It’s Not the End of the World (Yet!)

This grey cold Friday morning, my grating alarm clock went off at precisely 6:30. Instead of eliciting the usual resentment, this morning it’s shrill bleeping brought a smile to my face. Its 21st of December 2012 and the world is still here. So much for the ancient Mayan doomsday prediction. I treated myself to a celebratory breakfast consisting of a bowl of thick stove- cooked oats with a tablespoon of brown sugar and a drizzle of quarter-cask laphroaig single malt. It feels good to be alive.

It’s not as though I actually expected not to wake up. No sane person I know really believed that the world was going to come to an end. At least not in 2012. Half a century ago it was a different story. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 Americans were convinced that nuclear Armageddon was fast approaching. I was not alive then but those who were insist that it was no joke. Last night I just happened to be watching the last episode in the second series of Mad Men. It is set during that fateful week of October ’62. At the end of the episode key characters are saying and doing things they never would have contemplated had they not been convinced that they might not wake up the next morning. Betty Draper takes Don back despite his serial adultery, Pete Campbell reveals his true feelings for Peggy Olson and Peggy tells Pete the truth about the secret child she had. It makes sense. Priorities shift dramatically when time is running out. What was previously unimportant suddenly assumes great importance and what was once significant becomes inconsequential. On a smaller scale we see this frequently with those tragically suffering from a terminal illness. When the end is near one makes the most of what is left.

But how near must the end be in order for us to feel this way? We are all going to die one day, some of us sooner than others. Yet no one reading this blog is likely to be alive in 2112. Does knowing that our world will come to an end within the next hundred years make us think or act differently? Probably not. If we had ten years left to live would our priorities shift? Most likely. What about if all we had was a year? Almost certainly. A few days? Definitely.  But why? In the infinitude of time what difference is there really between several days, a year, ten years or a century?

I am reminded of a passage in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience where he describes mankind as ‘in a position similar to that of a set of people living on a frozen lake, surrounded by cliffs over which there is no escape, yet knowing that little by little the ice is melting, and the inevitable day drawing near when the last film of it will disappear, and to be drowned ignominiously will be the human creature’s portion. The merrier the skating, the warmer and more sparkling the sun by day, and the ruddier the bonfires at night, the more poignant the sadness with which one must take in the meaning of the total situation.’

The Psalmist similarly observes the insignificance of a human lifespan from the Creator’s perspective:

For in Your sight a thousand years

Are like yesterday that has passed,

Like a watch of the night.

You engulf men in sleep; at daybreak they are like grass that renews itself;

At daybreak it flourishes anew;

By dusk it withers and dries up.

The span of our life is seventy years,

Or, given the strength, eighty years.

They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness.

Yet unlike James, the Psalmist does not conclude that a paltry lifespan is insignificant. He concludes:

Teach us to count our days rightly,

That we may obtain a wise heart.

The problem is not that we have limited time. It is that we don’t appreciate how limited it really is. What the Psalmist is trying to say is that if only we had the sense to count our days we would live rich, wisdom-filled, purpose driven lives.

The Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca said something very similar:

Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life.

Even more poignant is a quote from Abraham Lincoln who was gunned down at the age of 56 after achieving so much in his relatively short life:

In the end it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.

So the world has not come to an end. Let’s celebrate our existence by counting each day so as to make each day count.

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Light, Darkness and Shadow: Art and the Stuff of Life

I recently saw a fascinating exhibit at Blain Southern by the East London artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster entitled Nihilistic Optimistic. The artwork consists of piles of junk ingeniously constructed and placed in front of beams of light so as to project realistic self-portrait shadows of the artists against blank walls. The technical aspect is breathtaking. At first I refused to believe that the pile of discarded furniture and electrical wires had anything to do with the realistic human shadow projected on the wall in front of me. Yet, after closer inspection (by shadowing the junk with my own hand and seeing it reflected alongside the artwork) it became obvious; the human shadows were indeed produced by junk.

Apparently one of the drivers for making this kind of art is Noble’s and Webster’s fascination with perceptual psychology; the way in which human beings perceive abstract images and project meaning onto them. Perhaps the meaning of the exhibit’s title ‘Nihilistic Optimistic’ is the way in which one might perceive, what is essentially a pile of junk, as a human shadow. It all depends on one’s perspective; a nihilist sees a pile of meaningless junk where an optimist perceives the human form.

But what is the human form if not a pile of junk? We are, if one were to take a reductionist or mechanistic view, nothing more than a collection of bones, organs and muscles. The bible itself appears to support this notion when God says to Adam ‘for dust you are and to dust you shall return’ (Gen 3:19.) This pessimistic view of the body is echoed elsewhere in the bible.

Yet, the remarkable thing is that when this pile of dust is animated by the spirit or light of God it is able to cast extraordinary images across the canvas of life.

As I wandered around the gallery I thought about these three components; light, matter and shadow and it occurred to me that it made a wonderful metaphor for human life. If I stood with my back to the shadow all I could see was a pile of junk but if I stood behind the junk gazing at its effect I saw a larger than life human form against the wall. Reductionists will only see bone, sinew and electrical impulses. People of faith and humanists will perceive that the effect of a human being is so much greater than the sum of its physical parts.

While the metaphor helps to understand what it means to be human it also raises a very disturbing truth and that is that even with an optimistic view our lives resemble shadows. We flit across eternity for a few brief moments and then we are gone. The entire book of Ecclesiastes is driven by this pessimistic view. It is given particular poignancy in the sixth chapter: ‘for who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?’(Eccles.6:12) The psalmist also observes: ‘Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow’ (Psalms 144.4) and the author of Chronicles has King David exclaim: ‘We are here for only a moment, visitors and strangers in the land as our ancestors were before us. Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace.’(1 Chron.29:15)

Millennia later Shakespeare’s Macbeth is troubled by the same thought:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Macbeth Act 5 Scene 5)

It is undeniably true. Our lives are like fleeting shadows and yet while we live, the impact of our lives is incalculable. The same psalmist who glumly measured the minuscule time span of human life also observed its extraordinary significance:

What is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that you have taken note of him, that You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty (Psalms 8:5-6)

Our lifespan is brutally short. Our bodies are, in essence, dust. Life itself however can be extraordinarily meaningful. The reflections we generate as we pass through the infinite expanse of time are no less real, no less significant because of their brief duration. All that exists is right here in the present. So are we. Let us make something beautiful with our lives while we have the time.

The Thin Veneer of Civilisation

A fifteen year old rural Afghan girl named Gisa was killed last week allegedly by a spurned suitor because her father turned down his marriage offer. Sadly this is only the latest gruesome story to emerge from Afghanistan.  Mutilation and beheading as a means of preserving a family’s ‘ honor’ are not uncommon in the lawless regions of this troubled land.

Our initial reaction is one of utter disgust giving way to a sense of moral superiority. ‘How is it’ we ask ourselves ‘that such savages still exist in the twenty first century?’ What human being could possibly equate honour with the violent murder of a member of one’s own family? The moral outrage we feel is a combination of revulsion and self-righteousness. The more primitive the crime the more distant we feel from its perpetrators confirming our own civilised status.

But civilization is thin veneer that can be torn off at any time depending on circumstances.

Long before Thomas Hobbs’ Leviathan and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies the first century Rabbi Haninah urged his students to: ‘ Pray for the welfare of the government for if not for fear of it, people would swallow one another alive.’ His assertion has particular poignancy when one realizes that the government he is referring to is the Roman colonial power that destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem – a traumatic event that the rabbi witnessed first-hand. Still he believed that any government is preferable to anarchy.

We are suitably repelled by the atrocities in Afghanistan not because we are intrinsically incapable of such vile acts ourselves but because we had the good fortune to be born into a society governed and under-girded by the rule of law. The moment that were to slip, all bets are off as to how we might behave under challenging circumstances. Rural uneducated Afghans, are not the only people to display savage behavior in that country. Clean-cut American soldiers committed terrible atrocities at the Bagram military prison, not to mention the crimes their colleagues committed in Iraq at Abu Grahib. Anything is possible when operating in a legal vacuum and the speed with which civilised man can travel back in time is deeply disturbing.

Civilisations based on the rule of law are not mere accidents. They are the result of a conscious effort by human beings to compensate for their own inherent weaknesses. The ability to engage in honest and penetrating self-criticism is what sets humans apart and enables them to live decent and meaningful lives.