The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.― Frederick Buechner
My mom and older brother (age 17) were having a heated argument in the kitchen. I (age 9) was playing with Legos in the adjacent room, listening in.
Mom shouted something like, “The world doesn’t owe you anything, you know!” I’m guessing that she was attempting to convince him that he was acting entitled. But he was having none of it.
“I didn’t ASK TO BE BORN!” he thundered.
I don’t know if he heard this on TV or if it was original to him. I doubt he even meant it. Yet he delivered it with absolute conviction, confident that this would end the argument.
He probably meant something like, “You think I should just blindly obey your rules? But those rules are just made up by who-knows-who. The world doesn’t hold any claim on me, since I didn’t ask to be born. But now that I’m here, I’ll decide for myself – not you, not the world!”
I don’t remember what happened after that, probably nothing good.
But his defiant assertion left a lasting impression on my young mind that I’ve pondered ever since. It’s true, birth is not a choice. You don’t get to pick the circumstances of your existence. I, for example, didn’t choose the size of my nose or my life expectancy. Otherwise, the former would be shorter and the latter longer. I didn’t choose my parents, their finances, their education, their location, or politics. My choice of birthdate in history, whether a time of war or peace, wasn’t offered to me. I was just pushed into my situation.
Looking at it this way, I see my brother’s point. You just get suddenly thrown into life and then expected to comply with the norms of the day? It seems so arbitrary. Why should I be happy about that? If life is just an accident, then it seems the appropriate response would be distrust. Why wouldn’t one be wary of such randomness?
But I’ve slowly come to accept a very different possible response to the apparent randomness. It is counterintuitive at first, but in the long run this response is far more true to the way things really are.
My brother, in childish indignation, was complaining that God had not given him a choice. But then, prior to existence, no choice is possible. What God did instead was to give my brother existence without him doing anything to merit it. It is like being granted a wish that you could have never imagined, much less uttered. So then, if existence is a gift, then the “accident of birth” isn’t an accident after all. We weren’t randomly thrown into existence, we were chosen. Seeing things this way, the fitting response isn’t indignation, but rather astonished gratitude.
Birth isn’t a sudden curse, as if we were tossed onto a pile. It is more of like a surprise party. We blink with astonishment at the great wide world around us. Yes, many circumstances of birth are sorrowful, and we would want a different situation. But the miracle is that we are established at all, having been pulled from the darkness of nothingness into the bright reality of being. This gift of being opens up the gift of the universe and the universe of gifts.
How then do we see things as they really are? Is our existence utterly random or incomprehensibly wonderful? Our response will determine our lives.
Distrust seems at first to be an understandable response to the accident of birth, but it is the poorer choice. It offers a temporary sense of power, like my brother felt he gained in the argument. It feels like foothold against randomness. But in the long run, you don’t gain power over your life. You lose it.
Gratitude is the counterintuitive but congruent response to the surprise of existence. At first, it feels like a loss of control as you admit your inability to have created yourself. But in the long run, it produces an astonished gratitude that sees things as they really are; you are chosen and therefore loved.
No, I did not ask to be born, yet I was invited to the party anyway.
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