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”.
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.