Offspring; the philosophical gambit

As we age certain issues come to the fore. Specifically, the closer we come to death the more concerned we become with what lies beyond it. I mean that in the abstract sense—“What happens to the mind, body and soul? Is there something, or nothing?—and the practical sense—“What is our legacy? What do we leave to the world?”

The latter, the practical consideration of post-death scenarios, leads many to the conclusion that the primary asset we leave behind after death is the impact of our actions. For most people, the “biggest” thing they do is have children. That is their legacy, their gift. Sometimes it’s the work they’ve done or the lives they’ve touched, but more often than not it is the presence of offspring that allows the old amongst us to rest easy and die peacefully. “But should we even have children?” That is the question. For some, there is no answer because they don’t ask. Having kids is an obvious thing, a done deal, a natural stage in life. But others do ask that question. And in answering it many issues come into play; economic concerns, moral and ethical debates, questions of meaning and autonomy. And of philosophy. 

As you’ve probably guessed, the above question is one I’ve been toying with. There’s years before I have to make a choice—either affirmative or negative—but I still think it’s worth exploring. And the main issue I keep coming back to isn’t whether or not I can support children. It’s not whether children will impede or enhance my freedom, my happiness or autonomy. It’s not even the consideration of whether having children is good or bad for the world. No. The issue, the question that plagues my mind, is simpler:

Do the possible joys of life outweigh the inevitable suffering?

A few weeks ago, I was in the south of France. It’s a magical place for me because I spent a significant portion of my childhood there. There are memories and emotions from that time and place so potent that they startle me every time I travel back. Mostly, the feelings are akin to joy. I see the rolling hills, look down into the vast valleys, gaze over the endless woods, and a sense of wonderment and awe rises up in me. “How lucky I am to be here, to experience this with the full power of my senses.”

That is, perhaps, the peak of existence. But there are troughs too. And maybe not in my life, but in the life of millions of people less fortunate than me, the troughs far outweigh the peaks. The joy is sparse, and the pain, the suffering, the heartache, the despair, the difficulty, the hardness, all of this overwhelms the ephemeral moments of beauty and satisfaction.

James Altucher phrases it perfectly: “A simple act of ecstasy creates a lifetime of sorrows and failures.” He also said in one of his books (I can’t remember which) that the worst thing that happens to us is that we’re born. Whether those remarks are serious or not, for the most part, he’s right. As the Buddha supposedly said, “Life is suffering.” 

So, what are you really doing when you have a child? By creating a new life you’re betting on the chance that its suffering will be outweighed by the joys of its experience. Is that a bet you feel comfortable making? Is that a gamble I myself feel comfortable taking? I don’t know. But what I do know is that existence is both beautiful and terrible. So before you, I or anyone else have kids, we have to answer the question: “Is it worth it? Not in the past or the present, but in the future, will the possible joys of life outweigh the inevitable suffering?”