When you get to a certain age you realise that more and more people you know are dying: classmates, friends, friends’ partners, relatives…
What effect does it have?
Does it give you a renewed determination to live your remaining years to the full?
Or, does it rather simply reconfirm your belief that “life is crap and then you die” – so why invest any energy in it?
With me, it’s the latter. But why?
- read a story book with a warm-bodied, wriggling, innocent, full-of-wonder-for-life, little three-year old;
- observe the warmth and affection between an old man and his equally old dog;
- hop all the way around your garden / up your street, just because you can;
- stick your nose in an aromatic herb plant;
- paddle on the sea shore and squiggle the sand between your toes;
Have you noticed how every bookshop has shelves full of book advising you what you simply must do before you die? There’s: unforgettable places to see, unforgettable journeys to make, unforgettable walks to take, and even unforgettable places to have sex … before you die.
(By the way, why must they all be unforgettable? When you’re dead, the chances are you won’t have the ability to remember a single thing. But I digress…)
My question is: could we devise a more meaningful set of suggestions: “100 things to do so you know you’ve really lived”. My idea would be that the book would suggest experiences that would put readers in touch with their true humanity, their true selves, without buying into the belief that the only way to really feel alive is to hit the tourist trail, or even leave home: these should be things you can do wherever you are, and however rich or poor.
Here’s a few of my suggestions; can you add more?
- look into the eyes of a good friend; really see the person they are; let your friend really see you;
- cradle a new-born baby in your arms; let yourself be touched by his or her newness and inncence; you were like this – you still are like this inside;
- on a day when it’s warm and there’s a strong wind, get close to trees; see how they bend and sway in the wind; feel the power of nature;
- be with a dying person; let yourself really know that you, too, are dying; let this deep knowledge inform how you live from now one;
- do a kindness to someone else, for no reason;
Joseph Ratzinger will shortly visit the UK as the Head of a State – the Vatican.
But Ratzinger is also the Head of a Church – the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, for a billion Catholics, Ratzinger is the direct successor to the apostle Peter to whom, according to some interpretations of some texts, Jesus handed the leadership of his church.
Is it opssible to do justice to two roles – spiritual and secular?
Isn’t there some room for separation of church and state here?
I recommend Irvin Yalom’s excellent book on death anxiety ‘Staring at the Sun’. Here are some thoughts that I have retained from it.
Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom and, inevitably, diminish and die. Our wish to survive and our dread of annihilation will always be there: they are hard-wired into us.
Realising for the first time that we will die, some of us are like the character in Tolstoy who feels like a man crossing a bridge who discovers that it is broken and that there is a chasm below.
Some are staggered by the enormity of eternity, others are unable to grasp the state of non-being that awaits us, others focus on death’s inevitability. For some, the thought of becoming nothing consumes them, and becomes everything…
For some the question is: “if nothing is stable, if nothing is enduring, what possible meaning can life of such evanescence contain?”.
Epicurus offers three pieces of advice:
- if the soul is mortal, we have nothing to fear from death: we will have no consciousness, no regrets and no fear of the gods;
- death is nothing to us because the soul is dispersed at death, and does not perceive. Death and ‘I’ cannot co-exist;
- The two states of non-being, one before death and one after it are identical; we did not fear the first one; why should we fear the second one?
It is a harsh world, indescribably cruel.
It is a gentle world, unbelievably beautiful.
It is a world that can make us bitter, hateful, rabid, destroyers of joy.
It is a world that can draw forth tenderness from us, as we lean towards one another over broken gates.
It is a world of monsters and saints, a mutilated world, but it is the only one we have been given.
We should let it shock us not into hatred or anxiety but into unconditional love.
– Richard Holloway: ‘Between the Monster and the Saint’
BBC News reports that the UK High Court has disallowed a man the right to challenge his sacking for refusing to give sex therapy to gay couples. He had claimed that his Christian beliefs did not allow him to deal with gay couples.
However, Lord Justice Laws said legislation for the protection of views held purely on religious grounds cannot be justified. He said it was irrational and “also divisive, capricious and arbitrary”.
Are we finally beginning to understand that so-called ‘religious beliefs’ are just that: beliefs and opinions?
They can’t be used as a kind of trump card to allow us to stay outside laws that apply to the rest of society.