November 5, 2010


I had lunch the other day with a friend who posed an interesting question: If I’d been given a choice to be born or not to be born what would I have chosen? I paused to think. Of course, one has to exist to be able to ponder the notion which makes objectivity tricky. What’s more, as I’ve no suicidal tendencies, my answer seemed obvious. I would choose to live. But would I? If I could make the decision in some non-emotional state is existence preferable to non-existence?

Immediately two famous lines from literature sprang into my head. The first was from John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet X where he observes his dying would mean that “death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die.” The second comes from Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “The Death of Ivan ILyich.”  As the central character lies on his sick bed, a visitor leans over him and hearing no heart beat says, “He’s gone.”  With his last breath Ivan replies, “Death is gone.”

One cannot think of life without the bookends of “not being” on either side, a condition which causes one to ask, as J. Alfred Prufrock does,

                                 Would it have been worth it, after all,

                                After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,

                                Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

                                Would it have been worth while…? (T.S. Eliot)

If we take the nihilist view we might conclude that as all life ends in death nothing matters. But I prefer to think in reverse. Life puts an end to death. As individuals we are one link in the chain of existence, but a link, nonetheless and not a gap.  What we do while we are aware gives light to life and defeats the dark. There is hope, when we hope; there is truth when we speak truthfully; there is kindness when we act kindly. What’s more, the universe is conscious when we are conscious. None of this is meaningless. And if each of us strives to do our best as we forge our link to the larger chain of all those who have come before and all those yet to come, then the answer to Prufrock’s question is yes. It will have been worthwhile.