A long time ago, my daughter had a friend. Her name was Phaedra. I thought of her a few days ago when I saw the first fiddlehead ferns unfurling in Seward Park. The ferns always make me think of Phaedra because she was just starting to unfurl, to stretch up and out into the world, when a drunk driver killed her at the age of seven.
We know neither the day nor the hour: we don’t know whether we’ll have seven years or 17 or 97. It’s what makes life so intensely precious. What makes gratitude for the time we do have mandatory.
Or is it? Mandatory?
South African philosophy professor David Benatar is the author of a book with the intriguing title, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. In a recent New Yorker article, Elizabeth Kolbert explains the book’s contention that, quoting Benatar, “The amount of suffering in the world could be radically reduced if there were no more of us.” Kolbert calls it his, quote, “Conclusive Conclusion. If we all saw the harm we were doing by having children and put a stop to it, within a century or so the world’s population would drop to zero.”
This school of thought is called “anti-natalism.” Anti-birth. Which is not to be confused with the abortion debate. This is not about family planning, this is about preventing ALL births. About measuring the value of all of us and concluding it would be better if we just stopped. No more people.
I know the planet’s resources are strained. I know we humans cause a lot of harm. But it’s still a tough idea for me to grasp, this sweeping, nihilistic NO to life, especially at this time of year, what with ferns unfurling, trees budding, flowers blossoming everywhere we look. Both my children were born in the spring. The joy of new life beginning—it’s the essence of the season.
Just as it was sixteen years ago, when we learned of Phaedra’s death on a warm July night. It happened in Texas, where she was visiting relatives, so the news came by phone. “Shock” is such an inadequate word. I remember feeling first confused: how can this be? It can’t be. Phaedra had just been at our home the week before, launching what turned into a two-day play-athon: Phaedra, my daughter and their other best friend, moving from one girl’s house to the next, unable to say goodbye. After confusion I felt nausea, like the whole world was a rocking ship. Then sadness, great rolling swells of tears. Then, finally, anger: the driver of the pickup truck that hit Phaedra’s uncle’s car had a blood alcohol level of three times the legal limit. He killed three people that night: Phaedra, her uncle and her cousin. Two other cousins and her aunt were badly burned. The drunk driver walked away.
That right there is nihilism. Or anti-natalism, or whatever you want to call it. This was no arbitrary accident. This was blatant disregard for the preciousness of life, encoded in weak drunk driving laws and a world that turns a blind eye to nihilistic binge drinking. Three lives ended, including the life of one seven-year-old girl who would be 22 if she were alive today.
The name “Phaedra” means bright. I think about that too, when the sun suddenly lights us up and warms us up the way it hasn’t in six months, triggering an instant surge of gratitude for… gratitude. For the way it feels to feel real joy at being alive, to feel thankful for having been born, for having given birth to two children. For having known a bright little girl who only got seven years here but who reminds me, still, to say yes, not no, to being alive.