(My photograph. Taken in Bad Frankenhausen, Germany)
Enough travel and photography for a while. Plenty more of that coming soon. Time now for some rebalancing. A little philosophy perhaps?
I started off intending to write my thoughts on life. Then I got distracted and my topic expanded, so here I am, writing about life and death.
Yeah, well. What would I know about your life and how you should live it? Very little, except for this hard won gem:
Don't try to tell anyone else how they should live a good life. It won't work and it just makes you look foolish when your own dross floats to the surface. So I won't try to tell you what I think you should do, because I don't know.
I do know what works for me though, and I'd like to share some of it, so if you have the time and interest, pull up a chair.
Try not to be put off. Maybe I've got something worthwhile to say and maybe I don't. The only way you will find out is to read on.
I cannot write about dying from personal experience. But then, can anyone?
It seems to me I'm on a conveyor belt called life. That belt has one destination. It travels at different speeds and has different lengths for different people, but there is no pause button and no reverse switch. I can ignore this, or rage against it, but it will change nothing.
I believe people's value doesn't diminish when they are dying. In the hospice where I volunteer I see more than a few people stripped of health, strength, independence, and sometimes even consciousness, awaiting death. Never yet have I come across any whose value was not obvious.
I don't think treating anyone as if they have no remaining value is excusable, especially not on the grounds of convenience. Dying is inevitable. Losing human worth and dignity is not.
Hiding death away as something shameful or unnatural is wishful thinking. Surely living life as though death is some sort of mistake or flaw in the fabric of existence is delusional. If every one of us will die at some stage, and we will, then death is a most persistent mistake.
Now, that all that is good in theory. Whatever we might prefer to be the case, death is a natural and inevitable part of life. But does that mean a person should always be left to die naturally, even when in extreme pain?
No I don't think so.
It's just that I don't trust any medical professional or judge or other expert to tell me when I lose my value as a human being. I do not want any such people having the authority to decide when a dying person is no longer of value and their life is to be extinguished.
When convenience is allowed to determine ethical responses to the suffering of the dying then anything and everything enters the mix. There is no ultimate boundary to what is acceptable. Does a medical degree confer superior ethical judgement and values? Experience says not. I can think of a few people I would trust to make decisions about my treatment when I am incapable. They are all people who love and value me, and there is not a technology expert or ethicist among them.
If and when I am suffering terrible pain and am close to death I will be reaching for that morphine button in whatever dose needed to dull the pain, whether it shortens my life or not. If I cannot do it myself I hope and trust that someone will do it for me.
I cannot imagine that any sane person would want a “bad” death. On the other hand, a “good” death, for me, is not just about escaping terrible pain, or avoiding gross discomfort. That's only part of the story.
I would eagerly avoid pain wherever I could but somethings more elemental, more important, if left unaddressed, would open the door to a “bad” death for me: Leaving stuff unresolved; missing the opportunity to be real and honest with myself and those I love, to list just two.
The opportunity to leave this life at peace with myself and my loved ones, knowing I am loved beyond my illness, deformity, disease, whatever, would be a wonderful thing. To depart knowing I matter to those around me: I could not wish for a better ending to life.
Things I wish I had learned much earlier:
It is good just to be. 'Doing' is necessary and all very well but 'being' is what matters. I no longer ask people what they “do”. I am more interested in who they are.
Learning to accept what is, rather than grieving for what should be, or should have been. If only!
I'm getting better at it, but as they used to say on school report cards: “Room for improvement”.
So many regrets, so many traumas, so many injustices, so many things I want to take back or do again properly. They would smother me if I let them. I can't carry them all. Better to accept that they happened, to lay them down gently and watch them float away. There is peace in that, and grace, as I have discovered with a sense of wonder.
Looking for someone or something to blame is pointless. It takes me nowhere useful. It is a dead end. Hanging on to stuff has been something I have done a lot of over the years. Putting stuff down and letting go has seen me on a learning curve, often a very slow learning curve. It seems to me that such a skill would have made an enormous difference to my life. Better late than never, hey?
Making amends where possible. Often it is not possible, but just as often it is. Things broken can not always be put back together entirely, but there are degrees of repair. Better to try, than to leave a grievance festering untended. Easier to put down a burden too, when I have humbled myself and tried to make amends.
Making an apology is not always an easy thing. Being able to put ones self in the other's position is not always possible but now and then I manage it.
Being envious of the success, wealth or good fortune (or whatever) of others is a giant waste of time. Self evident now, but not always so. There were always plenty of opportunities to look over there at how much easier someone else had it, and cling to the resultant feelings of injustice.
I do not much look at what others have any more. I could no longer care less. I wake up each morning. The sun is shining (mostly). What more do I need or want?
Needing to have others think or believe as I do was never good for my blood pressure or sense of well being. Having prised my hands away from the tiller on this one, my days are much gentler and more peaceful these days. What someone else thinks or believes is their business and has no affect on me. Well, that's true in theory at least. If what they think or believe is ignorant or stupid, or threatens my way of life (and I remain convinced of my ability to judge such things by the way), I can still get up a head of steam, but at least I no longer feel the need to argue. Live and let live, as far as is wise, I say.
Showing love is just as important as feeling it. People will not automatically know that I love them unless my actions show them. Showing love is more than just providing material support. It means taking the time to listen, to empathise, to hug, to put myself last, and to say repeatedly how much my loved ones mean to me. I'm embarassed to admit that it took me so long to realise and act in this area. I could blame my childhood upbringing for that, but as I said above, blaming is a waste of energy.
Family and friends are the most important aspects of life. Nothing else matters if these relationships are damaged or broken. No material success, no self gratifying achievements mean anything next to the love of family and friends. Once again, it would have been better for me to have appreciated this much earlier.
Music and art feed the soul. I always knew this, but now live as though I believe it. Two years ago I started learning to play classical guitar. I've now reached a level where other people can realise what I am playing is music and that gives me great joy.
And finally . . .
There is much wisdom and philosophy in wine, but the more wine, the less you remember.
And to finish, in case you agree they have some relevance, I include the lyrics of Steve Earle's “Pilgrim”:
I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys
This ain't never been my home
Sometimes the road was rocky 'long the way, boys
But I was never travelin' alone
We'll meet again on some bright highway
Songs to sing and tales to tell
But I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys
Until I see you fare thee well
Ain't no need to cry for me, boys
Somewhere down the road you'll understand
'Cause I expect to touch his hand, boys
Put a word in for you if I can
Steve Earle and Del McCoury Band.