Monday, 2 July 2018

Spoken Ministry and subsequent reflection at a Quaker Meeting

As is quite well-known, Quaker meetings are based around silence, with occasional contributions, which anyone can make, if they feel moved by the Spirit to do so.  This is known as "Spoken Ministry".  Occasionally, no-one will speak for the entire hour of Silent Worship, and on occasion maybe three or four will speak out of the silence.  Sometimes one piece of spoken ministry will trigger another, but it is not in any sense a discussion or a debate.  We try to sense where the words are coming from and learn what has nourished the life of other.

For me, giving spoken ministry is something that builds up inside during the Meeting.  I do not go in with the express intention of speaking, or make any prior preparations - what sparks the ministry might be something I've recently seen or observed, or it may simply arise during the silent contemplation.  As a thought builds up that might lead to ministry, one needs to consider if it is appropriate to speak, and generally if so, it becomes more insistent until it is realised that one will not get peace until the words are spoke.

This is a somewhat expanded version of some vocal ministry I gave recently.  What is interesting is what happened during my subsequent (silent) reflection on it.

That morning, over breakfast, I saw a page and a video on the BBC News website where they had interviewed three Trump supporters on what they thought of the policy of separating the children from illegal immigrants.  One of the three interviewed was outrageously over the top stating that it was "the most disgusting piece of manufactured news I have ever seen".  Of course I was flabbergasted to hear this horrific treatment of innocent children described as "fake news", but what really struck me was the woman's face, or rather her eyes, that seemed to radiate pure hatred and anger.  She had what I would describe as a "mean face".  In this I am not saying she was ugly; I am sure she could look perfectly pleasant if she smiled, since a smile transforms a face as surely as does a frown.

As I am only human, and given the outrageous things she was saying, I found myself hating her back.  "What an awful, evil woman! How dare she say such things?" I thought.  But then it struck me that if instead she had been berating Trump, and pulling the same hateful face, that I would have started hating Trump more.  This, it seemed to me led to a simple principle;

"Hatred breeds hatred".

If you hate, then either the world hates you back, or the world hates with you, and neither is a good outcome.

After I'd watched the Trump-supporting video, I noticed in the side panel on the BBC website an article about a 103 year old pianist, so followed it for some light relief.  I had expected to see an old lady playing very simple tunes on a piano.  But she was actually playing Debussy's famous piece "Reflets dans l'eau" (Reflections in the water), a formidably difficult piece that is one of my favourites.  Moreover she seemed to have been playing it with complete mastery.

What struck me so much about this lady (who was interviewed in French with English subtitles), was her joy and love of life and nature - her mischievous smile and the radiant beauty of this lady, despite her advanced years.  At the end of the interview I found myself saying "I love her!".

Show love and the world loves you back.  In the interest of spreading a little light and love as opposed to darkness and hatred, I posted the interview with the French lady on my Facebook page, and left the Trump lady in obscurity.

But ... (I continued) it struck me that as a spiritual discipline it might be good to "hold in the light"  someone who really pushes all your buttons and makes you see red.  It is easy to pray for someone for whom you feel empathy, or whom you love, but someone you hate - well, that's much more difficult, and yet a good ascetic discipline. [ The Quaker expression "hold someone in the Light" is roughly equivalent to what a church-goer might mean by "pray for", though is often more contemplative in nature].

Then I sat down and silence resumed.  I attempted to "practice what I'd preached" and hold Trump woman in the light.   In silence I tried to visualise her, imagine what made her so angry and bitter, imagine her surrounded by God's light and presence.   But all I could hear in my head was the Debussy, the way music continues to resonate in your head, especially if you love that music dearly.

This reminded me of the verse from John's Gospel chapter 1:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5)
Then, right towards the end, some words came to me, in the way a quiet thought comes up from nowhere, which might be what God was saying to me.  Non-believers might find this rather strange as though there was a voice in my head.  This was not the case at all - just a thought, phrased as if it were from God.  Was it from God, or was it my imagination?  Does it even matter which it was?  The words were something like:

It's alright Iain.  It is too hard for you to love her, but not too hard for me.  I'll take over now.

After that, in the final few moments of the meeting, before it was formally ended where we shake hands with each other, there was, for me, a sense of utter peace.

Here is the video of the beautiful French 103 year old lady don't you just love her?

You'll have to find Trump-lady yourself, though if what I have said above is true, she's being taken care of.

And here is the entire piece for your enjoyment:

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The barbecue conundrum - a (partial) response to Stephen Fry

It's now notorious and has "gone viral".  I'm referring to Stephen Fry's response on being asked by a television interviewer what he'd say if he found God actually existed and was confronted by Him at the Pearly Gates.  Stephen replied that he'd say (something like) "Bone cancer in children - what's that about? How dare you deliberately create something that can cause so much misery and it's not our fault?"  Such a God would be evil, malicious, and he would want nothing to do with such a being.

I sympathise, I really do.  Some years ago, I used to go to a poetry group.  The founder was a lovely lady called Sally.  Sally was one of the most honest people I'd ever met - if she liked your poem she'd say so, but wouldn't pretend if she didn't like it.  Everyone valued her.  She died at the age of 36, in Indonesia, when her plane crashed into the side of a mountain - she was one of the two Brits on board.

I searched the shops for condolence cards, and could only find ones with trite religious words on them.  Sally was a complete atheist.  Not one of the outspoken toxic type of atheists that you see writing vitriol and ridicule as comments on religious articles in the Guardian, but nonetheless a firm atheist.  So I decided to write a poem in her memory, and, going outside my comfort zone, I wanted to write it from an atheist perspective.  It seemed the only way to honour and respect her, and indeed she was a person worthy of great respect.  The poem I ended up writing was called "On not making sense":

Making sense
Of the senseless
Is the most senseless
Thing we do.

The fall of numbered balls
Or airborne vehicles
Bestows no favours
Selects no victims
Reveals no Guiding Hand
But that of probability.

No-one to blame
So why this Why?

Making sense
Of the senseless
Is the most senseless
Thing we do.

I do not presume
To make sense of it.

(I.M. Sally Horsman)

I think I was doing fine on the atheist perspective (shit happens but what do you expect in a blind pitiless indifferent universe) till I got to line 12.  It's one that shot out of the pen and was on the paper before I could stop it.  It is probably also the most powerful and heartfelt line in the poem.  I couldn't stop myself from asking "WHY????"  I needed an entity to shake the fist at and say "Why did you let this happen, you monster?"  That a beautiful and talented human being should have her life terminated like this, and end up at a humanist funeral service (which I attended).  Actually she didn't end up there because they never recovered the bodies from the crash site. What a horrible and senseless end.

So I feel a lot of sympathy for Mr. Fry and his anger.  I felt angry, but I have an advantage - I believe in the entity I was angry at.  And I also realised after writing the line that I was echoing Jesus' despairing cry on the cross: "My God my God - why have you forsaken me?"  Why didn't you show up when the going got tough?  You're omnipotent - you could have prevented it?

To feel like this is undeniably human.  And it does pose this difficult question, which Stephen Fry correctly referred to as "theodicy" - the problem of a benevolent loving God allowing suffering and misery to happen.

Where I differ from Mr. Fry is that I think he's presumed that there is no answer to this question, so therefore God stands condemned as a monster.  And yet theologians and authors have battled with this question for time immemorial - and he makes no attempt to address these arguments (though maybe he has elsewhere).

So I would like to offer my personal perspective on this - I have no idea if it is original, or just a re-hash of old ideas.  I make no claims that it's a complete answer to the Theodicy problem - hence the title of this post as a "partial" response.  This is such a big and serious problem that it would be very arrogant to claim that I've got the answer and that it can be written down in a single blog post.

Anyway, here's my take on it.  I call it "The barbecue conundrum":

Barbecues are great for cooking meat and sausages.  But suppose a young child goes too close when no adults are looking, and puts his hand in the pretty flames.  He experiences excruciating pain, and horrific damage to his skin.  Perhaps he is maimed for life.  So I complain to God:  "How dare you create a universe in which this horrific thing can happen?"

But the thing is, barbecues are a good thing - they can be used to cook meat in a nice fun social atmosphere.  But you have to be careful with them because we are made of meat, and if we get too close, they cook us, with horrific consequences.

All of this is because of a simple fact, and one which I see as one of God's greatest gifts to us: that the Universe operates for the most part by Natural laws.  It was Einstein who said:

The eternally incomprehensible thing about the world is its comprehensibility.

(NB - Einstein did not believe in a personal God, and simply left this as an observation with no explanation).

The fact that the  universe is comprehensible enables us to understand the nature of things, and to predict what will happen when you do things.  Barbecues cook meat, so if you put your own meat on it (like your hand) it will cook you.  Imagine if this were different.  Suppose God made a universe where barbecues cooked all sorts of meat except human meat, which if inserted in the flames would be entirely unaffected by them and cause no pain or tissue damage.  How on earth do  you understand such a phenomenon?  What is it about the human flesh that is different so that it's unaffected by the flames, when pig flesh is?

Or maybe God acts as a benevolent puppeteer who physically prevents us from harming ourselves.  We put our hand towards the flames and mysteriously it gets gently pulled away, and we never quite manage to put it in.

Now multiply this by all the different ways we can hurt ourselves, and instead of the nice, simple universe governed (barring occasional miracles) by natural, predictable laws, we have a confusing, complex universe that we can barely understand.  We can't make scientific progress, and, having our children wrapped in cotton wool, either by a benign intervener, or by arcane scientific laws that we can barely understand, where is the motivation to look after our children.  Or each other?

Now, if you've got this far you're probably thinking that barbecues have their uses - they can cause good or bad things.  But surely no-one's found a use for cancer.

However, cancer is the result of evolution.  When a cancer develops in your body, it's evolution gone haywire, and the rapidly dividing cells (because of a mutation that disables the regulation mechanism) dominate over the stable ones.  This is a bad, indeed horrific consequence of evolution.  But equally, when your immune system fights off an infection, extremely rapid evolutionary processes are going on, to allow antibodies to develop.  So hurrah for evolution!  What a wonderful thing it is! Or as Darwin so eloquently put it at the end of "Origin of Species":

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Evolution is a tremendously simple idea - random mutation plus natural selection (we'll omit the additional complications of crossover, etc - these are details that don't destroy the original concept).

But imagine an evolutionary theory in which nothing bad happened.  No cancer, no burrowing flies, etc.  It would be practically impossible to understand such a theory - the very randomness of the process (copying errors etc) means that sometimes good things happen and sometimes bad.

What we have to do is to embrace that, and do our best to understand the world we live in.  In doing that we are empowered to do something about suffering - empowered to love each other, and to look out for each other.  Because we understand that the barbecue can cook human flesh, we watch out for our kids and protect them from harm.

I'd personally much rather have that sort of world, where we are empowered to love and look after each other, than one controlled by confusing laws, or a benign interfering puppeteer pulling my strings all the time.

  I very much doubt that Mr. Fry will get to read this one blog post among the reams of words that have been spilled by Christians in response to his accusations against God.  I know this isn't a complete answer, just a partial glimpse at a possible answer perhaps.

And I still get mad at God when awful things happen.  Sorry. I'm only human!

And I also hope very much that somewhere, Sally exists in some realm and can see this.  Perhaps this, too, is a  human weakness.  She liked some of my poems very much and for others was "frank and honest".  I wonder what she would have/did make of "On not making sense"?

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Simple Gifts for a King

When as a child I came into the world
Helpless and lying in a draughty shed
Your wisest men, they say, brought gifts to me:
Of gold - for crowning of an infant King;
And frankincense - for raising prayers to him;
And myrrh - portending burial and death.

But would you bring me gifts like this today,
And lavish me with costly offerings?
I would instead you follow me and let
Me show you where I make my dwelling place.

See this naked child, starving in the sun
Witness his ribs etched starkly on his skin
See his swollen belly, and how his eyes
Ignore the soft caresses of the flies.

I am that child. Today I live in him.
Each pain, each pang each gasp is also mine.
I would have you bring not crowns of gold
But food and water, simple gifts for a King

For when you nourish him, you nourish me.

And see the tramp who shivers by the door
Frozen from the night spent on the streets.
So will you offer up a prayer for him
That floats to heaven on a mystic scent?
I am that man, today I live in him
I feel the winters cold as much as he
I would have you learn from this young woman
Whose arms envelop him with love and warmth.
From here no fragrant scent but stench arises
From tattered socks and clothes infused with grime.

But when you love him, so you love me too.

Witness this teenage girl who falls apart
Imprisoned by the blackness in her brain
And see the scars that tell of her despair
Her sorrow, sighing, bleeding, dying, and
The bitter scent of death her only light.

And would you bury her with costly spice
Those wise men long ago saw as my fate?

I am that girl, her sorrow overwhelms
Me too.  I want this bitter cup to pass
I would rather have you bring the simple gift
Of being there for her - to walk beside
A mile or two and listen for a while

For when you walk with her, you walk with me.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Trying to imagine a world without suffering

The following is a somewhat expanded version of an article I had published in the "Christian Forum" column in the Abingdon Herald:

One particularly hapless character in Samuel Beckett's play "Waiting for Godot", is ironically named "Lucky". I think that Lucky is a negative analogue of Christ: a suffering servant treated abysmally by his master, carrying a heavy burden of two bags about the stage. A famous passage in the book of Isaiah in the Bible also concerns a suffering servant: Christians believe this to be a prophecy of Christ.

Lucky only gets to make one speech, a long, rambling and incoherent tirade, the gist of which is this: no matter what we do, we are all going to waste away to death, and our labours will be unfinished. The final word of the speech is, despairingly: "Unfinished!" By contrast, the last words of Christ on the cross are triumphant: "It is finished."

The text of Lucky's speech (along with guidelines on the formidable task of learning it!) can be found here.

Lucky then falls down, as if dead, only to be "resurrected" by the other characters, and given back his burden of the two heavy bags.

For more details on this see my earlier blog post on Waiting For Godot.  But for this article, I want to concentrate more on the issue of suffering, and to ask the question: Is Beckett saying here that Christ's death achieved nothing, that his suffering is meaningless except to show that there is no God?

This is perhaps one of the strongest arguments against Christianity (or any religion that has an omnipotent  Creator, apparently capable of everything).  If such a Creator exists, and presumably loves us, then why create a world in which there is so much suffering?

Rather than give a glib answer to this age-old question, I would like to consider what a world without suffering might be like.  

Let's peel away the layers of suffering, one by one, and see what we are logically left with.

It is easy to say, for example, that a world like ours but without cancer would be a "better" world than ours - no-one would have to suffer the excruciating pain of cancer.  Would that not be better than what we have?  My answer to this is: yes, it would, but if we are considering what it would be like to live in such a world, we would still have the same questions - why is there so much suffering - because we would not know about cancer, so other things (say depression, or rheumatoid arthritis) would take their place as the worst thing that can happen.  (Incidentally I think anyone who has been through the misery of severe depression might argue that it is worse than cancer - having cancer does't generally make you want to kill yourself, but depression does).

So we could peel away all the horrible diseases one by one, and still be left with a "worst" disease - and even if that is quite mild by our standards in our world, the hypothetical person in the other world would only know it as the worst thing to endure, and still ask the question "Why is there so much suffering - why do people have to suffer the misery of the common cold?  Could God not have created a world where we don't have to suffer sore throats, coughs and runny noses?"  I cannot resist at this point putting in a link to the hilarious spoof sketch: ManFlu - the truth.  But maybe in a world where this was the worst disease you could have, the symptoms would really appear as horrific as the man in the video seems to think.

So let's peel away all disease and infirmity.  What happens then, when everyone is healthy for their whole lives until the day they die?

This last is the large elephant in the room that I have avoided mentioning till now.  Suppose death is a painless experience that just happens after a certain time with no warning at all?  In a world where death exists, but there is no pain and illness, there would still be suffering.  The knowledge of one's own mortality is always present.  The grief of loved ones left behind is a form of suffering - and the ever present knowledge that you could lose a loved one (in this hypothetical world without warning or prior illness), is hard to bear. I attempted describe this in my short story: One in Fifty Thousand

So perhaps we should also abolish death, in this world of ours?  What would that be like?  Immediately there is an obvious problem if we abolish death but do not abolish birth as well.  It seems, that if God made a mistake in allowing suffering, that mistake was to place us on a finite sized planet!  Exponential growth of population in a finite world is not sustainable: there would have to be some point where all births ceased as well.  Or maybe a fixed, finite number of beings could be "created" in such a perfect world, who would never reproduce.

So this world of no suffering would be static.  Everyone would be content with their own existence, but nothing would ever change, and no new people would be born.  I think that such an existence would be meaningless; apart from all other things, if everyone were perfectly content with their lot, where would be the motivation to reach out to others, and to love?  True love involves putting the other person's needs before your own, but it is pointless if there are no needs to be met.

I started by wondering if the point of the character Lucky in Waiting for Godot was to show that his (and by analogy Christ's) suffering was meaningless. But perhaps it is suffering that actually gives meaning to life and a reason to love; the suffering of Christ shows us a God who is not indifferent to suffering, but stands alongside us and embraces our existence – the greatest act of love ever.

Footnote:  In reading the above, I imagine a Christian might argue "But did not Christ conquer death by his resurrection? Are we not to expect everlasting life?  How can that be meaningless?".  My answer to this is - yes, these words still hold true, but the everlasting life referred to is in a spiritual domain quite unlike the world we live in.  Perhaps it refers to an infinite domain, were continual birth and change for the better are not constrained by finite resources.  Perhaps "everlasting" does not even refer to time, but rather to a state of contentment where the passage of time is not even a concept of which we might be aware.  I do not think we should speculate on what "life after death" might be like, but should concentrate instead on how we live now, and I hope the above argument has perhaps provided food for thought - perhaps a world where no suffering occurs is a meaningless existence. In the suffering world that we know and live in, there is hope for the Christian in that God himself partakes of the suffering with us, rather than remaining distant and indifferent.  One of the names for Jesus is "Emmanuel" which means "God with us".

Sunday, 23 December 2012

May peace be born in you today

I have been returning quite a bit this year to T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" (in fact those who know me might think I'm becoming a bit of a T.S. Eliot bore!). I first read these poems in 1996. I found them challenging to understand, but equally I have found that they repay re-reading, and each time reveal a little more wisdom, which Eliot had evidently accumulated from his readings of mystical and religious figures across the ages.

A recurring theme of Four Quartets is timelessness, or a contemplation of the "timeless present", compared to our continual pre-occupation with contemplating the past and the future - an activity which Eliot saw as pointless instead of living consciously in the present moment - something which we can only experience fleetingly, and in doing so access the true spiritual states. In the final section of the third of the four poems ("The Dry Salvages"), for instance he wrote:

Men's curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint

I think he might also have written "mystic" for "saint".

What is this "point of intersection"? The text indicates that is it is something fleeting, which we experience occasionally: "The unattended moment, in an out of time", such as hearing music so deeply that it is not heard at all, but we are (one with) the music, while it lasts. I know that I have experienced this at concerts - the sense of being totally lost in the music - that it will never end and that I don't want it to end. One notable occasion was in a concert of the Elgar Piano Quintet - a piece I had not heard before. You can listen to it on YouTube, accompanied by beautiful photography here.

But a few lines later, Eliot indicates that these fleeting "timeless" experiences are only "hints and guesses" of something much greater. And he reveals to us his belief, as a Christian, that they are indications of the Incarnation:

... These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled.

It seems to me there is a staggering profundity in this passage, which seems appropriate to consider at Chistmas time when traditionally we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  The "impossible union of spheres of existence" is that in the human person of Jesus Christ, God meets with us - and comes alongside us in our existence.  It is not a God who sits Above, detached from us, but one who experiences everything we experience - every fear and every moment of suffering.  It is "impossible" because it is a miracle - something that defies natural law.

Eliot is saying, it seems to me, that the birth of Christ, the Incarnation, the "Word made Flesh" of St. John Chapter 1:14, is the ultimate timeless moment - one that applies to all time, and conquers and reconciles the past and the future. Moreover, all the fleeting hints at timeless beauty, are in fact pointing us at Christ.

Further considering the meaning of Christmas, it seems to me that it would be wrong just to see it as an event in the past (albeit a timeless one) that led to the establishment of one of the world's major religions. I think the Incarnation can and should apply to us today. It represents the fact that God comes to meet us NOW, exactly where we are.

As I was thinking along these lines, this morning the final verse of the famous carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem" came into my mind; its author evidently had much the same thought:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today.

I would like to wish my readers and friends a truly happy and peaceful Christmas. I fully appreciate that not all of you are Christians, and perhaps Eliot's association of the timeless present as a hint of the Incarnation of God, will not have the same depth of meaning for you as it does for me. But I'll warrant that most of you will have experienced, albeit fleetingly, those moments of peace, and release from the perpetual worry about the past and the future; and you will know how wonderful that feels. I wish more of the same for you.

May peace be born in you today.

Monday, 2 May 2011

There is no sense of justice

The following words from David Hartley, whose wife Marie was killed in the 7/7 bombings in London struck home to me, amidst all the celebrations on the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and comments that justice has been served:

They have got one but there are more behind there.
I can't see this meaning terrorism is likely to stop there. They might try retaliating a bit more now.
There is no sense of justice. They have some one but there are plenty of people willing to take his place.
He is just one of them.

Of course, I am not saying that David Hartley speaks for all those who lost loved ones in 7/7 or 9/11.  Many of those will feel a sense of justice; and be glad that an evil man who had no conscience about killing innocent civilians is now dead.  I guess for all of us there is a feeling of "he got what he deserved".

But evil atrocities, whether they are on a mass scale or perpetrated by one individual on another, make us all feel angry.  In my voluntary work, I get to talk to victims of the most appalling abuse - be it sexual abuse, domestic violence, or emotional bullying.  I've witnessed the devastation it wreaks on people.  Just because it's one person (or maybe two or three in the case of abuse of children within the family) doesn't make the perpetrators any less evil.

I confess I have a hard time dealing with the anger I feel about this.  It is hard not to feel burning anger against someone who for instance has inflicted sexual abuse on a child of under five, or the husband who beats his wife up in a drunken rage (not forgetting that sometimes it is the other way round and violent women abuse their husbands as well).

What is one to do with this anger?  One popular way (in the case of sex offenders) is to "name and shame" - to expose sex offenders and hurl hatred and vitriol at them; for example on a "name and shame" website I saw one article about a particular offender.  The phrase "piece of shit" seemed to figure prominently in this article and was repeated several times.  This particular offender died recently; a local newspaper carried the headline: "Pervert dies, aged 72".  Does this help?  How does it make the world a better place to say "I'm so happy this piece of shit is dead?"

But there is a different way to respond to this kind of atrocity.  Reach out to the victims.  Very often victims of abuse descend into self-loathing - blaming themselves for their misfortune.  To reach out involves trying your best to understand what it is that they are going through & to try and stand alongside them and understand their feelings.  I am not so sure that saying to them "what an arsehole!" is the most helpful response.  Indeed, telling them it's not their fault when they have got stuck in a mindset where they firmly believe it's their fault isn't going to help.  What helps is trying to understand those feelings - maybe even if you feel they are wrong to have those feelings, to walk with them a little, rather than brush them aside.  The journey from self-loathing to anger at the perpetrator, to the ultimately healing process of forgiveness is a difficult and long one, and the last of those steps is easily the most difficult to take.

But there is a difference with Bin Laden.  A sex abuser/wife abuser is not my personal enemy, but Bin Laden appeared to be an enemy of everyone in the West.  In early rhetoric he stated it was only Americans who were his enemy, but then Al-Quaeda atrocities extended to many others in the Western world, and the 9/11 attack killed many Muslims as well.  So I guess he was my enemy.

Someone commenting on Krish Kandiah's thoughtful blog post produced one of the most apt Biblical quotations to address this, from the book of Job:

Have I rejoiced at the extinction of my enemy,
Or exulted when evil befell him?
No, I have not allowed my mouth to sin
By asking for his life in a curse.
Job 31:29-30 NASB

I think many of us must have thought of Bin Laden "I wish that f------ b------ was dead!"  I'm sure I have; I'm only human.  But the celebrations erupting over the world make me feel quite uneasy.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

One in Fifty Thousand

[Author's note:  One of the biggest questions facing believers is the problem of pain and suffering.  There are no easy glib answers to this question.  It is clear that on a planet of fixed size, if there is birth there has to be death to make room.  But what if all pain were removed and death was always painless?  I have tried to imagine what this would be like in the following story ..]

One in fifty thousand is not much to worry about.  It is hardly worth concerning yourself when you go to sleep that one in fifty thousand will not wake up the next day, and you could be one of them.  One in fifty thousand will go to sleep, content and happy and painless, and will be carried off by the silent swathe that passes over the slumbering.  One in fifty-one thousand one hundred and thirty-five, to be precise, the statisticians have calculated.  It is so curious an exactitude that one may expect to live, on average for precisely threescore years and ten, just as it has been decreed in scripture, that many have seen this as evidence of the existence of God.    But the timing of the swathe for each individual has no pattern or apparent purpose; it favours not age over youth.  One may live to seventy and then expect to live another seventy.  One in sixteen may live to two-hundred and eighty, still looking the same as when they were twenty-one, and still expect to live another seventy.
We are supposed not to worry about this.  I am one-hundred and eighty-nine years old, and I am gazing at the sleeping form of my wife, Kate, a mere child of thirty-seven, and I am worried.  She is so beautiful and I love her so much it hurts.  It’s not supposed to hurt, but how can I not hurt and worry that she will be swept away without warning this night; that she will be taken from me just like the four before her?  Why not me first for a change?  I am supposed not to mind, for it says in scripture:

Husbands love your wives; wives love your husbands, but not to excess.  Be happy for them when they are taken away to greater rewards.  Do not mourn your loss, you who are widowed; your body remains unblemished and beautiful - you will find another partner who will appreciate the wisdom of your years that is contained in your soul but which leaves your body unmarked.

I dare not tell Kate how much I love her.  Such levels of love are unhealthy – they would start to poison her and she could lose her mind as I surely am losing mine.  In our lovemaking tonight, as in all other nights, I experienced a few fleeting seconds of exquisitely delicious pain at the apex of the act of union, and only then did I feel real – the wonderful balance of pain and ecstasy that is a release from the numbness of my meaningless existence.   I have wished many times that the end to lovemaking would bring death to both of us, in each other’s arms; such a release from the endless bearing of children, painless for the mother, but with each the potential to bring heartbreak when they are as likely as not to be swept away before you, as eight of my seventeen already have been.
I have identified that pain is the element that is missing, and I long for it.  That is why I say I am losing my mind.  I long for pain. I long for it to bring meaning.   And yet we all seem blessed (or rather cursed) with the inability to feel pain – the inability to feel real.  I try to re-create pain on my own; in the kitchen I slash a knife uselessly across my wrist, feel the slight sting, watch a few drops of blood come out, before, in a few seconds, the wound heals up, leaving no mark, and the stinging abates leaving only the mental torture that is inside my head.  If only it would leave a permanent mark, a scar so I could say on such and such a day I cut myself here to stop myself going mad.  But my wrist is as unblemished as it was a few moments ago – there are no visible memorials to map out my struggle.
 Why is it that we do not feel pain, as animals do?  Why is it that our existence is reduced to one of bland shallowness?  Some have said it is our kind Deity who cannot bear to watch His children suffer pain.  That He protects us from pain and disease, from age and infirmity because He wants our happiness, our joy, our gratitude.   Do I seem ungrateful?  I do not believe so, because I cannot believe such a Deity exists, for if He does, he cannot be good – more a sadistic monster who laughs at my torment and my expectation that it could continue like this for another seventy years.  No, such a Deity is not kind at all.  Would that the Deity would not be so cowardly as to protect us from pain, but would come down and live among us; stand alongside us in that pain.  That kind of God is one I could believe in.  But not the wimp and coward we are told to worship.  I reject such notions – there has to be a natural explanation of why we are preserved till we die, and why we die in exactly the pattern of the decay of  radioactive atoms.
I look again at Kate’s sleeping form beside me.  My arm is draped over her and I feel the perfect, womanly shape, and the smooth, regular rise and fall of her breast as she sleeps.  I want so much to shake her awake – to say don’t go there where you could be swept away like the other four.  Don’t leave me, please don’t leave me I cannot bear to lose yet another.  But she does not know what it is I’m going through – she does not appear to suffer internally as I do.  I shall not poison her mind and allow her to plunge into my turmoil.
I cannot continue any longer, Godless and hopeless. An end to life is all I want; not easy to achieve given the uncanny robustness of my body.  I get up from the bed, and pack a rucksack with heavy rocks from the garden. 
I now stand on the bridge over the river; the rocks will weigh me down, and ensure I don’t return to the top before my breathing has ceased.  I take one last look round, on the bridge top, at this pointless world, then launch myself towards the water, ready to embrace the nothingness that surely follows …
Suddenly I am awake.  My pulse is racing and there is a slight sweat on my forehead.  The nightmare is over, but as the pain starts to take hold, jabbing its vile spikes all over me, I know it is time for the next dose of morphine.  The nurse comes and administers the temporary relief.  Kate sits on my bed, holding my hand.  As the pain subsides, I gaze upon her face, no longer flawless as in her youth, but lined with the ever-advancing edge of age.  I don’t care – I can still see all her loveliness, and there is no reason why I should not tell her.  I put my arm around her waist and feel her warmth.  Our eyes gaze at each other and three unspoken words pass from one to the other.  In a few days’ time (it cannot surely be more than that) she is going to lose me, and she is ready.