42 Revisited (or, what parents owe their children in an era of environmental collapse, part I)

On Twitter recently the Toronto Star asked people to define the meaning of life. Sure, why not: an endeavour that has eluded philosophers for 10,000 years can be collated from the 140-character submissions of the general public. Not surprisingly, no one agreed. The meaning of life is to love people. To be good. To do good. To be happy. To take risks.

I submit that life has no intrinsic meaning.

The meaning of life is whatever we ourselves bring to it. Which means it depends on the material of our lives. We take what we have and organize it in whatever way allows us to extract meaning. Or impose it, rather.

Which leaves infants dying of AIDS in South Africa in something of a quandary because what material have they been given, what ability do they have to extract meaning from their experience? None. The idea that their lives have no meaning is repugnant, and I cannot accept that the sole meaning of their lives is to provide more experience to other people.* What meaning their lives have must belong to them alone, no matter how awful it looks, as it does to us over-privileged westerners with our comfortable, self-actualized notions of the meaning of life. None of this–grown men raping infant girls to “cure” their own AIDS, parents selling their daughters into sex slavery to feed their sons, young boys drafted into armies to kill each other–makes any sense or can be justified at all unless life is considered a gift, no matter what happens. None of human history makes sense if it is only ethical to have children when they can have a safe, risk-free life in an upper-class North American suburb.

With every fresh environmental crisis, adult men and women are once again charged with not bringing children into such a messed up world. But even we over-privileged westerners have children who suffer and die in infancy or childhood, who will never smile or speak or know about love. Those of us who have or who have known such children may perhaps be better at recognizing the absurdity of charging adults with only bearing children when they can guarantee a world worth living in to their children.

No, whatever parents owe their children, it is something other than non-existence as the sole alternative to a guaranteed adulthood in a sane and propserous society.

No parent has ever been able to promise their children a world worth living in. Children have been slaughtered, enslaved, sold and raped from time immemorial, as even a casual reading of world history demonstrates. I am still haunted by the image found in a history book of a Spanish conquistador slicing off the legs of a native child who was afraid, and ran from him. Of infants torn from their mother’s arms and thrown to hunting dogs.

The question of whether or not the world can afford our children (the consumption, the pollution, etc.) is a separate one and concerns what we owe the world, not what we owe to our children.

I submit that what we owe to our children begins when they get here, and does not end with shelter, clothing, health care and education any more. No. Like it or not, modern parents, you owe the people you brought into this world every effort you can spare that this world will continue to be there.


* I find this to be the most common meaning that well-intended others like to impose on the life of a young child with a disability or illness: think of what it taught the parents, the friends, the community! Children (and, for that matter, adults) with disabilities and illnesses exist for their own sake, just as you do.

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