Is Life a Gift or a Punishment?

Originally written in June 2011

I was having a discussion with a friend the other day about whether it’s okay to not produce a child. I was arguing for why we should not bring another human being into the world. He said I am a shame to even think so; and that if my parents had thought like this, I would not have been born. Well, I said, I wouldn’t have regretted not being born.

I have no desire to bring another human life into the world because I believe it’s not worth it. Life is a constant struggle, suffering by default, where one needs immense patience and perseverance in self-development in order to be able to accept the reality of meaninglessness – which, again, is not pleasant by our definition and concept of pleasant – and then start enjoying life with a radically altered perspective. In the end, yes, he who succeeds in reaching that level of awareness (which is, I am afraid, hardly 1% of the population or even lesser) does manage to enjoy life with all its ups and downs; but even then the fact that it all serves no ultimate end makes this whole exercise meaningless. That is, in short, the reason why I don’t think I should produce a child, apart from the fact that I don’t have the desire for it.

If there was some God (theistic one) who is by definition good, and has good plans behind everything, then that could justify the existence as it is, and may even morally bind me to produce a child. But alas, there isn’t such God!

To end our discussion, the friend said this interesting thing: If you regard life as a gift and not as a punishment then you will want to propagate.

This raised a very interesting question in my mind: Is life a gift or a punishment? And I couldn’t resist an urge to write a post on it, to express my view of life with regard to the question.

Is Life a Gift or a Punishment?

I’ll diverge a bit here.

Suppose we humans become super-intelligent one day. So intelligent that we can make genes by using chemicals; and we can make live cells, and subsequently bacteria; and then, say, a full grown living creature. We can create all this in a laboratory just by using chemicals available to us. The science has developed so much.

We decide to build a big aquarium with varieties of fish in it. The idea is not to build a usual aquarium but the one that would house the fish that we create. We wrote genetic codes, designed cells and everything. We created several thousand fish in the laboratory. We designed their world in such a way that it would be self-improving* with time. Meaning, we have also put in place the whole evolution mechanism. We have made their world, the aquarium, difficult to live in, so that the fish don’t have an easy life. Because only then the system could be self-improving through evolution. The fish would have reproductive ability, of course. So, the fittest fish would mate and produce better fish by combination of good traits of the two mating fish. This way their world would go on getting more and more sophisticated once we have done our job of creating it.

Now let’s consider the question with regards to this aquarium: Is life (of the fish) a gift or a punishment?

What would we as the creators of the aquarium say? Of course, by creating this aquarium we haven’t bestowed any favor on the fish. We haven’t created them for their sake, but for our own. Are we even concerned with the fish’s wellbeing? No. We have just made this self-improving living system for our intellectual entertainment. Or to prove to ourselves how incredibly ingenious we have become. So, from our perspective, it would be rather arrogant to say that we have given fish a gift of life by creating them. Life, which has no real meaning or ultimate end for them.

What do the fish think? Well, first of all, the life of the aquarium is by default struggle. Because only then the system would go on mounting the levels of sophistication through evolution. Without struggle evolution loses its point. The fish might say life is unfair. But then because that’s the only world they know and have, there’s no point crying over the unfairness. After a while of grumbling they might think: Okay, life is struggle. Let’s accept it. Then they focus on the positives of life and go on living. They may consider their life a gift because that’s a good perspective. You know, if they are choosing to accept it as it is and live, it would make things easier if they thought of life in a good way. As a gift. But that’s still make-believe, isn’t it? Irrespective of what they think, we the creators know the truth: that their life is for our entertainment and nothing else. In reality, it’s neither a gift nor a punishment.

We know that their existence isn’t serving any meaning in the end. For all we know, tomorrow we might get bored with this aquarium and destroy it, and then create something else. The fish get the sense of meaning and purpose because so they are designed. It is only their illusion. The real purposes behind the aquarium are our purposes and not of the fish per se.

Now suppose instead of the aquarium there’s this universe. And instead of the fish, it’s us humans and all the other creatures. All created by some ingenious and unimaginable creator only for some intellectual entertainment or any other purpose of that creator.

What do you think of the question now: Is life a gift or a punishment?

As for me, it makes more sense to believe it’s neither. Life just is. It has both good and bad elements. And since I am born, I think good elements are what I keep living for. While in the bad times, I reflect on it and wait for it to pass. Meanwhile learning the lessons so that next time I make better decisions. After all, however, the struggle is inevitable for all of us till we die. After knowing all this I have learned to enjoy the life. Also, because I am enjoying life, that doesn’t mean I am afraid of dying. Tomorrow if I come to know that I am going to die in a month’s time, I won’t be depressed because I have accepted the existence as it is, with all its pluses and minuses, and I am quite comfortable with this awareness. But still, I don’t see a reason why life is a gift which I should want to spread further.

Even if we have no problems with the struggle, having totally accepted the struggle as a part of life, what’s the point of it all? The universe has no purpose for us. We only create purposes on our own so that we can enjoy living in this otherwise meaningless-for-us universe. We do it in a make-believe way. We might manage to enjoy it, but we are unable to find the point of it. Unless, of course, that too we contrive in a make-believe way. That’s what I am unable to do. Besides, not to be missed is the fact that not all of us can even manage to accept life as it is. Like I mentioned in the beginning, only a meager percentage of humans can actually reach the awareness after which they can accept life as is. Majority of the people live unfulfilled, resorting to all sorts of make-believe comforts like God and voodoo philosophies, if not downright depressed. I won’t even say that’s bad. Because that’s how life is. It’s not to be understood only rationally.

Thinking of life as a gift is a better perspective when we are living it. It certainly helps us enjoy life more fully. But when it comes to deciding whether to bring another life in the world, my awareness of the reality interferes.

I would say even the question whether to produce a child or not is a futile one. It doesn’t matter in the end. If one has the desire, one should go ahead with it. And it’s equally fine if one doesn’t have the desire for it – be it due to the awareness or otherwise. It should be okay both ways.

*The word self-improving is used for lack for a better adjective for the system that keeps on getting more and more sophisticated with time. I am aware that “improving” is a misnomer.

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