Life is Probably a Gift

Christians ruin mind-blowing concepts by hollowing them into a phrase, titling their banal rock albums after them, and otherwise extracting from them their philosophical fiber, leaving behind the rattling husks we call cliche. We did it to “Jesus saves”, we did it to “God loves you”, and I’m afraid that — if I don’t write this blog post right now – it will happen to the phrase, “Life is a gift.”

Life is experienced as a given life. This is not a Christian experience. It is a human observation available to the atheist and theist alike. To transplant and graft the chunk of my brain containing this idea onto your own, have four comparisons between gifts and life, my grand attempt to grant existential evidence to the hackneyed:

1. A gift is undeserved.

Why? Because a gift deserved is a paycheck.

So it is with life. No one deserves life, for the simple reason that no one had the opportunity to ask for it. We do not ask to exist, we find ourselves existing, much to the delight of the child and the chagrin of Nietzsche.

2. The fate of a gift is not determined by its giver.

If a gift is given in all generosity (that is, as pure gift), then it is accompanied with the phrase, spoken or unspoken, “do with it what you will.” Because a gift is solely for the other, the giver does not interject if the gift is intentionally misused, abused, or discarded. It is for the other, end of story.

So too with life. Human beings find themselves with one of the most remarkable abilities in the Cosmos. They may discard their life. They may abuse it. They may utterly waste it. Freedom, which is an essential quality of a gift, is also an essential quality of life. Man experiences life as something he may do with what he wills, and sees it as a horror and an injustice if his freedom is infringed. This being said…

3. A gift provokes and inspires us to use the gift well.

While it is true that I may wreck the car given to me in pure generosity (for it is mine to wreck) I experience a desire to use the gift well. I may do this out of love for the giver. I may do this out of the value I place on the gift. Either way, the experience is there.

So it is with human existence. It’s true that I could kill myself upon finishing this blog post. It’s true that I could waste my life eating pork skins and looking for existential meaning on Reddit. But all men are impressed with the desire to “live well”, to “do good and avoid evil”, to “really live”, to “make something of themselves”, not to “waste life”, and to “check themselves before they wreck themselves”.

Actually, that ” impressed with the desire” bit sounds far too Creatory. All men experience the desire to live well, a phrase made clearer by its converse: No one wants life to suck. This is evidenced by the questions we’re forever asking: Am I truly living? Is this it? Could I be doing more? Should I buy another self-help book?

4. The gift is valued first in the mere fact of its being given, and then for its content.

What man, upon being slipped a brightly-wrapped package from the woman he loves is only delighted after he has opened it to find that it’s a bottle of moonshine cherries? No, the delight found in receiving a gift is twofold, first “You got me something?” then “You got me moonshine!”

So too with life. Our initial, non-reflective portion of existence delights in the mere fact of life itself. Our hearts break when we look back on this portion, our childhood, when we were happy to simply wake, and play, and be, neither questioning who we were nor whether we were living our lives well, nor what on earth we were even doing alive, reveling in existence.

The secondary joys of discovering the content, reality, and purpose of life are more spread out than the unreflective joy that delights in merely being, but they exist just the same. Our moments of discovering truth, of experiencing beauty, of doing the right thing, marrying the right woman — these joys deal with the content of life itself.

The joys found in life are two-fold, the first in the mere fact of life and second in its content. Thus the joys of life are the joys found in gifts.

(It’s worth noting that in both cases, the latter joy does not erase the former, and, as “it’s the thought that counts” bears witness, it is joy in simply being given something that ultimately matters most.)

So life — in that it is undeserved, there for us to do with what we will, inspiring us to use it well, giving us joy both in its fact and in its unfolding — is experienced as a gift. Does the fact that something is experienced as a gift necessitate a Gift-giver? No, but it does suggest one.

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  • Jay E.

    “Christians ruin mind-blowing concepts by hollowing them into a phrase, titling
    their banal rock albums after them, and otherwise extracting from them
    their philosophical fiber, leaving behind the rattling husks we call cliche.”


    • Elizabeth

      Yes, all too true. I was always struck by how Battlestar Galactica (the new version) used all those stock phrases to supremely creepy effect: “God loves you”; “God has a plan for you” apparently ringing so hollow these days that they can sound menacing….

    • Pete

      Exactly. And when something so profound is turned mundane, we don’t feel inclined to meditate on it, to share it, or to grow from it. A re-examination of these beautiful truths (such as the gift of life) is so important, and I cannot offer Bad Catholic enough thanks for opening up my eyes on numerous occasions.

  • MattG91

    Awesome article! Very well written as usual! Just to follow up from a question you raised at the end. Wouldn’t experiencing something as a gift necessitate a gift-giver? I would think yes. Not an important question to anything you wrote about in the article, but just wandering the reasons behind your answer as it not. Thanks Marc say hey to your “brother” Mark D. We went to church together.

  • Cynical humanist

    I enjoyed reading your piece and thought it was beautiful, but I don’t really agree that life is a gift. Gift-giving requires a reciever, not just a giver. I don’t think life was given to me, because at the point I became alive, there was no ‘me’ to give it to, there was just an egg and a sperm slowly fusing their DNA together. Gifts are also something you possess, something that is yours. I don’t think I possess my life. In a very real sense I am my life, and when my life ends so does ‘me’.

    I also think it’s a bad idea to assume your feelings are universal. Not everyone experiences life as a gift. What you feel is true for you, no doubt, but I’d hesitate to universalize that to every human being on earth.

    As for a gift requiring a giver, I think that’s just sophistry. Something can feel like a gift without anyone having given it to you. Unless you mean my parents, in which case I’d argue they didn’t intend to give me in particular the gift of life, just ‘a child’ of nebulous character.

    Also, I think ‘a gift is undeserved’ hides the reality of how gift giving tends to work in human society, which is that it follows the principle of reciprocity. You get me a Christmas present, and I send you one next year. You give me a lift to work and I might buy you a bottle of wine, instead of paying you directly like a taxi, which would reduce you to an employee and embarass us both. You remember my birthday, I remember yours. People might say a gift comes with no expectations, but you’ll find they’re very miffed if you take them at their word when they next need (or want) something from you. Gift-giving is basically a social lubricant.

    • Rai

      “Gift-giving requires a reciever, not just a giver. I don’t think life was given to me…” Look it this way: you could, in theory, prepare a gift for your great-grandson even if he isn’t born yet. It’s still a gift. If you think about it, long-term environmental planning- done right- is this kind of gift: a gift to future generations. By the way, this disproves your gritty “every gift asks something in return”, as future generations can’t give us anything in return.
      Just because gifts tend to be used as social lubricant, it’s not all they are or can be. And don’t confuse “giving an interested gift, hoping something in return” with “giving a gift as a sign of friendship, and observe that this friendship gets stronger as a result.”
      Certainly Marc’s feelings are not universal. I think that those four points, however, are condivisible and a good starting point for a discussion.

      • CriminiReaper

        I think his point about social lubrication stands….ur analogy fails because earth stewardship is a gift only in so far as good parenting is a gift. While there is no guarantee of it, when it occurs, it is merely what is due to the child, and not a favor of the parents. You can’t in good faith wreck and then populate a planet, then run off to the safety of death. And the broader point is that gifts aren;t given in complete altruism. Or since when were kids made for the benefit of the kid? All it is is selfish dna. To quote woody allen, the world doesn’t need it, the kid doesn’t need it. ANd before you start on the majesty of the mystery of existence, read some gnostic thought on how this is all absurd, it’s not a new thought. And it has never yet been shown inconsistent!

  • Guilherme

    If life is a gift then the philosophies of life represent the different ways people tend to react when receiving a gift. For instance, the Existentialists are the really paranoid people who freak out when someone gives them something for no apparent reason other than pure generosity. They are the people who usually will say things like: “Wooww what is that? Why did you give it to me? I didn’t ask you for anything! I didn’t choose to receive this gift! What I am supposed to do with this now? This is absurd!”

  • Marritza

    “Our hearts break when we look back on this portion, our childhood, when we were happy to simply wake, and play, and be, neither questioning who we were nor whether we were living our lives well, nor what on earth we were even doing alive, reveling in existence.”

    That all sounds lovely, Marc, but I’m afraid it doesn’t come anywhere near describing my childhood. I was sexually abused at a very young age by my biological father. I had a lot of questions about who I was and about the things happening to me and going on around me. I’m afraid there was a serious dearth of revelry. I don’t recall ever having the sense of my life being a gift. If it is, who was it for? Me? My father?

    A well-written post, as always, but I’d have to file this one under “sounds good in theory.”

    • Andy

      That is terrible Marritza, a first cousin of mine went thru something similar, and it is hard to imagine anything more devastating, especially to happen to a young person. But still, your life is a gift, intended for you to enjoy. That your biological father stole and destroyed your appreciation for this gift at an age that should be filled with joy and wonder is a horrible crime, but the gift is still rightfully yours and I pray it will still be greatly enjoyed.

  • Jesus H. Christ

    “Well thanks to the 49er’s I’ll be sucking Jerry Falwell’s cock. Again.’–Jesus Christ, pissed, but ultimately horny.

  • The Other Weirdo

    …blah blah blah blah moonshine cherries blah blah blah blah…

    You had me at moonshine cherries. Please, I would like to hear more.

  • Jonathan

    I do not mean to be combative, but I have a question about your article. If God is apathetic to how we use our gift, our life, then why does He judge us upon how we used it when we die? If he does not interject, then why did He send Jesus to redeem us or why does He perform miracles through people? When we pray He can show us the path we should take with our decisions, is that not his influence?

    I get that through free will we can do whatever we wish with our gift, but I feel like I’m misunderstanding your article, like I’m missing something. If you (or anyone else knowledgeable) could grant me some clarity it would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks, God bless!

    • Scott Cronin

      The way I read it was not that God is apathetic to how we use our life, He cares very much how we use it, but that He doesn’t interfere when you choose something that may hurt Him. In the same way that Marc could wreck his gifted car, so too can you “wreck” your life through all sorts of ways up to and including suicide. God’s judgment at the end of time I think, would be more likened to Marc’s (very rich) friend not giving him that car dealership because Marc hasn’t shown that he appreciated the earlier gift of the car. In the same way, depending on our actions, God may deem us unworthy of the car dealership of Heaven.

      Luckily, we believe that God is quite forgiving and if we are truly sorry for the way we treated His car, He knows that He can give us the reward of Heaven.

      I hope my metaphors weren’t confusing… Marc is much better at them.

      • The Other Weirdo

        How does anything we do or say affect, let alone hurt, God?

        What you’re saying here is that, at the end of our lives, God judges us on how we affected Him, not ourselves or the people around us or the world. “Sure, you’ve cured cancer and helped bring about permanent peace. But what have you do for Me lately?” It sounds more like a relationship with an especially abusive partner, one who doesn’t complain when you do him/her wrong, but stores up a list of perceived injustices which are then revealed all at once.

        • Joe

          Good points TOW. I’d like to comment on the your comparison of God to an abusive partner.

          From what I know about theology and through my own experience, God is very willing to let us know our injustices in this life. Through prayer (especially an examination of conscience) we become aware on our injustices (sins) towards, and towards others. Then, through asking for forgiveness and repenting, we are forgiven. The perceived injustices are not then stored up. They’re forgiven.

  • jason
  • Dexter Bishop

    I am so happy to read your article. Life is definitely a gift from god, because god is the greatest creator of all in this world, so if ever we should thank god first and foremost for having us here. Beautiful article!

  • CriminiReaper

    I’m going to comment on the first and fourth argument, as to how they can argue against your main contention . I say life is possibly a gift (if you have good weed, and it was free). but probably not. First, we don’t deserve life. True. Now, as an atheist who enjoys reading christian (esp catholic) apoligia, it’s rather odd that mainstream doctrine has such a pasted smiley-face about the splendor of creation. However, Christians have long contended with atheists, nihilists, empiricists, positivists and other hard-nosed rationalists, with a commendable pretense to rationalism (they maintain a role for ‘revelation’, making them essentially anti-rationalist) and for them, they freely borrow form the Gnostic tradition, showing just how awful and meaningless (and how the meaninglessness of the awful we suffer is awfully meaningless) our lives are without the compensation of eternal bliss.

    Truth is ,if we are to value life for it’s content (point 4), we should find it wanting. Our higher nature despairs at the evil and decay all around us, and that we will be subject to inevitably. This is why I contend Christians are essentially fascists if you look at their historical actions both in power and vis a vis those who had the political power. And even in feudalism, amor fati and obeisance to your betters was the watchword for the dispossessed. Why? Because Nietzche was right, Christianity is a slave morality, bowing before shock and awe. If god has the power, we cannot second guess him. Sure, it is often that our intellect and imagination are beyond our physical constraints (i would rather live in a universe designed by Leonardo Da Vinci than YHWH), but our experience with our homegrown politicians should teach us that someone’s power doesn’t say anything about his wisdom or judgement, that has to be separately demonstrated. I argue that the world is a demonic demonstration and leaves us no basis to have confidence in god;s benevolence if he did exist (call it Demiurge theory).

    Let’s say you lived in Africa like me, but as an average jagoff in a more typically dysfunctional place than my current locale. Would you accept a gift of a Rolls

    .Royce? Assuming you couldnt afford to guard it or repair it, and the lack of real roads cut into your road trippin, would you consider it worth the burden? Worth the target on your back? Worth collecting from the port? I argue that this car would have to be maintained against inhospitable odds, because ‘to own a Rolls is Glorious’. Sound like anything you came across in your…life?