Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Hot news: the Reaper isn't fair. And....?

"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in our places but will never in fact see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. To live at all is miracle enough."

So says Richard Dawkins - not everyone's favourite humanist on account of his occasional aggressiveness towards the beliefs of others, but nevertheless, a brilliant scientist and writer. What he says here feels right to me, as well as being valid scientifically, no doubt.

Us funeral minibrants spend a lot of time looking for the right things to say to people who have lost someone dear to them and, because they don't believe in an afterlife, don't think they'll ever see them again. Or at best, they are "Perhapsists." Although they have been chosen by strong-minded atheists for a funeral reading, for most of us, Dawkins' words might offer very little comfort, at this stage of their grief.

That would be because if this is a new idea to those concerned, it comes too late. "To live at all is miracle enough" is a really valuable insight to help people accept their mortality, to live with death as part of life. To quote him again, the Dalai Lama said that people in the West don't think about death until they are dying, and it's a bit late then. (There is an opposite view, of which more another time.) But to realize that having lived and having to die is miracle enough as you're dying, or for your family to realise it after you've gone, is a bit late to be of much comfort, I suspect.

In a recent post, Comfort Blanket at http://thecomfortblanket.blogspot.com/2011/02/not-why-but-when.html

writes helpfully and interestingly about the need to accept the randomness of death, stop thinking "why me" and maybe think "why not me," and feel more keenly how lucky we are to be alive. (cf Dawkins.) She also points out that really, there is no right or wrong time to die. There is just - the time. Whenever.

Of course, most of us still have a feeling for a natural life-span - 3 score and ten, I guess, plus a bit for improved diet and better medicine. And who would deny that a youthful death is a particularly dreadful event. If I help with the funeral of an 85-year old who's had, it seems, a good life, and hasn't suffered too much on the way out, well, there's sadness here, I feel, but no tragedy. Sorry if you've read this before, either of you, but: if I see a traumatised young father with three small children sitting in the front row of a desolate cremaholeium after the slow decline and death of the mother in her thirties, well, FFS, that is a tragedy. And I'd better keep a tight grip on my old tearducts and sobmuscles, at least till I'm back in the car.

But it might just help all concerned, in either case, to see that fairness doesn't really come into it. We tend to bring up our children in the belief that we and they should try to be fair. That's only civilised, no? But the unwelcome spin-off is that we tend to get unduly knocked back when things beyond the reach of fair/unfair (i.e. death, storms, earthquakes, the greed of certain sportspeople....) stray from what we want a "fair" norm to be.

And the prospect of significant unfairness frightens us. But: "If a man harbors any sort of fear, it makes him landlord to a ghost," , said Lloyd Douglas, apparently. To evict the ghost, scrap the idea of a fair point at which to die, and live with maximum presentmomentness. CB's blogpost helps point the way.


  1. Thank you GM... I'm really sorry not to have responded to this post sooner but it has only appeared in my 'new posts' inbox today. Which is odd because I see it is dated 15th Feb.
    Anyway, very kind of you to reference my post. I hadn't read the Richard Dawkins comment before. That's a great way of looking at things that I hadn't thought of. So "to live at all is miracle enough" not just because, as I said, death could take you at any time, but because, as Dawkins says, we might never have been born at all.
    We have to find ways to get this message to people. I'm currently working on a, sort of, 'manifesto' for life. It's a compilation of all the things this work (and sharing the wonders of Blog Land) has taught me about life and death. It may take a while but I will share it when it's done. If anyone wants to read it, that is!
    Thanks again GM. Inspirational stuff...

  2. My dear CB, no need for apologies, however gracious. If one starts a post, leaves it for a week or two, writes another posdt and then returns to edit the first one...the silly blogger publishes with the original date on it. So this only went live today.
    I look forward to your manifesto. Thanks for coming by.

  3. Good, nourishing stuff here, GM. And CB. GFG here, by the way. First, an animadversion on the theme of fairness. It seems to me that an acute sense of fairness is a congenital affliction that children have to learn to moderate. 'But life,' we often have to point out to them, sadly but wisely, 'isn't fair.' It's the same with what children label (in adults, mostly) hypocrisy. In fact, we could say that children are entitlement freaks crammed with fixed ideas, prone to tantrums. It is essential to their own viability that we teach them that truth is rarely pure and never simple; life is a bugger's muddle.

    Yes, it's difficult to view young deaths as anything but unfair, and to feel that acutely. But it does us no good. It is arguably childish. I like your miracle theory very, very much. As this world goes we must rejoice in every good fortune and count every blessing in the awareness, as that great optimist Thos Hardy expressed it, quoting one of those Greeks, 'Happiness is but an occasional episode in a general drama of pain.' Or as Mr Beckett had it, 'They give birth astride a grave ... lingering, the gravedigger takes up the forceps.' Actually, that last verb is paraphrase, but his point holds.

    The problem with acceptance is that it can look fatalistic and resigned and browbeaten, especially in the age of the motivational speaker who tells us we can become what we dream, which is clearly wicked bollocks.

    But as all children must learn, and all adults must remind themselves, shit happens. Miracle theory is an enormous help here, I think. And, yes, presentmomentness.

    And I know this sounds a little harsh and unfeeling.

  4. How, Charles, could your post be harsh and unfeeling, when 1) it speaks truth, which is simply itself, and if we feel it's too harsh, the adjustment is ours to make, and 2)it has in it such delights as "we could say that children are entitlement freaks crammed with fixed ideas, prone to tantrums." Spot on. And not just children, either...

    I'm also with you on the phoney dream-peddling of motivational speakers. My motivation, when they talk or write such stuff, is to enjoy the image of me planting a boot firmly in their posteriors and assisting them towards the nearest exit. Not very mindful, but a useful release.There's surely all the difference in the world between helping people to make the most of what they've got, and telling them they can get anything they want.

  5. I loved your quote from Dawkins (he's a man I usually shie from: far too many certainties for my taste). It put me in mind of this passage from Virginia Woolf, which, in a wonderfully playful way, also describes the sheer randomness of existence. Of course this cannot help when there has been a real tragedy, but it does remind us that to be whole we need to try somehow to be both stoic and ecstatic at the same time. Enough! I'll get out of Virgnia's way:

    "Oh! dear me, the mystery of life; The inaccuracy of thought! The ignorance of humanity! To show how very little control of our possessions we have, what an accidental affair this living is after all our civilization, let me just count over a few of the things lost in one lifetime, beginning, for that seems always the most mysterious of losses what cat would gnaw, what rat would nibble three pale blue canisters of book-binding tools? Then there were the bird cages, the iron hoops, the steel skates, the Queen Anne coal-scuttle, the bagatelle board, the hand organ all gone, and jewels, too. Opals and emeralds, they lie about the roots of turnips. What a scraping paring affair it is to be sure! The wonder is that I've any clothes on my back, that I sit surrounded by solid furniture at this moment. Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one's hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office! With one's hair flying back like the tail of a race-horse. Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard....

  6. Outstanding stuff and new to me, thanks Vale. "The perpetual waste and repair..." - unforgettable.