Essays About


By pleasure rather than labor, by release rather than exertion, we create life. Meanwhile, in all our other endeavors, we work much harder to produce a far less impressive result. It takes me months to write an essay; it took minutes to create my daughter.

True, my wife had to carry our child for nine months, and together we must guide and raise her for eighteen years, but these are outward and trivial aids. My wife in pregnancy, though I honor her suffering, was more acted upon than acting, a Petri dish for our fused cells to grow in. I am installing gates to keep our daughter from tumbling down the stairs, but she is mysteriously engineering her own ability to crawl. We parents are mere managers, facilitating rather than performing the critical work. We provide milk and play mats and cribs for naps, and out of these raw materials our babies assemble brains, speech, movement, emotions, and consciousness.

Why pore through parenting books as if a child's development hinged chiefly on our methods? Overzealous parents are like software managers who don't know how to program yet think projects will fail unless they tinker with the few superficial details they understand.

Human nature needs both fellowship and freedom, but usually we must choose. The more we encircle ourselves with others, the more we handcuff our will. Ask for help on a project at work, and it will not be done exactly how you want. Marry, and your holidays will be spent at in-laws'. Have children, and you will listen to their music in the car instead of yours. But worship your freedom, and you will be an empty temple. A bachelor's life resembles a widower's. Write, sing, or paint the way you please, disregarding the market's demands, and you will be your own and only audience. Travel wherever you want, whenever you want, and you will go alone.

Fellowship imprisons us, freedom exiles us.

Since people speak of the rights of the unborn, why not the rights of the unconceived? They are a vast and voiceless class in our ovaries and testicles. Their numbers are numberless: every possible combination of every egg and sperm in the world. One needs advanced mathematics to tally the lives that could be. We abort these lives every moment of not having sex. When a couple comes home from work too tired for lovemaking, they are choosing television over a child's existence. When teenagers hold in their hormones to please their preacher, they deprive an unborn soul the chance of heaven. In refusing to fuse their gametes on sidewalks and subways, strangers stunt the progress of humanity, out of mere propriety.

The pro-life movement should insist on our moral duty for unprotected sex, adultery, and promiscuity.

We seldom catch the transition from sleeping to waking. Gently we dawn into consciousness, but because so gently, we do not notice the metamorphosis until it's complete, when we discover ourselves lying fully awake in our bed. It is like the change into life itself. Having clambered up the steps of infantile cognizance, one day in childhood it first occurs to us that we exist, already many years after the fact. Looking back for our beginning, the past is a fog, and we find we cannot remember a time when we did not exist. No wonder in youth we feel immortal. How could we die when it seems we have always lived?

A man ejaculates around 300 million sperm in sexual intercourse. That means on the night each of us was conceived, 299,999,999 other sperm were vying for the finish line with the one sperm that became us. A wrong turn down the fallopian tube, a faulty flip of the tail, and one of the hordes of barreling competitors would have outswum us, won the trophy of our mother's egg, and would now be living our life instead of us. How easily this planet might have been home to a completely different set of inhabitants!

Nothing we will ever accomplish in life—not if we win a Heisman trophy, a Nobel Prize, or the presidency—can compare to the improbable victory we achieved to get here.

When a hurricane strikes a coastline, and I follow its onset and aftermath on the news, I am struck by the brevity of the event. Floodwaters rise to the second stories of buildings, and cars float in the street, but a day or two later, the ground is dry, the sun is out, and the world is as it was. Impressive as storms are, they cannot match the staying power of pleasant weather. They muster all they have and blow themselves out in twenty-four hours, like panting sprinters doubled over after fifty meters. The blue sky pushes their fury aside and re-asserts its casual sovereignty. With unsinkable buoyancy, normalcy resurfaces.

This return to normalcy sets me up for surprise when I read reports that people are dead. Though the waters no sooner rose than receded, the victims they briefly drowned did not revive with the next day's sunrise. The world before and after the storm was livable, and deadliness only encroached upon life for a moment, but life, a featherweight, once knocked down stays down. Surely the victims' lives, like the electricity, should only have been interrupted, not ended. The cause was fleeting: shouldn't the effect be?

Packing up my belongings when I move always causes me a small existential crisis. Suddenly, the walls are bare. Nail holes rather than photographs line the hallways. My feet, accustomed to the soft pile and bright pattern of an Oriental rug, touch a hard, cold floor. My empty bookshelves no longer cloak me in an aura of culture and history. My speakers are boxed up, and the quiet disquiets me. I have, in preparing to move, already moved into a house devoid of color, warmth, and resonance. Is this the same place I was living all along? Seeing my familiar home stripped and emaciated feels like seeing the skeletal figure of a friend on his death bed. The bare, unsignifying walls seem like a hidden truth I had papered over with my belongings. I worry, was the old life and color a lie? Is human meaning a poster on the white plaster wall of nature?

Parents who boast of their child's developmental progress mistake a general miracle for a particular miracle. They do not so much overestimate the progress but the uniqueness of their child. Watching a being who was recently nonexistent learn to walk, speak, and socialize, they rightly marvel, but because their sample size is one, they assume they birthed a prodigy. Their judgment suffers from a deficiency not of accuracy but of scope. Could they watch other children grow up, they would discover them to be prodigies too. Their praise would spread from their family to humanity, their pride change to wonder.

We remember the dead only as they were at life's end. Obituary photographs are nearly always recent, though the deceased was eighteen for as long as she was eighty. Through windows, you glimpse a home's inhabitants and from yard signs guess their opinions, but the marble cottages of the dead tell you nothing but a name and date of death. Is it not odd to remember each other by when cancer or car wreck carried us off—an accidental fact that formed no part of our chosen identity? Our lifelong passions and carefully planned profession are forgotten; the unplanned date our plans were halted is engraved in granite. As with the residents of Pompeii, buried under pumice while washing dishes, death fixes us forever in the amber of our final identity. Thus the ancient Greeks favored an early death, that posterity remember their youth and beauty, not their age and decrepitude.

Bias for the final frame of time's moving picture pervades all of life. Politicians are remembered by the scandals that end their careers. A game is won not by the team who leads most, but leads last. Catholics go to heaven or hell for the state of their soul on their death bed, one unforgiven mortal sin trumping a life of virtue.

Never mind first impressions, let us make good last impressions.

Poets exhort us to savor life by forgetting the past and future and living wholly in the present. Yet I find that living in the present is precisely what hinders appreciation. During the week, I live solely in the present. I eat, work, eat, sleep, repeat. My world is circumscribed by my commute; my mind's range is limited by my body's. Do not animals live wholly in the present?

In the weekend's pause, I read a Balzac novel and emigrate to history for an afternoon. I think of the great populace of the dead, see my life in the context of Life, gain depth of emotion through breadth of imagination.

As travelers in foreign countries think fondly of home, we must be conscious of other times to love our home, the moment. Living fully in the present requires living partly in the past.

A paradox of philosophy is that, having originated as the pursuit of knowledge, it has mainly led to skepticism. Aristotle sought rational meaning in nature and humanity, but philosophers since him have steadily given up, culminating in the twentieth-century existentialists who deny the meaning of life, and deconstructionists who deny any meanings beyond the mere wizardry of words.

Yet what do philosophers accomplish by their denials of meaning? They gain for themselves professorship and authorship; they define an idea they can embrace and base their life upon.

Humans are so needful of meaning, we find it even through denying it.

My religion cannot decide whether paradise is a party or a nap. In the New Testament, Jesus compares heaven to a marriage feast, while St. Paul refers to the dead having fallen asleep. The Requiem Mass begins with the paradoxical lines:

Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord,
And let light perpetual shine upon them.

Are we to rest forever, or be shined on forever? Surely we are not to sleep with the lights on—God's glory as the lamp with no off-switch? Perhaps these conflicting metaphors are proper, for on earth we crave both waking and sleeping in turn, adventure and unconsciousness; why not in heaven? An infinity of repose would bore us for half of infinity. Likewise, an everlasting banquet would weary us with very bliss and make us wish our souls were in the coffin with our bodies. Eternal life needs respites of death to be a heaven.

The busier I get, the more barren my life seems of meaning, but the less time I have to worry about it. Galloping to keep up with my calendar, tripping over appointments, occasionally I glimpse the absurdity of the frantic life. The only purpose of today is to check off yesterday's to-do list, and create tomorrow's. My overscheduled mind scarcely stops to let me sleep, yet my thoughts add up to mindlessness, since I never pause to notice I am living. Am I only a machine for labor, a thinking version of an ox?

Luckily, my vision of existential futility is cut short by my next approaching deadline. Busyness is the cause, and cure, of a pointless life.

Most of every day is not spent living, but maintaining the machine of life. Merely to make our motors run, we must power them down eight hours every night. We lose another eight hours in cubicles, working to earn money to eat, eating to get energy to go back to work. In the evenings, we all keep second jobs as janitors, clipping and scrubbing the ever-emerging chaos of shabby beards, shabby lawns, browning teeth, and sprawling toenails. Finally, for one blessed hour before bed, we get a book or guitar and do what we want instead of what we must. One hour of the day is the raison d'être of the other twenty-three. Who would buy a car that needed twenty-three hours in the shop for each hour's drive?

The pursuit of happiness is doomed to fail, not because no one can be happy, but because no one can be happy by trying to be. Each new land that Alexander the Great conquered, instead of satisfying him, merely widened the circumference of his desires. Meanwhile in Macedon, his servants kept the stables, made love to their wives, and never dreamt of Persia's riches. Happiness is the pursuit of nothing.

Each stage of life greatly pleases us, but unfortunately not while we are in it. The young are eager to be adults, adults look forward to being retired, the retired envy youth. Daters crave marital stability, the married miss the thrill of dating. College students and graduates would swap places. We possess the pieces of a happy life, too bad we cherish them out of sequence.