We are all very lucky.
If you'd been alive almost anywhere in mid-1300’s Europe you’d probably have died of a bubonic plague. The black death wiped out a third of Europe’s entire population within a decade.
Had you been a peasant in China in the late 1950’s you’d probably have starved to death. China’s great leap forward caused the deadliest known famine in human history and killed around fifty million people.
If you’d been a Jewish person living in 1940’s Germany you’d probably have succumbed to asphyxiation in a gas chamber, along with five million other people.
The list is endless. Human history is chock full of such wars, plagues, famines, and genocides. My immediate (horrifying) takeaway every time I think about this stuff is that so much of our lives are possible due to sheer luck and circumstance.
Because it seems like a constant that if you were alive in the wrong place at the wrong time - “wrong” here simply meaning unlucky - you would likely have died an early death due to circumstances completely out of your control, whoever you were.
It probably wouldn’t have mattered how intelligent, wealthy, strong, beautiful, or skilled you were.
Your fate was decided by the so-called wheels of history.
Allow me a definition.
Birth privilege (phrase): The privilege to be born in a time and a place that lets you live a full life - one that doesn’t abruptly end due to disasters or events out of one’s control.
Birth privilege is the privilege to not die in a global pandemic or a national genocide. It’s the privilege of peace, of the universe keeping you largely away from the events that go on to define history. It’s the privilege to get to live out a complete life and experience all of its problems.
Imagine a guy called Dude. Dude is born in the 90’s and lives his entire life in London. He studies at a university, becomes an accountant, gets married, makes some money, has kids, retires, the usual deal. When he’s seventy eight and on his deathbed he thinks, eh, that was an okay life, I guess. I wish I’d started a band in college.
Now imagine that Dude, the exact same guy, is born a century earlier. Instead of getting a job after college, he gets drafted into World War 1 and dies at the age of twenty three after stepping on a land mine that instantly blows his body up into fifty pieces.
The mine-dead version of Dude would’ve done anything to live the basic, mundane life his other version lived.
Birth privilege is the hardest to acknowledge because it's the hardest to see. You can’t talk to dead people. You can’t imagine how different your life would’ve been, had you been born centuries earlier or on a different continent.
You will meet richer, more attractive, better travelled, and more talented people all the time. But you will never meet someone who was sold off as a planation slave, or someone whose body got instantly vaporized because an atom bomb fell on his city. These sound like hyperbolic examples being used for effect, but they’re very real things that happened to very real people who were just like you and I. That they didn’t happen to us is kind of the point.
Birth privilege is almost not worth defining because everyone you know probably has it. By definition, you cannot meet the people who don’t have it.
The entire concept of privilege, in fact, is a spectrum. It exists on a ladder. We compare ourselves only with people a few rungs above or below us. But if we look at all of human history, our view of the ladder is woefully myopic. We are so up above on it that not only can we not see the bottom, we can’t even imagine what it’s like. (How could any civilian possibly imagine what it feels like to fight and die in active combat? (Maybe that’s why fiction is so important.))
This is especially true in this post-industrial-revolution, post-modern, deliver-food-to-my-house-within-an-hour-of-a-button-click age that we live in. You (yes, you) have a better standard of living than the richest person who ever lived.
Should you feel guilty about this? Nah. You didn’t consciously take away something from someone else to get this life. But you didn’t “earn” it either. (What would that even mean?) None of us did. We just got here. You could just as easily have been born in 17th century France and died in the Reign of Terror. Maybe you did, in another life. It’s all so arbitrary.
I will say that it’s possible we don’t have birth privilege and just don’t know it yet. I could be humming music and having coffee in my apartment in 2032, unaware that I’m about to get wiped out by a drone strike in five minutes, and some guy in 2042 will then write a piece about how unlucky I was. You just can’t say.
But either ways, I do think that if you’re reading this, you probably are among the luckiest people who’ve ever lived. You get to go about your life as you wish!
Should you feel grateful? It doesn’t feel right not to. There’s just too much good fortune going around.
But is manufactured gratefulness real? I don’t know. It’s something.
Is thinking about all of this useful? (Because after all, it doesn’t really change anything about your life, you know.) Maybe not. But it doesn’t feel useless either. There’s something calming about knowing your place in history, especially on a larger time scale. It adds more context to everything. We know so little about ourselves as it is.
So what can we do with this awareness? Again, I haven’t a clue. Make something happen to the world, I guess. At the very least, maybe don’t complain about how your twenty fifth birthday party just didn’t have the same pizzaz as your twenty fourth, when a hundred years ago your great-great-grandfather probably the same night of his life shivering in the trenches.