That’s the UUSalon question this month, taken from the trailer for Harry Potter 7, Part 1. In the clip, Voldemort asks Harry why does he live. I can only guess at the context in the trailer, but from my knowledge of the books and movies, the question is meant to reveal that Voldemort has thrown all he has at Harry, and even succeeds in killing him at one point, and yet, Harry lives. Why? How can this happen?
The answer for me at this moment is “why not?” I don’t mean that to be flip, but I also see my life as one without a true sense of purpose or direction. I get up each day and do the best I can at what’s in front of me, but I don’t have a grand vision to complete with my life. Unlike Harry, I don’t live to save the known universe from the most powerful force of evil. Or do I?
There have been times in my life when I would have preferred not to live. Even times when reckless behavior would indicate that I was actively seeking to not live. Those times are long behind me, but I wouldn’t be here now without them. Then, I chose to live, whether I realized it or not at the time.
My father always said he was going to “go out” his own way. With what I now see as a false bravado (is there any other kind?), my father announced more than a time or two that he would rather drive off a cliff than die slowly. And then he did neither. Two months before he died, before the extent of his cancer and condition was realized, he and I sat in my parent’s living room and he asserted his bravado once more. “I’ll take care of it,” he said to me. My mother was in the other room with my daughters. I wish I remembered his exact words, but he told me he’d stock up some pain pills and do it himself. Six weeks later he was sure he was ready to keep fighting and take more chemotherapy; but he ended up going into hospice, instead. He didn’t “take care of it.” He couldn’t have if he wanted to and my mother wouldn’t have helped him. Though she did all she could to make the end of his living as comfortable as possible, she wouldn’t help him that way.
Why do I tell you this story? Because watching my father die this way made me realize that in so many ways, we live for no reason other than because we can or because we don’t really know what else to do. I think of the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church’s theory that our mere existence is, itself, a miracle. With all the permutations that we could be (based on the number of sperm produced, etc.), the odds are against us being exactly who we are right now from the get go. And each and every day offers opportunities for us NOT to live any longer. We live partially out of luck of the draw, partially out of sheer will, but mostly out of what Dylan Thomas called the “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”
I watched my father, who was so certain he would be able to discern when it would be time to finish his own life and yet, from my vantage point, when the time truly came, he chose the hope of life in the elixer known as chemotherapy when the rest of us said, “are you sure?” And then a series of events landed him in the hospital where this choice of chemo or not chemo had to be re-examined because in order to be strong enough for chemo, he would need to go to go to a nursing home for weeks or months. He chose not to pursue chemo because he wanted to go home. Be home.
I cannot complete this response without thinking that the choice to live or not live is really a luxury for me. I’m watching a small group of young people who are related to me who have been to Iraq and back; to Afghanistan and back. I listen to one say he would rather do anything than go back once more–that the human mind and heart cannot take repeated immersions in combat. I hear his fear that he won’t know who he is if he goes back once more. Not that he will die, but that he will live with all that he has seen, all that he has done, and he is not sure he can hold any more of those visions. What he needs now, more than anything, is to find his way home with all that he holds. Why does he live when so many young people returning from combat are choosing not to. Why do I get the luxury of answering this question from a hypothetical when, for him, it is a minute-by-minute real-life decision.
Because of genetics, sheer luck, and that force that through the green fuse drives.