Whose life is it anyway?

If I asked you who owns your life, you would probably reply, almost as a reflex, that you own your life and no one can tell you otherwise. It is an empowering thought and a troubling delusion.
Troubling? How can the autonomy of the individual be seen as troubling when it is one of the cornerstones of how humanity sees itself? Yet this is not true. The accurate version of this statement is to say that the autonomy of the individual is one of the cornerstones of how human beings see themselves. The difference in words is only slight, but the implications are great.

‘No man is an island,’ John Donne said, and encapsulated in five words the most powerful idea about the human condition. There is no my life and your life, there is only our shared life. Without the medical staff who performed the caesarean section on my mother, I would probably not have been born, so I have not been alone from the moment just before I took my first breath. I am not alone now as I write this for you, and you are not alone as you read it, even if there is no one sat next to you. This is a simple and powerful idea, and an inconvenient truth for those who want to assert their autonomy and make a choice that suits only themselves.
You are a single strand in the larger web of our shared life, and you were woven into it by other people, some of whom you met, like the schoolteachers who taught you to read, and others you could never meet but who enriched your life, like the long-dead authors and playwrights who provided words to educate and inspire a new generation of young minds. Without everyone else in this grand web of culture and knowledge, none of us would have a life worth living. Instead we would have only the biological processes of existence, the grind of personally meeting the needs of survival, and the solitude of a barren mind devoid of stimulation.
So at the end of life, can we really just forget everyone else in our shared life and assert our autonomy as a right? It is an appealing option in which we discard any sense of debt to the grand web of our shared life for all the ways it has elevated our experience from the basics of biology to the heights of an enriched life. It allows us to do what we feel is right for ourselves at a time when we are scared; it is a useful lift against the weight of fear, but it leaves our debt unpaid. As an almost-born child, I had no idea of the danger I was in. Yet if it had been possible to communicate to me the precariousness of my situation, I am sure that fear would have overwhelmed me, but I was not alone and so was not abandoned. The maternity staff were not just doing a paid job of work; they saw me as kindred and brought me into the world.
Your life is not entirely your own, however uncomfortable a thought that may be. You make an imprint on the lives of others and your death will leave a hole in each of their lives, so they each own a part of your life. You can only claim autonomy if you have lived a solitary existence and provided everything for yourself, from food to shelter to music, and every other form of sustenance in-between.
The danger with looking closely at your life in search of the root of your autonomy is that you will inevitably find the interwoven strands of our shared life. This is not a reason to feel disappointed at the prospect of having others to take into consideration, but a cause for gratitude that they are there in the first place, and so you are not alone.

 

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