The Humility of Birth

To be human is to emerge from uncertainty.

Derek Corneau / Flickr

A photo booklet sits on the corner table in my living room. The cover is wrapped in a plush fabric, adorned with pastel sketches of balloons, stars, and animals. The photos inside show the rituals of incoming human life: a baby rests in the arms of a grandmother, across the chest of an adoring mother, on the shoulders of a father looking away from the camera, perhaps in thought. The infant smiles towards the viewer from a crib, a bath, a countertop. The images come together — fragments of time — and render a glimpse of the past.

What we come to know as life is framed by the ambiguities of circumstance and the granular, tacit dynamics so core to our identity that they go unquestioned.

Birth is the impetus for humility and benevolence towards one’s fellow human beings. The circumstances of my own were largely ideal and perfectly boring: a modern hospital in a mid-sized city, immersed in the attention of loved ones and staff whose professional existence depended upon my own thriving. Following a night of intense labour, my mother held me in her arms, later calling up family members and quickly arranging festivities for the newly arrived human being. I can look at the photos and sense the benevolence that she greeted me with at the moment upon which I came into the world. To this day, that same force of compassion — that which fueled her struggle to provide for her son what hadn’t been for so many others — radiates in our every interaction.

Life would inevitably, of course, come with its own challenges: my first few years would see familial conflict and the woes of navigating socioeconomic uncertainty. Even so, that original date of birth — the foundation for so much else — remained ideal: my body functioned, I was free of disease, every limb worked, and — save for concerns about my head having a somewhat triangular shape — I emerged from the womb unscathed by the blind cruelty of biology. And above all, I was born in an era of advanced technology, to a low-income but stable household, in one of the most secure and prosperous countries of the lone, habitable planet in this cosmos.

The day I was born was a day of joy, community, and a superb reason for a Southern banquet in the afternoons to come. I ponder those moments, when my grandparents and cousins and aunts and family friends — who knew nothing of who I would become or who I already was — were joyous at merely my coming to be. I simply had to exist.

I couldn’t have known it, but I had been welcomed into this world with the most open of arms. And yet for so many others — as human as you and I — these moments of celebration are trials of tragedy. The phone calls, letters, and emails tell a different story: loss, suffering, bewilderment, anguish — agony one longs to never know.

The tales are familiar: a child born too late, too soon, too ill, too afflicted to have lived. Even if for only moments, their lifetimes came and went before the world would have them. The wake replaces the welcoming. For no reason at all, a child is born free of injury and pain, and another is struck down at the onset due to a malignant gene.

Or, perhaps, they were children born sound in body and mind, but in the wrong moment. Throughout history, fathom how many daughters have been disowned, abandoned, or buried alive by their parents for the offense of being a woman as decided by archaic values and patriarchal delusions. How many children, too, have been vanquished in the horror of warfare for having made the mistake of being born in a certain place in a certain time? It inspires doubt in the world we know. What sense of fate could render an infant crippled — what crime is it to exist? And these are the sort of thoughts that are masked with hollow words about purpose and hope.

“You can achieve anything, if you work hard enough.”

Sentiments of the sort — boasting the power of sheer will and determination as universal solutions — have become the empty axioms of those privileged enough to even have the chance to strive. Like other prominent, secular superstitions of the current day, the notion is used to make sense of our greatest existential ambiguities by stripping out the context of human life without saying — or proposing — anything significant at all.

In the months following my birth, I was repeatedly overcome with high fevers that led to seizures and spasms. When my parent tells the story, her face carries a sense of horror and overwhelm, still discernible even two decades later: she had been bathing me in the sink when, without warning, the body of her child went limp in her arms, their face blank and quivering. I was rushed to the hospital. Intermittent weeks of treatment, tests, medications, and analyses were performed. Infinite hours unfolded in the purgatory of hospital beds and waiting rooms where the human mind can only find a mock refuge in the empty miscellanea of outdated magazines and mid day news coverage.

I did nothing to merit any outcome from the moment of my birth, but simply existed in a context both unchosen and unfathomable. People I will never meet, know, or thank ensured that I prospered. The illusion of fate washes over us like an unrelenting tide.

Come the end of it I was sent home in a bundle of blankets, a chubby and docile baby cared for by a relieved and tireless parent. And yet, of course, this had all been afforded to me by powers beyond my control. In those very moments when my mother left the hospital with me — smiling, terrified, and grateful all the same — all around the world, children much like myself — born to parents as loving and committed as my own — died screaming, alone, and in pain, succumbing to the darkness of an unknowable world without a moment to understand the depth of their own suffering.

All around exists this infinite array of grief, emotional horror, and torn lifetimes endured by human beings whose lives and deaths are as real as ours are and will be. I did nothing to merit any outcome from the moment of my birth, but simply existed in a context both unchosen and unfathomable. People I will never meet, know, or thank ensured that I prospered. The illusion of fate washes over us like an unrelenting tide.

The difference between living or losing one’s life can be a chance of geography: does the village have filtered water? Is the nearby hospital capable of advanced surgery — does it exist? Are there antibiotics — will they arrive in time? Will your parents recognize that subtle but lethal health issue before it’s too late, and even then have the resources to address it — and do they exist? Two children, identical medical conditions, born apart in experiences so divergent that they might as well be from separate worlds. For one, a weeklong stay at a nearby building that houses the best in medical technology and intellectual capital; for the other, a permanent death and inescapable void.

Our sense of self is indebted to a world of circumstances unchosen and unknown: places of birth, familial resources, access to technology, income levels, and other structural factors form the fabric of our experiences.

Even when a new life enters the world unscathed by tragedy at the onset, they might soon find themselves at the mercy of nation and geography. Tread cautiously: you might be existing in the wrong apartment block when the Israeli Defense Forces launch an artillery strike in a Gazan neighborhood, when Daesh arrives in the Iraqi village, when the Assad regime approves the air strike on a civilian population, or when the U.S. intelligence official and drone operator deem the Yemeni wedding a justifiable target.

I think back to that year of 1992 and those that came after: a civil war devastated Somalia. Los Angeles erupted in riots after the acquittal of four police officers who brutalized Rodney King following a car chase. Drum and bass was reaching its peak and would forever change the culture of electronic music. Shanda Sharer, a 12 year old girl, was kidnapped and burned to death by school peers in Madison, Indiana in a case that permeated national news. The Oslo Accords gradually came to be. Irish Republican Army bombings haunted Belfast. Slobodan Milošević expanded his powers and began the ascent of a decade’s genocide.

Within that whirlwind, of all the places to be, for no reason at all, I emerged as an infant not in a conflict zone, disputed territory, or land marred by disease, but in a metropolitan area somewhere in the United States of America — with running water, electricity, and a quiet skyline untouched by the glow of gunfire and faraway artillery strikes — born unto a parent who would sacrifice everything to ensure I could simply be.

Coming into the world can be a process of sudden and tacit trauma. When thinking of life’s beginning, I tend to imagine paratroopers dropping blindly into the night, expectant of something but unsure of where they might land. To suggest that this world is anchored towards individual purpose — that anyone can embark upon any path and thrive, so long as they simply will to — is empty solipsism.

What we come to know as life is framed by the ambiguities of circumstance and the granular, tacit dynamics so core to our identity that they go unquestioned. Our sense of self is indebted to a world of circumstances unchosen and unknown: places of birth, familial resources, access to technology, income levels, and other structural factors form the fabric of our experiences. To be human is to emerge from uncertainty, with our foundational identity formed from variables inescapable and beyond our direct influence. In the happenstance of life, there is humility.

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