A child’s debt

My parents reared five children and helped them each with college. In the end, there wasn’t enough money left to keep my mother out of a Medicaid-funded nursing home. Many of the people who work there are unaccustomed to patients who are still aware of their surroundings, making the situation less than ideal for her.

When I think about debt owed to my parents, that’s the kind of debt I mean: the opportunity cost they paid by having just one more kid, me. I think I made out well, what with being alive and all, but it’s important to recognize the tremendous amount of sacrifice made on my behalf. Not only might the gray hairs have accumulated more slowly in my absence, it’s possible the money might have lasted a bit longer as well.

I owe something of a debt to Gaia on account of my life, as well, or perhaps that debt falls to my parents. There is no greater environmental impact a human being can have upon the earth than creating another human being to live upon the earth. I always enjoy spending time around children, yet I have never pursued procreation precisely for that reason. What could I possibly do to mitigate the impact of another life upon the planet, when I barely make a dent in my own debt? Even as I write this, I’m aware that some of the electricity powering my computer is derived by burning coal, and that the processors within contain rare-earth elements the extraction and disposal of which is highly problematic. My every breath impacts the world around me, and as a human my activities can change the world more, thanks to technology, than can an individual of pretty much any other species. I don’t think about that impact constantly, and even if I did it’s still incredibly difficult to have zero impact at all.

That is the sort of thinking which can lead to guilt and self-loathing. I mostly avoid doing that to myself. Suicide, which is the alternative most likely to be suggested if I whine about this on the internet, has impacts itself. Some of the people who love me may just call me on the carpet at their ancestor shrines if I were to pull that without telling them, and I am not interested in that having that conversation whether I am dead or alive, thank you very much. I’ve also had people propose the “solution” of having children and then teaching them my values. Which ones, exactly? It might be awkward to tell my offspring that I do not believe in having offspring, and I don’t think that they should, either.

It’s the debt to my parents which I sit with most, though, since I am not remotely contemplating a final solution for myself. Including public college, that’s now in excess of $350,000 in my part of the country according to this calculator. That could have paid for a heck of a lot of care. Unless there’s a lucky lottery ticket in my future, that’s not something I can pay back, not that either of my parents would ever have suggested such a thing. The very notion would likely offend, but I think it’s okay to contemplate the choices my parents made to give me life, and then to provide me with the upbringing that they could best afford without contemplating what it might cost them in turn. It’s really the minimum we expect of parents, and that’s a lot to ask considering how little thought is actually needed to create a child.

The debt to my parents is, in fact, incalculable. It’s my duty to honor that choice, even as I choose for myself to make a different sacrifice. Unlike them, I may well die alone, as I have no blood issue, and do not wish to add the burden of another human life to this beleaguered planet. I wish more people would make that same sacrifice, but I recognize that when done correctly, either choice carries a high price.

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