Arriving on the Auschwitz-Birkenau RampWithin 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.

Missing Man    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).

Big BangGiven 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.

More Than Nothing    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:

Christine Fellows – Veda’s Waltz

For a full StayOnTop playlist, see the Music page

 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.

• note: Auschwitz arrival photo from the 1944 Auschwitz Album, preserved in full at the Yad Vashem site.

8 Responses to “Never Born”

  1. 1 pierre turle May 19, 2012 at 20:14

    Say we are born without personalities: our mind is a blank canvas. Every choice you’ve ever made in your life is a direct result of an event which has happened.

    Say I was born instead of you, and i became you, and I wrote this article exactly as you have.

    Say there are no ‘unborn’ consciousness’, but conciousness develops as we do, then we are the product of an environment, and that environment is the only thing which differentiates my mindsets from anyone else’s

    I would love to have your opinion on this_

    • 2 Henk May 19, 2012 at 22:13

      Hi Pierre,
      Your comment is very interesting because it reflects a question that philosophers and others have been struggling with since long ago: are we primarily the product of Nature or Nurture? This is about whether the core of our personality has been pre-programmed by Nature (in modern terms: the accidental combination of DNA, of the genes that were fused at the very moment of our conception) or if it is rather the product of Nurture (the continuous series of intentional and unintentional outside events that were fed into the “blank canvas” of our minds during the course of our life, especially in the first twenty years when we grew up).
      My own view, and perhaps this will disappoint you a little, is that probably any clear-cut answer is outside our grasp: that it may well be a bit of both. I’ve come to this somewhat lame conclusion simply because I feel there are so many different indications that can point to either the first or the second option.
      For an example, let me stick just with my depression theme here. I myself come from a large family where (in spite of my parents being good and caring) several of the children had psychical troubles. I was not the only one with suicidal tendencies: a sister of mine actually killed herself. My own daughter has also had depression episodes. All this seems to point to the “Nature” option: maybe depression runs in my family as the result of some unlucky combination of shared genes we were born with.
      On the other hand, I think it’s also probable that my father – who I remember as a somewhat silent, serious personality – may in part have become who he was because of his wartime experiences: he probably was to some extent traumatized by the rough time he had during the Nazi occupation. I think it’s likely that without that, he might have evolved into a different, more light-hearted kind of person. And as a parent, educating us, he also may have transferred some of his own mentality to his children. This seems to point to the “Nurture” option: maybe chance outside events helped shape our character.
      In short, I’m sorry but I just don’t know for sure which one of the two perspectives is most important.
      The only thing I do know is that a totally one-sided “Nature” vision, where the main traits of our personality are destined from birth, is unlikely or at least an unattractive idea. For this could easily lead to some kind of determinism (everything is predisposed) and from there to fatalism. I think there must be at least a strong “Nurture” factor as well: as illustrated by the fact that by actively changing and steering outside events (like choosing a totally different daily life environment) we sometimes prove able to change our own personality, too.
      I’m aware that my answer may be not very satisfying, but for the moment this is the best I can do…

  2. 3 pierre turle May 23, 2012 at 18:32

    At least you understood it what I proposed, I’ve told others about this article and it seems so few of them do,
    good luck finding answers

  3. 4 chaoticpreon Oct 24, 2012 at 23:02

    Very interesting notion. I have a lot of psychological issues, and I felt suicidal for a long time. It’s nice to read how other people see interpret life in a philosophical way.

  4. 5 Tasha Aug 1, 2013 at 02:26

    I feel the same way and the sad thing about this is that i have two beautiful daughters the only thing that I feel truly blessed about i have a few good fam members too. But im always sad and down and ready to snap. Ive made so many mistakes and hard to turn things around. How can I be positive when I so close to the bottom?? Just why??

  5. 6 Thomas Nov 6, 2014 at 06:53

    Hi. My name’s Thomas, I’m 23 & have struggled with depression for over a decade, the result of sever bullying I’m afraid.

    Now for years I have thought I’d be better off having never been born & in fact I think everybody would have been better off if they have never been born.

    I am a Christian & believe that God has a plan for each of us & that we should honour this so I kind of feel uncomfortable talking about this but I think I need to discuss my thoughts.

    I can’t help but think that to live is to suffer. Ok so there are good things in this world. The love of a good woman, the smell of freshly cut grass, the joy of being with friends & family but does this really out do or just simply even out the pain of life?

    Aside from the few who die so young they never get to witness such pain, we all go through pain, illness, heart ache, grief etc.

    Loosing someone close to you is a pain that you can never truly get over. I’m yet to find my soulmate or have kids (I’m not sure I want kids as I think it would be cruel to bring life into this world when it’s full of such pains) so I can’t relate to how loosing one of them would feel however I am close to my mother & we’ve been through so much together due to the bullying, she hurt to see me so down & God bless her for all she did I can’t thank her enough, yet she’s said it herself that she”couldn’t bare to see any of her kids go before her” & this is of course how the world is supposed to work. Parents are supposed to die before their kids but I couldn’t imagine loosing her! Simply writing it here is getting me upset. Something like that changes you forever & you never truly stop grieving. Does the smell of freshly cut grass beat seeing a loved one die? Of course not!

    I honestly believe that to live is to suffer & everyone would’ve been better off having never been born at all.

    That’s why I say I wish I’d never been born.

    Sorry for leaving such a long comment however this is a complicated topic & I wouldn’t be able to get across my feelings in a normal short comment.

    I’m eager to see what other people think to my view on life.

    • 7 Henk van Setten Nov 6, 2014 at 21:42

      Thomas, life is full of suffering for many of us but for many people, even badly bullied ones, this suffering is no reason to wish they had never had been born.I think your problem here may be that you’re thinking (if not brooding) far too much and that you’re letting these continuous thoughts overshadow the simple small benefits of being alive.

      Maybe you should try to simply switch off those continuous thoughts for a few times everyday. So that next time when you’re smelling freshly mowed grass, you’re not going to compare the weight of this experience with something like a loved one’s death, but instead simply concentrate on it experience itself. So ask yourself: how would I describe this grass scent? Is it sweet, with a tinge of sour? Is it flowery, or is it a bit tickling, almost like provoking a sneeze? How does the grass feel under my cheek when I lie down on it for a few minutes, like on a bed? Lying down, can I smell the earth too? Now how does that smell? And this buzzing I hear now above my head, is this a fly, a mosquito, a bee? Where is that insect going? Shall I take a look at flower over there? Etc. etc. etc.

      Concentration is the key word here. Concentrating not on your too-heavy thoughts, but forgetting those just for a few minutes by concentrating on everything around you that’s there to see, hear, smell, touch and feel and taste.

      Try to make it a habit to concentrate in this way a few times every day (say for ten minutes in the morning, ten minutes in the afternoon, and ten minutes in the evening). You don’t necessarily need mowed grass for it… anyplace and anything will do, for such concentration works with the smell of coffee or the sound of music, too. Moments of true concentration will gradually get you to realize and to actually experience that there is more in the world than just suffering. Better enjoy these unique sensations while you still can, before it’s too late!

      This will of course not make you forget your sufferings all the time, but you know, that’s not necessary. Just a few of those moments will be sufficient to realize that apart from all suffering, life can still be full of small gifts, gifts that you’d better try to enjoy during this brief lifespan that’s been given to you.

      Try it. Concentrate on simple material things outside yourself, instead of concentrating on your own feelings of sadness. Instead of balancing the positive against the negative…

      I wish you good luck and enough concentration willpower to suddenly understand what I mean.

  6. 8 Cathy Dec 22, 2014 at 14:20


    Being “grateful for the gift of life” is a thoroughly confused idea.

    Coming into existence can only be a good fortune if the alternative would have been worse. Yet the alternative is not bad at all – indeed it is much better than existing. Although one would not have experienced the joys of life had one never come into existence, one would not then have been deprived of those goods – quite simply because one would not have existed. In other words, there would have been nobody who would have been deprived. In contrast, by coming into existence we suffer the many harms for which existence is the precondition.

    To put it simply, life frankly isn’t all that great. It’s a long, arduous struggle of brief pleasures and extended pains, and condemning other people to it through childbirth is one of the most selfish acts we can commit.

    Why is it so important to fill up every future moment with people? Before the first hominid stood up to get a better look over the savannah, was there something fundamentally missing in the universe? If tonight we all went to bed and just didn’t wake up, what difference would it make? We are temporal creatures living on a speck of dust in a microscopic corner of one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. What is so crucial about our particular existence that we feel compelled to roll children out of their carnal slumber, slap them around for a while, feed them, fuck them, pull them through knotholes, blindfold them, turn them round and round, then send them back off to find their beds?

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