The Love of Life

It is common to hear people say that someone loved life, or loves to be alive.  This is typically intended as a compliment.  Such descriptions usually seem to mean that the person was, or is, strong, positive, happy, people-oriented, or otherwise a great soul.

Those are good ways to be.  But “loving life” may not be the best way to compliment someone.  It is often fun to be alive; many times, it feels great.  People have many special experiences in their lifetimes.  Life, however, is not always such a great thing.  To develop the thoughts commenced in a previous post, life can be pretty ugly.

Life brings with it all the fangs and claws that living creatures use upon each other.  The wolf that kills the fawn is not an exception, nor is the bacterium that decimates a population.  The ivy and the caterpillars pull down the beautiful tree; the mosquito spreads malaria.  All of these are living things, doing their best to participate in life to its fullest.

Life is not just the good times.  Life certainly provides the space within which the good times unfold.  But while you can have life without good times, you cannot have life without the law of the jungle.  Life is most fundamentally a hurtful, murderous thing, and we see it every day among humans.  People deceive, injure, and kill other people to maintain their own lives and to grow and thrive.  Again, it is not an exception.  It is who we are; it is what we have always done.

It is not just a matter of being warlike.  Those who personally avoid acts that would cheat or harm others are commonly prepared to let their law enforcement agencies and military services engage in such behaviors on their behalf.  People typically assume that whatever they have gained is rightly theirs, no matter how they got it; they rarely choose to emigrate from nations whose wealth and stability depend upon the threat and use of force against the guilty and the innocent alike.

The harsh deeds of power and warfare are not constant, but the capability must always be there.  It may be no exaggeration to say that virtually everyone alive today is alive because, throughout their lives, they, their parents, or someone else has been ready to use threats, cunning, and violence defensively and perhaps offensively for their protection.  Those who live in peaceable conditions may rarely think of such things, but the emergence of an actual threat quickly confirms the realities of protection and the dangers of its absence.

In addition to their acts against one another, humans have always been overwhelmingly inclined to kill animals, or to subsidize their slaughter by others, in order to obtain food, protection, and comfort.  This is no longer just a matter of the gun and the knife.  We kill via bulldozer, fence, and engineer, as we collectively build cities and farms, and otherwise displace and diminish animal populations.  Even the few people who rigorously eschew physical violence against animals are not necessarily prepared to send us back to the prehistoric population levels and lifestyles that would be needed to reverse such travesties and to prevent their recurrence.

In any event, violence against animals is itself only the tip of the iceberg.  Even the strictest vegetarians find it necessary to cut down and uproot living plants, and to steal their seeds, thereby increasing the likelihood of death for animals and insects that would have eaten those foods, and increasing the hardships endured by those that survive.

Moreover, killing is not just something we do to eat.  You can’t walk without crushing ants and such.  You can’t wash your hands without killing germs on your skin.  The world is full of mosquitoes whose offspring perish because humans refuse to offer themselves up as food.  Your gastrointestinal system is the scene of perpetual wars among trillions of bacteria.  Some help you; some would kill you.

Life unavoidably requires the killing of living things.  You cannot stay alive without that.  Even if technology could someday make our food in laboratories that would use no life forms, and could somehow engineer nonliving particles to replace those germs in our guts, the intrinsic fact would remain that we are designed to survive and thrive through the deaths of living things in us and all around us.  Upon failure of any such techology, our bodies would have to revert to the constant indulgence of microbial holocausts, or else we would perish.

My junior high school art teacher maintained that walking is a form of controlled falling.  Whatever the literal truth of that claim, one might similarly observe – referring, again, to the previous post – that life is a form of controlled death.  Everything can’t die, because that would cease to be life; but everything can’t continue to live, either, because that would imply an end to the constant striving that is a core aspect of life.  Living things don’t just sit there.  They move; they act; they seek to grow, inevitably jeopardizing other living things.

The point is not that all is woe.  There are obviously many good things about life.  Nor should one imagine that becoming a pacifist or a vegetarian is a futile gesture.  The people and animals whose lives are preserved obviously benefit.  The point is just that life is not per se good.  Directly and by proxy, we are unavoidably and perpetually required to kill, and to be prepared to kill, on virtually every level.  We are the most lethal predators, but we are not the only ones.  Life is a bloodbath.  It has always been that; it will always be that.

To this state of affairs, one option is to refuse, by suicide, to participate any further.  Another option is to recognize that life is not only killing.  It is more like the killing is a precondition to whatever else life entails.  Another post builds upon this thought with a look at ways of characterizing life.

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