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Heartbeats at Christmas

On embracing human life as an unqualified good

It might just be me approaching middle age that makes every Christmas feel like all the others. I think it’s more than that, though. Christmas is stuck on repeat. Yes, a national retailer has done a cringe advert. Oh, look, some once-great institution looks daft trying not to use any words pertaining to Christianity in their festive marketing. Of course there is rail chaos with strikes, which will be followed by a price increase in January. Weather reports say it won’t be a white Christmas, as they always do (although I notice the BBC avoided that exact phrase this year — but this didn’t feel new, just entirely predictable).

One could say all this repetition is uncanny, but it’s more boring than that. I got so perturbed by this Christmas-as-eternal-recurrence feeling that I started reflecting on the ghosts of my Christmas past. Sure enough, anything distinctive about the Christmasses of this century has disappeared from memory. If I woke up on a Christmas day in any of the last fifteen years or so, I don’t think I’d even notice I was in the past.

There is one exception, however: the year the wife was in the late stages of pregnancy. I remember it because, a few weeks later, she went into labour. Up until that night I assumed that giving birth was just like it is portrayed in soap operas — waters suddenly breaking, shrieks of pain, and then the prompt arrival of a baby. I had no idea that every stage of the journey each baby undertakes is quite literally fraught with danger, the most precarious voyage most of us ever make.

That night’s passage was indeed long and perilous, and it continued for many hours. Most of those hours were spent in a dark room on the maternity ward, with the amplified sound of our baby’s heartbeat being pumped into speakers via sensors strapped to my wife’s midriff. The tinny speakers made each pulse sound like a swirling, echoing oscillation, difficult to recognise as anything like a beating heart. It would sometimes crackle and disappear, but the midwife would reorder a few wires and it would be audible again.

When a baby’s heart stops during labour, you have three minutes to save it

Then one time it wasn’t. An alarm sounded; lights were switched on; doctors and midwives rushed us to theatre. When a baby’s heart stops during labour you have three minutes to save it — one to get to the theatre, one to prepare the mother for surgery, and one for the caesarean itself. It must have been two minutes later when, just before the scalpel set to work, that echoey pulse came back. It was faint at first, but then unmistakably built momentum. We looked at each other, unsure what to do. The doctor sent us back to the ward, saying to give it a few more hours and see how it goes.

Back in the dark room I was then fixated on the sound of that heartbeat. It was irregular; it would go and then flutter back with a quickfire spray of beats; sometimes it went very quiet, seeming to wither and weaken. A baby’s heart beats at up to 160 bpm. The short gap between two of those beats can seem precariously long if you have enough adrenalin circulating to make time slow down. I couldn’t wait until it was over, and I was hanging on every single beat.

There is a happy ending: we had a healthy son. Up until he was born, I’d never really understood why people see the birth of a baby as an intrinsically good thing. Thinking back to that night, it’s so obvious that it seems silly to spell it out — but the fact this child was born just was indescribably good — good in a way that doesn’t need explanation or justification, that doesn’t require any qualification whatsoever.

That said, I remember realising that I was never going to feel liberated from hanging on to that heartbeat. Although I wouldn’t hear it once he was born, that initially unbearable level of extreme emotional investment was clearly permanent, and I would thus remain permanently focused on the life of my son for the rest of my years. Whatever had happened to my consciousness in that dark room wasn’t a transient experience; this was now the way it would always be.

To say that having a baby is an unqualified good was not something I would have recognised before then. This was partly due to having a left-wing upbringing. Human beings are capable of unspeakable cruelty after all, and our world is unjust and oppressive. Human beings born in countries like ours will have a carbon footprint of many metric tonnes, doing untold damage to the ecosystem, and there are far too many people in the world anyway. Then there is all the injustice that countries like ours have done, and will do, so I was told, perpetuating our legacy of brutality and exploitation.

Nonetheless, when I consult the ghosts of my Christmas past, this encounter with an unqualified good means there is an irremovable fixed point in my history, a point at which I know with certainty that something happened which meant things would not be the same again. If I were now to wake up on Christmas Day before that year, I’d know immediately that it was a time before everything changed.

My unease about Christmas being on repeat relates to broader discussions about the fact that culture doesn’t seem to change anymore. I first noticed this myself at some point in the mid-noughties, thinking about the distance between then and the mid-nineties, and realising that things looked more or less the same. If you transposed someone from the mid-eighties into the mid-nineties, however, it would be completely different. Those ten years of separation parted completely different worlds, but that just doesn’t happen anymore.

The senile patient is stuck in incoherently repeating loops of consciousness

Ross Douthat states that “a range of cultural forms” have “been stuck for decades in a pattern of recurrence”, something he associates particularly with a film industry that now just rehashes the same ideas over and over again. Mark Fisher relates it to popular music, where “the very sense of future shock”, of the radically new, “has disappeared”. Both Douthat and Fisher use language of mental pathologies to describe our situation — with phrases like “the senility of repetition” and “recombinational delirium”.

The senile or delirious patient is stuck in a series of incoherently repeating loops of consciousness. Both have lost their sense of the unbroken continuity of time. The psychiatrist R. D. Laing argued that this loss is found in those who don’t have a base awareness of “unquestionable self-validating certainties”, meaning certainties about oneself. Seeking substitutes for such certainties wherever they can find them, their identities flitter from one thing to another, so they are unable to develop a cumulative trajectory as time takes its course.

What Laing describes is now dispersed throughout the culture at large. Because we lack the unquestioned sense of each human life as an unqualified good, the state takes a therapeutic role, and ideas like “self-care” become normalised. If you’d spoken of giving attention to “self-care” or “wellbeing” to anyone a few decades ago, it would have meant nothing at all. The same pattern applies to societies as well. The unquestioned sense that one’s culture is essentially good, worth preserving and has much to offer, is a basic validating certainty for a healthy society. Without it, culture stratifies into recurring and incoherent loops, resulting in societal fatigue and exhaustion.

Experiencing Christmas as one of these recurring loops is particularly contradictory. The theologian Paul Tillich argued that the very notion of linear time is essentially Christian, that it was in the defeat of paganism that humanity broke out of “the circle of repetition” that comes with worshipping the movement of the stars and solstices. Similarly, Peter Thiel holds that the very concept of progressive development is inseparable from the West’s Christian heritage, the movement ever closer to an endpoint of cosmic fulfilment.

Beneath both of these insights, however, is the fact that the fixed point in time, which the rituals of Christmas mark, is itself the ultimate affirmation that our existence is imbued with the promise of being an unqualified good. This is the “unquestionable self-validating certainty” that makes an awareness of development in time possible at all. The reasons why were once so obvious it seemed silly to spell it out: there are no tidings of comfort and joy to match the idea that the grounding reality of this world is that unbreakable emotional investment that a parent has for a child, hanging on every beat of our hearts.

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