Wednesday, 5 November 2014

On life

‘What is your life, Christiane?’, my brother asked me the other day. I’ve never been asked this question before and I have never asked another person. And I want to understand what it means.

Fortunately, the Oxford Dictionaries online platform has plenty of definitions to help me. ‘Life’ is given the following five (main) descriptions: 1. ‘[t]he condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death’; 2. ‘[t]he existence of an individual human being or animal’; 3. ‘[t]he period between the birth and death of a living thing, especially a human being’; 4. ‘[v]itality, vigour, or energy’ and 5. ‘(In art) the depiction of a subject from a real model, rather than from an artist’s imagination’ (n. pag.). Considering that he used the possessive pronoun ‘your’ to specify ‘life’ not all work as possible interpretations.

Of course he might have meant ‘my capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continued change preceding death’ but perhaps more likely are ‘my existence as an individual human being’ or even ‘the period between my birth and death’. Still, these are rather broad and therefore hard to answer. What part of my ‘existence’? Which ‘period’ exactly? And if I don’t know yet when I’ll die how can I comment on the totality of living?

Maybe the definition of ‘brother’ will help me to understand his question. The term’s main description is: ‘[a] man or boy in relation to other sons and daughters of his parents’ (n. pag.). But this only tells me that we’re related, he is ‘my’ brother. The definition of ‘man’ is slightly more helpful but at the same time also more confusing. He is certainly ‘[a]n adult human male’ but what about the subdefinition of ‘[a] person with the qualities associated with males, such as bravery, spirit, or toughness’? Is it ‘brave’ to ask another person what their life is? Is it ‘spirited’ to direct this question outward? And if ‘man’ also means ‘[a] human being of either sex; a person’ (n. pag.), how come I cannot imagine a ‘female man’, let alone a ‘sister’, asking it?

Because such a question is, in the words of the wise ‘Reverend Black Grape’, patriarchal ‘bullshit’. And as such it’s a good reminder that there is plenty of work to be done. And trying to do some of that work is what (some of) my life is.

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