“If I was born to die, then what was my reason for existing in this world?” —Konno Yuuki, SAO II.
Sword Art Online II has many faults, and some folks can’t take it seriously as a result. That’s a shame, because SAO deals with big issues that warrant serious discussion. The characters’ conversations in the last episode, especially, demanded my attention, though I decided to wait until it aired on Toonami to write about it.
First, some background (and spoilers):
Konno Yuuki and her mother contracted HIV in the events surrounded her traumatic birth, thanks to an infected blood transfusion. Before they realized what had happened, her father and sister were infected, too. She was able to live normally at first, but in fourth grade, her immune system began to fail. By the time we meet her in SAO, she has lost her entire family to AIDS, and she herself has been hospitalized for years. Virtual reality equipment allows her to escape from her pain and her hospital bed, into ALfheim Online. She is the best swordsman around—partially because she pretty much lives in ALO, and she gets plenty of practice. She appears to be a cheerful, happy girl.
Asuna befriends Yuuki in the game, and they become close, although Yuuki tries to push her away at first. Eventually, Asuna helps Yuuki experience as much of the outside world as possible from her hospital bed. In return, Yuuki encourages her to have a candid talk with her mother.
Yet Yuuki is still dying. In the end, surrounded by her friends in virtual reality, she says this:
“If I was born to die, then what was my reason for existing in this world? Without creating anything, or giving anything to anyone. Wasting so much machinery and medicine, causing the people around me trouble. Suffering, worrying… and if I were just going to disappear in the end, it would be better to die right now. I thought that so many times. “Why am I alive?” I wondered for so long, but… but I finally feel like I’ve found the answer. Even if there’s no reason, it’s okay for me to be alive. Because my last moments are of such fulfillment. I can end my journey surrounded by so many people, in the arms of the person I love.”
So, it’s okay to be alive because… you’re loved and feel fulfilled? Sorry, I’m not satisfied with that. We live in an era where we’re encouraged to abort babies who are diagnosed with medical conditions—whether fatal or just difficult. I need better answers to Yuuki’s doubts, so let’s reexamine her thought process:
1. “If I was born to die, then what was my reason for existing in this world? Without creating anything, or giving anything to anyone.”
There are a few problems with this. First, no one lives very long on earth. Even a hundred years is only a speck on the eternal timeline. But whether we live for two minutes, fifteen years, or a century long, we are worthy of existing. I’ll get to why later. Second, Yuuki did create and give, even though none of it was physical. She gave hope and cheer to the group of sick young people she played with online. She gave Asuna courage to confront her mom and start on a path of reconciliation. Many people appreciate and admire her—she sees that in the end, and that’s part of why she feels fulfilled. But that’s not why she exists. Even if it weren’t for virtual reality, even if she never met Asuna, her life would be significant.
2. “…Wasting so much machinery and medicine, causing the people around me trouble…”
If that’s Yuuki’s concern, I don’t think she’s found a good answer. Thousands upon thousands of dollars have kept her alive, relatively comfortable, and entertained. Yes, it’s generated research that will help future patients, but it was still spent on her, someone who was going to die anyway. All for what? Moments of “fulfillment” with people she cares about? Feelings don’t justify life, and they’re not enough to convince me that Yuuki was wrong about them “wasting” so much on her. These moments are too fragile to base your value on. What if she never met her guild or Asuna? Would her life have any value if no one appreciated her? Would she be worth the money and effort?
3. “Suffering, worrying… and if I were just going to disappear in the end, it would be better to die right now.”
Yuuki’s family was pained both by their own illness and watching her. Yuuki herself continued to suffer after they died, and once she was gone, there would be no close family left to mourn her. She would “disappear.” Perhaps those last few moments were worth the extra years of suffering. But what does it even matter, in the long run? What’s the point of the pain? Her answers feel nice, but I don’t think they help the rest of us very much.
Of course, Yuuki doesn’t completely disappear. She leaves a legacy: her sword skill in the game, which Asuna promises to keep passing on. And her heart—what she shared with Asuna and taught her about sharing.
After Yuuki’s memorial service, Asuna explains to their mutual friend, “Lately, I’ve been thinking that life is something in which to carry and share your heart.” So, life is… a period of time and state of being where you… share your feelings with others? Asuna expands on this:
“For a long time, I was scared. Scared of sharing my feelings, and of knowing how others felt. But Yuuki told me that isn’t right. If I don’t try to touch them, nothing will happen. I want to share the strength I learned from Yuuki with a lot of people. I want to carry Yuuki’s heart a long way, as long as I can keep walking. And someday, when I see her again, I want to give a lot of hearts back to her. That’s what I think.”
That’s sweet. I’m glad Yuuki and Asuna were able to share in life together. Relationships with others are very important. But we don’t exist for them (with one significant exception). We are more than loving moments, popularity, and legacy. When people start evaluating the value and quality of life based on such things, I get very nervous.
Then what does define a human life? If it’s not time, health, accomplishments, relationships, or legacy… then what?
Why do we bother keeping sick children like Yuuki alive, if they’re going to endure so much pain—emotional as well as psychological—and require a lot of money and effort, which could be spent on someone who actually has a chance at adulthood?
That’s a shocking question, I know, but a very real one. Here are more:
Why do we hope our grandparents, who have already had long, productive lives, survive another ten years? We do we pay for their heart surgeries and hips if they’re only going to be around a little longer?
Why should someone who’s depressed, anxious, and (in their eyes, anyway), unable to accomplish much of anything persevere?
What makes anyone’s life valuable?
That’s the wrong question. The reason isn’t a “what” but a “Who.”
God created man and woman in his own image. Now, that’s a Biblical phrase Christians like to whip out all the time. (When we’re really serious, we’ll pull out the Latin version, Imago Dei.) But what does it actually mean? Obviously, we’re not all God’s self-portrait. The “image” refers to a different kind of likeness. Here’s what I’ve gleaned about its meaning and significance:
- When God first made man and woman in his image, he gave us a position of rulership of the earth and the other animals. God gave us authority that echoes his own (Gen. 1:26-27). (That’s not, mind you, an excuse to abuse resources and animals. Ultimately, God’s the ruler, and we’re under him. We’d best be careful how we handle his creation… but that’s another topic.)
- Murder is wrong because we’re made in God’s image, and he takes this very seriously (Gen. 9:5-6). Most people agree that killing people is a serious offense. It’s the reason that differs. Murder is not wrong because it hurts those who care about the victim. It’s not wrong because it disturbs the peace, or because it deprives society of a valuable member. All of that makes murder more offensive, but when it comes down to it, that’s all relative. Human life should be respected simply because each one of us bears God’s image. This implies that killing without God’s permission (as in sanctioned wars and executions throughout Israel’s history) disrespects God himself. It’s like when people disrespected the U.S. by trampling on the flag… except it’s a whole lot worse.
- If we bless God, then turn around and curse someone, we’re being ridiculous and contradictory. How can we worship God, then disparage and wish ill upon someone who is made in his image? (James 3:9-10)
- While sin does distort humanity, even the most sinful of us still has the image of God. The person might be twisted, to the point that it’s difficult to see, but they’re still valuable. We didn’t lose this quality in the Fall (the Genesis 9 reference is from after the Flood, long after sin was introduced).
- Every person carries the image of God, but not perfectly, and those who have believed are in a process of being renewed and transformed into his likeness (Rom 8:28-30, Col. 3:10). In other words, while we all carry the same value, we’re missing some big pieces. We certainly don’t all act as Jesus does. But the sin and brokenness doesn’t have to hold us down forever. Christ has provided for us, so we may become more like him.
That’s a little bit of who we are. Notice it doesn’t matter how old we are, how long we have to live, what we can accomplish, whether we’re healthy or sick, thriving or in pain: each of us is valuable, and each of us is loved.
Great. So what do we do with that? What’s our purpose?
The Westminster Catechism—one of protestants’ favorite texts to quote—sums up our purpose like this: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Basically: we point out God’s glory, and we enjoy learning about him and being in his presence. There are many ways to glorify God, and sometimes, it’s not even a matter of choice. An atheist’s artwork, for example, is likely to remind me of the God who made beauty, who made the artist and gave them means to develop their talent… and who in his great mercy and grace allows them to create masterpieces even as they deny his existence. Like it or not, that atheist reminds me of God’s glory. A more overt way of glorifying God would be praise him and to spread the gospel, that others may praise and enjoy him.
The Catholic catechism also emphasizes that man is to “know and love God.” They included the Great Commission (verses about sharing the Gospel with others and making disciples) in this section, too, which I really appreciate.
Whether you say “enjoy God” or “know and love God,” you’re talking about a relationship. Humanity was always meant to be in relationship with God.
Asuna was on the right track when she said life’s something where we carry and share our hearts. Knowing others and letting ourselves be known—and, related, loving others and letting ourselves be loved—is a huge part of life. This is fulfilled most completely in God, but we also get to share ourselves with others.
How can a person glorify God in any significant way, let alone reach out to others, when they can’t even take care of themselves? You don’t have to be in a hospital bed to feel like this—psychological afflictions or even life circumstances are enough to make a person to feel inadequate. I certainly went through a period where I wasn’t sure what I could give. I liked the idea of simply ceasing to exist, since I didn’t consider suicide an option. But here’s the thing: no matter how helpless you are, you have a ton to offer the world just by living. I love how Henri J.M. Nouwen explains this in his book Life of the Beloved: “…when focusing on talents, we tend to forget that our real gift is not so much what we can do, but who we are… It is the gift of our own life that shines through all we do” (113). Nouwen’s experience in a community of people with handicaps reenforce his understanding of this truth. He writes that one man, “Adam, who is unable to speak, walk, or eat without help and who needs constant support, has the great gift of bringing peace to those who care for him and live with him” (114).
Yuuki used to wonder, “If I was born to die, then what was my reason for existing in this world?” She couldn’t contribute anything, so why spend the money and medicine on her? The answer is simple, or would be if she weren’t fictional: Yuuki wasn’t born to die. She was born to live, and that alone was enough of a gift. Sure, her skill in ALO is impressive. Yes, her leadership abilities come in handy. But that’s not what makes her so precious. It’s her smile, her strength of will, her exuberance… her opinions… her presence.
In real life, Yuuki would have the opportunity for an even more fulfilling life, an eternal relationship with God. That’s what defines us—not fulfilling relationships with other human beings, but our relationship with God, and what he says about us: we are loved, we are precious, and we are worth saving.
I highly recommend reading Life of the Beloved. It’s an easy read. I read it between high school and college, a period of refreshment after a few years of depression and anxiety. I’m no longer conscious of all the ways that book influenced me, but you can be sure that every time I write about identity or value, Nouwen’s influence is there.