For many, when they believe themselves to be a death’s door, a consideration of what comes, and what has been, is their priority no matter how they have lived their lives, no matter what they might believe in. I’m not sure whether this is the normal state of affairs, whether it effects everyone across the world, but certainly many of the people I have been involved with, have had the pleasure of knowing personally or through some other form of connection, and certainly myself too. Having had three heart operations last year, it is natural that some thought is given to what could happen, and a certain level of putting affairs into order does come about, so that those left behind are not also left with problems beyond the emotional. Death is a given it is going to happen, there is no way around it, so we should get on with our lives as best we can, as good as we can, and leave a better impression of us behind regardless of belief, regardless of whether there is something on the other side or not. Although, reading through that chain letter you forwarded to me, I am again overwhelmed by the feeling that those who think they believe should leave us ordinary people alone with our beliefs. If they want to profess hell and damnation for themselves, I have no problem with that, but I want to go my own way without being troubled by the unsubstantiated stories and myths, legends and theories which are put out to unsettle, to cause pain and suffering, to create anguish and war.
I’ve read quite a few works on quantum theory, physics, movement and time of late: some of them have been interesting to the point of being absorbing, some have been technical and off-putting. I enjoy taking them for their philosophical value more than anything else, to give me something to put my teeth into where I can formulate my own theories, create discussion themes and lay my own ideas on the table when meeting up with friends. I recently finished A Beautiful Question by Frank Wilczek and From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel C. Dennett, both of which have to do with the world, with intelligent or creative design, with humankind. At present I am taking a Time Out with The Gentleman’s Daughter by Amanda Vickery – on the lives, letters and diaries of middle to lower class ladies (gentile women) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Lancashire, England, and then I will be going back to a more philosophical work, a book of misogyny and one about an Indian Revolutionary who was executed in India by the British in 1857 and whose skull was found preserved in an English public house in 1964. If it all gets to be too much, as such books sometimes do, then I can grab a work of fiction from somewhere, just to relieve the pressure and take my mind off deeper thoughts for a day or two.
I often buy books on impulse, but more, lately, through the positive recommendation of people I have come to know, but not to meet, who work in history and philosophy faculties in various universities around the world. Our world, thanks to the internet and the speed with which we can communicate one with another, has become considerably smaller, in effect, and many barriers have fallen over the last decade. Those who once would not have lowered themselves to speak with people outside of their own educational or learned branches are now seeing the benefits and expanding their circles; new friendships are being created and the possibility for wider and more fruitful discussion and sharing of knowledge and learning. Now and then I come across a book which regret paying for, where I either read it and find myself disappointed, or where others begin to post negative reviews and comments which, eventually, are backed up by my own reading experience. So, as an example, I came across this recently:
Far more of the arrangements of matter found on Earth are of no worldly use to us, so when things change without a human agent directing the change, they are likely to change for the worse.
The quote is from Steven Pinker, who is called one of the world’s most influential thinkers by his publisher, but who comes across – to me, at least – as far more an arrogant person trying to convince people that the world only exists for humankind, that it was a failure before our existence, and will fall into degeneration and chaos after our time has run. I am more of the opinion that the world was doing just fine before humankind evolved, and will do just fine after our extinction: the chaos and destruction has been brought about by humankind, and not by nature, and the idea that anything on Earth created can only be thought worthy if it is useful to us, to humans, is an idea which makes me reflexively gag. In the grand scheme of things, humankind is a mere blip on the screen, hardly noticeable in time and space, and the idea that this planet was created exclusively for us and cannot function without our input strikes me as more than short-sighted, indeed verging on ignorance.
It also brings to mind this chain letter that you received which, you will have noticed, is not aimed exclusively at you, is not personally addressed with you in mind, but has probably been sent out to hundreds if not thousands of other people without regard for their person, their beliefs or their situation. It is another very arrogant and high-handed example of those who seek to convince us that their beliefs are the only right beliefs, that there is no other way but that which they are following, and that all those who think differently are damned to eternal hell. It also strikes me, from many recent experiences, as being the kind of script a person would write when trying to hide what they are doing behind a veil of righteousness, in the hope that their transgressions will not come to light. We’ve had several very high-profile examples of just this stance recently: politicians fighting against abortion and adulterous affairs for all they are worth, and then being caught out cheating on their wives and paying their mistresses to abort a love child. Sometimes those who shout the loudest have the most to hide.
My own thoughts on what comes after death are fairly simple, and they have nothing to do with a heaven or a hell, with limbo, reincarnation or anything else. I tend towards the belief that we return to the Earth, to the elements which made us up; that we fall apart and become effectively one with all that which is presently around us. One day, probably in a few billion years, the sun will expand and explode as it runs out of fuel, the Earth and other planets will be engulfed, and all that we are – structurally – will return to the basic elements present before the sun, plants, the stars, were created. I often look at photographs of various parts of the universe and beyond and know that whatever I am now will not exist, but those elemental parts which make up my physical being, and the physical being of all that is around us and all that will be in this small portion of space, will be reunited with the clouds of elemental dust already out there. One day, perhaps in hundreds of billions of years, this dust will form a new constellation, new stars, new planets, and that is eternity. What is in me has always been there, even though I, as a person, have not, and contains, perhaps, forms of life from billions of years ago; perhaps even intelligent life. The idea of sitting up on a cloud dressed in white playing a harp, or burning in one of the seven circles of hell doesn’t really work for me: I simply do not believe in them, and cannot imagine anything which would make me change my mind. Certainly not a chain letter which effectively shouts at me!
Yes, there has always been bloodshed, greed, those who put their own interests above the interests of everyone else and will literally climb over dead bodies to get what they want. That doesn’t mean we have to be like that and, fortunately, there are millions of people in the world who take this point of view. There was a time when war was considered a part of society, an integral part of life. There was a time when certain people were considered less than human – sadly something which has not completely disappeared yet – and when a life was not worth the paper it had been sold on. We are fortunate enough to be living through a new form of Enlightenment, where the Rights and Freedoms of those living with us have value and meaning, and where the discussion table has more import, more value than an army advancing across the horizon. This is, at the moment, more of an European thing than worldwide; there are still some civilised countries who believe that military power is the answer to all national and international problems, and who, as a result, find themselves bogged down in wars and conflicts which could have been solved quickly and easily by two sides talking to one another. Not that Europe is perfect, there are still conflicts and problems over sovereignty, over rules, regulations and the law, but there has not been an European war since the end of the Second World War. This is the longest period of peace ever recorded in history, and the benefits are clear to everyone.
New voices are being raised to bring good to the world, starting with their own communities: I am overwhelmed when I read of the ten-year-old schoolgirl fighting for and raising money to help all those caught up in the scandalous water poisoning in Flint. I am mightily impressed by the teenagers who have not simply turned their backs on the dead around them, but are campaigning against the high and mighty, those who believe that they have all the power and everyone else should toe their line, and winning. Likewise with those women who are finally coming out of the shadows and forcing everyone to confront the truth of sexual harassment, of abuse, of violence and degradation they have to live with, and I am more than impressed by the actions and the strength of will exhibited by people of colour who, after centuries of wrong, after decades of fighting, are still taking up their cause and winning the political and social battles without the need to resort to violence. I long to see those who have caused all these problems, those who do not care about people who should be under their protective wing, pulled up for their crimes against humanity, whether it be Flint, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook or Puerto Rico, and made to answer for their actions. This is not a political thing, I am not interested in one or another political party or political direction, merely in the Rights and Freedoms and the responsibility of governance guaranteed and promised by the Constitution, by the laws of the land.
I have been lucky enough not to be visited by major illnesses in my later years. About twenty years ago I was laid low by the flu, and slept for a full week without knowing what was happening about me before convalescing in bed for another week. Then with my traffic accident and the heart problems of late, but nothing in between whatsoever. Even winter and summer colds have either been exceptionally mild, or simply skipped over me and attacked other people in my place. I suspect this is partially because I have spent most of my adult life outside and away from other people, often working alone for weeks at a time, which is something I still follow today. And not following any of these fashionable health fads which crop up time and time again: what we should eat, where we should go, which supplements our body needs; all designed to make us feel insecure and bolster the bottom line or the standing of a company, an individual. The old ways have worked well for me over the last more than half a century, and there is no reason why that shouldn’t continue in exactly the same vein. Not that I don’t take advantage of what is on offer, quite the contrary, I have little break-outs into the realms of pleasure whenever the chance offers itself.
This weekend, beginning tomorrow, is one such case: I will be driven to a conference in Bavaria – about six hundred kilometres from here – for three days in a good hotel where all the meals are buffet, serve yourself. If I don’t put on weight there, then something is wrong with me! The weekend before last I was also at a weekend conference, but only the breakfast was buffet but, as you can imagine, I took full advantage and didn’t need to eat anything for the rest of the day. Admittedly, I am there for the conference, for the discussion, to help make decisions about the future and elect new officials, but the social aspect, and the food, are also big parts of such meetings, and cannot be ignored.
As far as I am concerned, when it comes to letter writing there are only a few things of importance: you must enjoy it; you must be able to convey your enjoyment to another person. Whether a person can spell makes no difference to me whatsoever; I make spelling and grammatical mistakes all the time. The length of time it takes between a letter being received and an answer coming makes no difference either: I am pleased to receive a reply, which is far more important to me than if that reply takes two days or ten weeks. I write my letters for the pleasure they bring me, as much as for the pleasure I hope they bring other people, and not to force someone to stop whatever it is they are doing and reply immediately. Sometimes a little time is needed, for whatever reason, and sometimes there is illness, or we are somewhere else, or moving, concentrating on our education, caught up in something which would constantly distract from the pleasures of writing. That is what life is and, as such, I cannot make demands on another person for their time. I make only one promise: when I receive a letter, I will reply to it and try to make my efforts worthwhile.
Writing to someone you have not seen or heard from in many years is difficult, and I daresay you’ve already found your own way to do it. From my side I would always try to be relaxed, not to force anything, not to write myself up as anything other than what I am. A simple introduction, news, best wishes, the hope of a reply, and that does it for me. The fact that some of my letters are thousands of words long is just me, we are all different, all have our own way, and all should be ourselves. It’s difficult to keep up pretences, to hide the truth about ourselves, so we shouldn’t even bother in the first place. And if they do not reply, if there is no response to our friendliness: we tried, and that is what counts.