He not busy being born is busy dying. – Bob Dylan[i]
Have you ever wondered why birth is viewed as something over and done once we emerge from our mothers? We may struggle with everything that comes after, but that part of things is out of the way. The gauntlet has been endured. It’s as if a newborn could lay back in the bassinette, puff on a cigarette, and say, “Thank God that’s over.”
There is another way of looking at things. Being expelled covered in goo is simply the beginning of a process. From that point of view, we’re not really born; the best we can claim is to have arrived. The philosopher Edmund Husserl described it as being “thrown into the world.” After that, we take an indeterminate amount of time to get steady on our feet, if we ever do, before trying to figure out “now what?” It’s a puzzle many people never solve.
The differing viewpoints are due to how we’ve learned to think, because how we think largely determines what we think. As products of modern culture, we tend to think in terms of objectives and accomplishments. Birth is objective number one, and, while most are deemed successful, we do judge births according to how well the objective is achieved. A fetus lost prematurely is referred to as a miscarriage, as an unsuccessful outcome.
In this scheme of things, attaining objective number one is followed by objective number two, muddling through childhood, before achieving objective three, surviving adolescence. Adulthood has its own sequence of missions: find a job, locate a partner, raise a kid, suffer a midlife crisis, then retire to a freedom you’re too old to fully enjoy.
Modern lives are a series of projects to be completed, any one of which can result in a cascading series of failures. Accordingly, doctors and therapists specialize in particular stages for those whose tasks are not going well: obstetricians, pediatricians, marital counselors, family counselors, job counselors. If someone shoots up a movie theatre, we’ll wonder what went wrong in what phase: childhood, teens, young adulthood? We won’t blame their birth, however, because, outside of John Lennon and Primal Scream therapy, bad behavior isn’t a function of birth.
As modern folk with a lifelong set of assignments, we are much less likely to think in terms of relations and interactions, of a fluid state in which constant flux makes objectives ambiguous concepts. Rather than an orderly scheme, disorderliness is the rule. The past and future are never separate from the present. Children have babies, and adults never stop being children. Events over which we have no control send us on detours. We get stuck in loops that seem to endlessly repeat. From this point of view, the learned segmentation of our lives is completely artificial, as is the annual commemoration of our birth as a fait accomplis.
There are other possibilities.
What if we viewed birth as an originally undefined state that gradually takes form through the course of our lives? Being born is the opening of a flower that doesn’t finish unfolding until it dies. Birth culminates in death, and every day has the newness of birth.
What if we viewed each birth as itself pregnant with unknown potential, similar to the universe after its own beginning? Rather than a completed act, being born describes the discovery and development of our inherent possibilities. Failure to develop, or help others do the same, causes damage that goes all the way back to birth. From that perspective, no one, even the most handicapped, is born disabled.
What if we viewed birth not simply as the delivery of a body, but also of a spirit? As a Hindu might say, life is spirit. But for spirit to be born, it must find itself.
[i] It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), Bringing It All Back Home, Bob Dylan, 1965.