Life: Gift or Chore?
Many excerpts from Kay Redfield Jamison’s beautifully-written memoir “An Unquiet Mind” spoke to my innermost being, but the most remarkable one left me with a lingering tangy taste. She was talking about her concerns about having children, as a patient of a mood disorder. Jamison was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder—a hereditary mood disorder—in her early adulthood. She is a clinical psychologist and a Professor of Psychiatry at John Hopkin’s, and dedicated her professional career to treating this disorder. Jamison’s concerns about having children revolved around navigating parenting through episodes and how to overcome or mitigate the inevitable should her children inherit the disorder. That is, she never questioned whether or not she wants to have children, only how to navigate it, because she loves life. She writes:
“Even in my blackest depression, I never regretted having been born…Overwhelmingly, I was enormously glad to have been born, grateful for life, and I couldn’t imagine not wanting to pass on life to someone else. All things considered, I had had a marvelous—albeit turbulent and occasionally awful—existence.”
Reading those words left me terribly confused at first: Can someone love life? To the extent that they would want to gift it to somebody else? Does Jamison think life is a gift? I had to re-read that paragraph a few times to mull it over. The memories of many conversations I had with mothers throughout this depressive episode came flooding back to me. “I just want my child to be happy,” they would say, and I would not be able to comprehend it. My brain wouldn’t give. It was beyond my mental and intellectual capacity to fathom someone having a happy life; and now, to actually love life, and choose it over not having been born. In fact—and I am not proud to admit this—I would sometimes feel like that was an ignorant and unaware take on life.
Even before this episode, and even as I enjoyed life, I recall having the underlying understanding that life is something we were, for some reason, given, and it is something we had to do. It is a chore. It is something we waited out, and while we did, the best of us made the most of it. That was the utmost level of a life well-lived. Or so I thought. Throughout my life, I have pursued numerous passions, had many of them extinguished, and still again found more adventures and burning torches to follow. I reflect on the life I have lived thus far, the personal and spiritual growth I have undergone, the people I have loved deeply, the laughs that brought me to tears, and the adventures I have embarked on, and I am grateful for it all. And I look at the painfully heartbreaking life events I have lived through, and the agonizing depressive episodes and other struggles, and I know that each of them had helped me become more human. But it never crossed my mind to choose life if given the option to live or to have never been born. It was always a given—almost like intuitive life knowledge—to consistently choose the latter. I have trained myself to enjoy life, but only enough to get me through it and safely to my grave—never enough for me to choose it as a first choice. I didn’t pause to consider loving life. In fact, I recall many a time when I resented my parents for having me. (I won’t go on a tangent here and explain the cultural influences that come in to play, as where I come from, enjoying life is unbeknownst and perseverance and suffering are deemed the most admirable ways of living).
The concept of being grateful to having been born is foreign to me, and it leaves me feeling quite ignorant and unintelligent. I am struck by the realization that I have been—despite putting tremendous effort into widening my horizons—leading a very emotionally limited life, and that I have been spinning my wheels in the air instead of the racetrack. I do not know if am grateful for having been given the “gift of life”, but I know that I would like to be. And if I want to, I would need to lead a life where I bond with horses weekly, climb summits monthly, and dive into the depths of the Red Sea annually. I would need to allow myself to be more impulsive and less calculated, and make bizarre decisions like buying an elephant, then enjoying the mental challenge of figuring out where to keep it and how to earn its trust and love. In fact, the moments of my life that I cherish the most and that never cease to draw a smile on my face, are those I knowingly took huge risks on. Some were “successful”, most were lessons. But I enjoyed them all, nonetheless.
Jamison reminds me of the importance of throwing caution into the air every once in a while, and just living...