The Meaning of Life

I never wanted kids. If they were anything like me, they’d be annoying, dissatisfied, egotistical misanthropes, and if they weren’t anything like me, I wouldn’t like them anyway. Kids are fatal to your own future: every generation reinvents the world anew, so by having children I’d be paving the way for my own obsolescence. I was too selfish for kids, I’d be a horrible father, this is an awful life of soul-destroying wretchedness, and it’s irresponsible to bring children onto an already overpopulated, polluted, strife-ridden planet.

Oh, and did I mention I was really, really contrary in an elitist if-everyone-else-is-doing-it-I-don’t-want-to kind of way? Yes, I was a hipster before there was a word for it.

So one day, maybe not too many years from now, my daughter will ask me why I changed my mind, and that is a question that’s very difficult to answer.

The stock response would be that I was getting older and we’re¬†biologically programmed to ensure our genetic legacy. Triops, those ugly puddle-dwellers you can buy your kids instead of sea monkeys, only live for sixty days. They reach adulthood, breed, lay eggs and die. When the puddle dries up, the eggs lie dormant in the earth until the next time they get wet. Life, leapfrogging through time, rainstorm by rainstorm.

I was explaining this lifecycle to my cousin one day when she said, ‘What’s the point?’

I guess the point is existence itself.

So strong is this urge to procreate that last night, the baby wide awake as she had been for five hours, both her parents feeling sick, exhausted and heavy-limbed, the cat scratching at the bedroom door, the nappy bin overflowing, the dog whining for attention, Lizzie declared that she wanted to be pregnant again.

‘Now?’ was my incredulous response. Izzie’s only five weeks old, after all.

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘I loved being pregnant. And I want to experience labour again. It went so quickly last time, I didn’t get the chance to enjoy it.’

Now, I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure that crazy talk is down to her hormones whispering in her ear, ‘You’re fertile, breed, breed!’

But biological factors are not the reason I had Izzie. To paraphrase Bill Bryson, my lineage – everyone’s lineage – goes back several billion years, from that first amoeba that found life in the primordial soup and asexually reproduced, through countless aeons, orders and incarnations to culminate in the being that is me. Every single one of my millions of ancestors was born, reached sexual maturity, and managed to successfully reproduce before they died. They survived ice ages, volcanic eruptions, meteorite impacts, earthquakes, floods; they walked with dinosaurs, megafauna, insects as big as your arm and snails the size of Volkswagens; they evolved to meet every crisis, and as humans outlasted the Egyptian Pharoahs, the Roman Empire, Viking raiders, the Crusades, the Black Death, the Plague, the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, Napoleon and two World Wars.

If I didn’t have children I’d be breaking a chain that goes back to when the world was new. That’s a hell of a lot of pressure. It’s like being picked to carry the Olympic torch and letting it go out – nobody wants to be that guy.

But that’s not the answer either. The truth is that as the years went by, the more I felt as though something was missing. Like my cousin and the triops, I looked at my life and wondered what was the point. Without kids you become centred on yourself, on what you have, what you do, what you want, and eventually it begins to feel empty.

I realised over time that there’s no meaning in bricks and mortar or trinkets of tin, certificates on the wall, money in the bank. What matters are the connections you make, the people you touch, the lives on which you have an impact. Taking for yourself bears no comparison to giving of yourself. The meaning of life, I firmly believe, is family.

My daughter may one day ask me why I brought her into a world full of hate and pain and suffering. My answer is that life thrives among the ruins. There is beauty amidst the horror. I have seen coral colonising sunken ships. I have seen flowers growing at Auschwitz. And I have seen families love, and support, and forgive one another, when all around them was falling apart. That is worth more than all the pain the world can serve up.

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