I was recently caught up in an argument in which someone referred to an admittedly foolish individual as an “oxygen thief”. This rather pushed my buttons for several reasons. However, the very centre of all my irritation was a disrespect for life itself.
We often bandy insults like “oxygen thief” and “waste of space” around frequently to denote our sheer frustration with someone who is exhibiting useless, lazy, or feckless behaviour. In so doing, we rather put about the idea that the resources that are used to keep someone alive would be better spent for someone else. The trouble is, for the most part, these terms come from describing human beings who are severely disabled, comatose, or even brain dead. These latter often also get described as “vegetables” indicating their complete inability to respond to external stimuli. They are still human beings: not even Death can rob us of being human, so how can we cease to be human if we are still alive?
For those who are designated brain dead, the family is often presented with an agonising decision to switch off artificial respiration and allow their loved one to die. If that family decide against doing so, it has often been heard around those who work in the hospital that the patient is an oxygen thief, using up resources better spent on people who need it to get better and who stand more of a chance of recovery.
Life is a terrible condition to pin down and understand. There are arguments about when it begins, when it ends, and what is alive in the first place. There is a biological definition of Life which will include not only animals and plants, but also bacteria and fungi and a few other organisms not as easily recognisable. While people will readily say that dogs, cats and pigs are living things, they may balk at the idea of vegetables as being alive. Yet, plants have biological processes which correspond very closely to those of animals. Genetically, human beings share between 40 and 50% of their genes with cabbages.
This gives us a bit of a wake-up call. Whatever we eat, we have destroyed its life. Something has died so that we can continue to be. This is true of all living organisms. One being must take resources from another which may include the other's very life itself: all life is in competition. The most common cause of death is suffocation complicated by digestion, i.e. the living thing gets eaten. Thus vegetarians and vegans are responsible for the deaths of plants in their millions. They may not have a central nervous system, but if it could be shown that plants feel pain, then some arguments from vegetarians and vegans would apply to plants as well. Indeed, the old “animals just don’t feel pain in the same way we do” could be easily turned into “plants just don’t feel pain in the same way we do”. This might cause some to become consumers only of berries and fruits which are designed to be eaten, but it could spell the end of the salad!
The fact is that, in order to preserve life, one necessarily has to destroy it in others. We have to live with this fact every day of our lives, yet it doesn’t bother us. Should it?
In some sense, this is the Hell of our existence – our fall from the grace of God. All the time, we fight for limited resources and grudge those who waste those resources. We all do foolish things and waste the resources that we are given. We hoard some, and others starve. This is how human beings live. This is our life, and if this is what human life means, then surely death is a merciful release both from a meaningless existence, and a release of nutrients for other living things. Yet, Hell itself is filled with those trying to devour others to eke any kind of meaningful life from their beings. The finitude of life supporting resources fuels Hell.
We are aware that the life we have will cease. We will die and our bodies return to the dust. Yet we often take the time for granted. If we wander around seeing other people as things, then we cease to appreciate life. The same is true for all forms of life, animals, plants, and fungi too. We must appreciate that, in our present existence, we each depend on each other to live and we need to respect that dependence so much. There are those who say that human beings are evolving to be vegetarian. There is no evidence for that, and seems to go against the survival of the fittest. Omnivores and herbivores are just as long-lived as each other, and both breed at the same rate.
No, we depend on consuming the lives of others in order to continue our existence, and we need to respect all life for that very reason. If we’re going to eat meat, then we need to ensure that the animals are killed humanely, quickly and without wastage. If we’re going to eat plants, then we need to ensure that the plants are grown well with respect to the environment at large so that insecticides do not damage the ecosystem. We need to recognise the life in others.
Calling someone an oxygen thief robs them of humanity and sees them only as a thing. Even the most severely disabled cannot be described as just a thing. They are still a person in their own right. This goes down even to the tiny bundle of cells that result from sperm meeting egg. An embryo is alive, a living thing. Life begins at conception, not at some legally defined date. It often surprises me why more animal rights’ activists aren’t pro-life. It may be a woman’s body, but the cells of an embryo aren’t her body. Thus we have this terrible problem about who can make the decision to end a life. A woman who terminates a pregnancy terminates a life. If the reasons that she does so are not of the gravest nature, then she commits a terrible sin. Yet too many people see a foetus as a parasite - an oxygen thief, not a human being. Yet we were all foetuses once.
The view Christianity takes is to minimise competition. We are not only to look after the worse off, but must even be prepared to give up something of ourselves for the good of others. We must be prepared to lay down our lives for our friends. The notion of sacrifice is not unknown in the animal kingdom with ants, bees and termites programmed by biological necessity to die for the hive.
Are Christians no better than ants then? God would have humanity as stewards of His creation. This means both mastery and care. The ant cannot sacrifice itself, properly speaking. Sacrifice entails making something holy, bringing it to God. Christ sacrificed Himself upon the Cross to bring God and Man together. The sacrifice of the Mass continues this for all people in Time.
Christ tells us the He is the Life. He isn't just alive - He is what it means to be alive. Even the creatures participate in His Life which seems to spring from just a tiny collection of cells and amino acids. We share life with all that is alive which means that we must treat all living things with care and respect. We recognise our dependence on the lives of other organisms to survive and realise the frailty of our condition seeking to be transformed away from an existence of mutual devouring.
There are no oxygen thieves because God gives His life to all that live just because He would have it so. To call someone an oxygen thief puts us in danger of calling God a fool for creating that person. Our Lord says:
But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew v:22)
Let us then seek to love our neighbour as ourselves not by calling into question their right to exist. They, like we, have no right to exist: the right to bestow existence belongs only to God. Rather let us recognise that being alive gives us a common bond. We may act foolishly, recklessly, hatefully, and wickedly but we are all bearers of life, and life is in God. In loving others we are united with them. In loving God we will find that we have no need to compete for existence: we shall have it unconditionally in Him.