Wednesday, August 27, 2008

For Ms. Fox: Some thoughts on natality

In the story of the Buddha, as I've heard it told, the young prince was shielded by his parents from all knowledge of human suffering, including aging and death. What I find interesting about this story is the fact that death, as an event, is not something we are born knowing about. We have to learn that we will die. But it seems to me that mortality, as a condition of human existence (as opposed to death as a future event) is something we experience daily. Thus no one could shield us from the knowledge of mortality, of our own finitude.

What are these signs of finitude that no one could miss? Well, for one, there's the fact that we can't do everything, that choosing one path excludes all others. I can only do one thing at the cost of not doing other things, and this cost is often a painful one. Closely related to this is the experience of the irrevocability of our actions and decisions. I can remember the pain of realizing, as a child, that I had done something I could not take back.

These are experiences of temporality, of the way human beings exist in time. Even if I did not know that I would one day cease to exist, I would still experience my time as limited. We are pressed on toward the future, whether we wish it or not; opportunities not taken will vanish forever, and the choices we make now will have consequences that we will have to live with for the rest of our lives.

Now, I think this contrast between death (as event) and mortality (as human condition) applies also to birth and natality. My birth, as an event, is something I cannot have direct knowledge of. If shielded from this knowledge by my parents, as the Buddha's parents shielded him from the knowledge of death, I might never know that I had been born. (And indeed, many parents tell their children fanciful stories about the circumstances surrounding birth.) However, it seems to me that natality, like mortality, is a human condition that no one can remain ignorant of, since it characterizes all of our experience.

What are the basic signs or experiences of natality? One is the knowledge that I did not make myself, that I am not responsible for my own existence. We find ourselves living in the world, with no recollection of how we got here. We pre-date ourselves in a strange way, for we are aware of having existed prior to our present awareness of that existence. Another experience of natality is that of our dependence on others and on the world around us, our lack of self-sufficiency. The experience of hunger is an experience of natality -- every day the world continues to bring me into being, to ensure my continued existence. A third experience of natality is my experience of the world as pre-existing and independent of me. Every person is born into a world not of their own making, a stranger, as Arendt says. To be a child is to be a student of this world, needing urgently to learn its ways and adjust oneself to its demands. Thus the experience of natality is one of having arrived late on the scene, and so of being determined by circumstances of which one is not the origin.

Have I characterized natality and mortality correctly? Are there other signs or experiences of these conditions that I've missed? How is natality related to time, and how are mortality and natality related?