Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Amy Winehouse, Norway and Somalia

Every day, worldwide, around 200,000 people die. Last weekend, hundreds of these were in Somalia and Ethiopia, or in the camps in northern Kenya where more and more starving refugees are turning up, looking for food. It’s been noticed and reported on by the world media, but it’s not up there in the headlines with the Greek bailout or the American budget crisis.

76 people died in Norway on Friday, killed by Anders Brehving Breivik. The bombing and shooting carried out by one right-wing fanatic dominated the world headlines.

Until Saturday, when the death of Amy Winehouse, a twenty-seven year old singer, addicted to alcohol and other drugs, took the top place in many newspapers and TV news reports.

The death of one person is experienced as a tragedy. The sudden, violent death of many is seen as a catastrophe. The deaths of thousands are perceived as a statistic, part of the way of the world.

Yet there are other differences between the deaths of Amy Winehouse and the massacre in Oslo and Utøya on the one hand, and the daily dying going on in East Africa on the other.

In the first place, there was little anyone could do to avoid the first two. Amy Winehouse was a tragic addict and addiction, particularly the polytoximanic form with which she was afflicted, is generally fatal unless the sufferer him or herself finally faces the consequences and takes that first necessary step – the admittance of one’s own powerlessness and the sincere decision to seek and accept help. Amy, unfortunately hadn’t reached that point before her body – in common with others such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin or Brian Jones, at the age of 27 – finally gave up under the strain of diverse poisons.

Anders Breivik, according to all the accounts up to now, seems to have been a solitary psychopath. While there has been, and will be, all kinds of speculation about what could have been done to realise how close this particular psychopath was to finally unleashing his particular version of horror on society, it remains a sad fact of life that a free society will always remain marginally vulnerable to such risks – as was the case with Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996, or with Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Difficult though it may be for us to accept, the very freedom which we regard as a fundament of our society gives rise to the space in which such perverted personalities can find room to develop and plan their atrocities. Most of them are, thankfully, too stupid or too obviously weird to allow them to carry through their planning and execution before they are discovered and stopped, but we will probably never be able to protect ourselves completely from the cleverest and luckiest of them; not without abandoning our basic principles of freedom and decency in favour of totalitarian state control (even if it worked, which it doesn’t).

The famine in Somalia (and, to a lesser extent, in Ethiopia and Kenya), in contrast, has been a tragedy which is twenty years in the making and which many of those familiar with the area have been foretelling for years. There has been no effective government in the country since 1991. The current crisis is the result of a combination of failing rains (something which frequently occurs in this region), the longer-term consequences of overgrazing and deforestation by subsistence farmers who have had no other choice it they wish to survive from day to day and political failure and corruption, ideological idiocy and a series of supremely hypocritical and morally bankrupt policies followed by all the local, regional and global powers who have ever been involved with the place – from the local Islamicist criminals controlling large areas of the country to the various world powers whose only basic interest is the protection of their shipping interests through naval patrols from desperate pirates operating from this wreck of a former country.

In the West, we bear a large part of the responsibility for what is happening in Somalia now. Our interests in getting fuel from the Persian Gulf and cars and consumer electronics from Asia securely to our markets mean that we are prepared to send warships to the Indian Ocean before the Somali coast without ever asking why desperate men decide to attack cargo ships in the first place. Because their country has been wrecked by colonialism and post-colonialism and, following the end of the proxy wars carried out worldwide between the US and Soviet Empires up to the end of the 80s, been left in chaos as easy booty for gangs, criminals and religious fanatics. If your whole society is controlled by criminals and offers you no security for yourself and your family, what should dissuade you from being criminal yourself, if that’s the only way to survive? The west is responsible at other levels too. The cost of food has been rising steeply for the past couple of years, partly because we have been prepared to pay more for renewable fuels to feed our greed for energy and thus encouraged farmers to grow cash crops for fuel rather than food. And this is only the tip of a rotten iceberg which also includes monoculture, agri-combines, gene patenting, subventions, big business, a hunger for ever more meat rather than vegetables and grains, etc. The wonderful results of a markets-driven global economy which leaves the poorest unable to afford to pay the current market price for subsistence food, even if it were available where it was needed.

It has happened before and we were warned that it would happen again if there weren’t substantial changes in the way we do things. And, like in 1985 with Live Aid and all the other reactions that time to the famine in Ethiopia, we will see reports of starving children on TV and will donate to the various NGOs and semi-official agencies, from the Red Cross and Crescent, to the FAO, to Médecins Sans Frontières. And some of that help will actually get to those who need it, despite administrative costs, and bungling, and corruption, and politics, and robbery. And next year or the year after the rains will come again and Somalia will fade once more from our public collective consciousness – until the next time.

The aftermath of the death of Amy Winehouse and the massacres in Norway may even bring positive results. If Amy’s death focuses more attention on the plight of addicts and some serious public discussion of the diseases of alcohol and substance addiction, then that will do some good. Norwegian public society has already spontaneously reacted to Breivik’s madness by spontaneously reiterating its commitment to the values of a liberal, humanistic, democratic society. The very horror evoked by the massacre – and the dangerous, crazy ideas which provoked it – will hopefully cause many in Western Europe to look again at their flirtation with the simplistic exclusivist racist pseudo-solutions offered by right-wing populists whose following has been increasing in the past decade. To realise that their societies have become irrevocably multicultural in the past quarter of a century and to see the future in dialogue and integration rather than exclusion and discrimination. To once more assert and affirm their commitment to pluralism and tolerance – and, in this context, to challenge sub-cultures (like the various Islamic-ethnic ones throughout Europe) to affirm their commitment to these values as well, without demanding that they give up their identities.

But I see little hope for any real change as a result of the calamity emerging in the Horn of Africa. Thousands will die, many more will suffer, some will be saved as a result of aid. But, unless we start to look at the way we run our world (or allow it to be run for us) on a much deeper level, it will happen again and again.

Globalisation has become an accepted fact in the past twenty years. But it means more than just being able to buy a cheap TV or smartphone, assembled from parts bought all over the world on the other side of the globe, being able to buy flowers cut yesterday in Kenya or eat strawberries in January. It also means that we are all interconnected, in all sorts of ways, with everybody else. And that means that we too are, at some level, responsible for the fact that those children are starving in Somalia. And that won’t change unless we realise that responsibility and do something about it.

Like demanding of our politicians and public representatives that they apply the principles they so often praise in our own societies to our international doings world-wide. Like looking at the values which really drive us as opposed to those which we profess. Like accepting – individually and communally – that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions and our inactions.

I’m not all that very hopeful.

Pictures retrieved from:

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Marshall McLuhan is 100

There can be something immensely liberating about relieving pressure - particularly when that pressure is internally, almost neurotically applied. A kind of psychological quantative easing.

That's what's happened to me, at any rate. Having moaned here just a few days ago about how tough life was, and about how difficult I was finding it to write anything creative, I woke up this morning (the first of four blessed days in a row when I don't have to work), heard a snippet on the news and ... bang!

There it was. The muse flung herself into my arms and gave me a hot, heavy, tongue-down-your-throat kiss.

The way it worked out, the form it took, it seemed to be more suited for posting over at Obnoxius. Still, I thought I'd give my regular readers here a link to it:

Have a good weekend, everyone ...

Talking Heads seems to be a suitable musical accompaniment to this. Thanks to Gina at Pagan Sphinx for putting this particular worm in my ear today!

Picture retrieved from:

Monday, 18 July 2011

Take it easy ...

Regular readers will no doubt have realised that the frequency of posting on this blog has been dropping off in the last couple of weeks. There are a number of reasons for this.

One has to do with the amount of time I’ve had to put into my job in the past while – and the kind of work I’ve been doing during that time. Up to a couple of months ago, I was doing quite a lot of night work. Now night work is by no means easy – it’s anti-social, drains your energy, and is physically and psychologically bad for you. But one of its characteristics in the area I work in was also the fact that it left me with time on my hands, time where the major challenge was to keep myself awake. Writing essays was one useful way of doing this; and many (perhaps even a majority) of the posts published here in the past year were written in the quiet hours of the deep enfolding night when most of the rest of the world around me was asleep.

But I’ve only worked one night shift since the end of May and this is certainly a major reason for the reduction of frequency in my posting. It wasn’t that I’d asked to be taken off nights, it just seems to have turned out that way at the moment – for all sorts of reasons. Much of the work I’ve been doing during the day has been on twelve hour shifts with quite a lot to do; certainly more than would leave the time to take out my netbook and start banging away on the keys. Even if it were possible, my bosses have also decided that there are more than enough other things to be doing during the day shifts and we were recently informed that the presence of powered-up private laptops and netbooks would no longer be viewed positively by the firm – during day-time shifts, at any rate.

In terms of internet access, it hasn’t actually made much difference to most of us. The march of the smartphone is continuing apace and most of my colleagues (including myself) seem to have acquired one in the past year or so. But while my HTC Wildfire is more than adequate for quickly checking and writing e-mails, writing a quick comment for Facebook or (in the past ten days) Google+, and providing all sorts of interesting apps, I somehow can’t see myself writing an essay with one finger on the tiny keyboard on the touch screen – unless I were locked into an unfurnished room for many hours with nothing else to do.

These busy twelve-hour shifts have the added disadvantage of leaving you pretty tired after you’ve done more than two or three of them in a row. Theoretically, working this kind of system is supposed to leave you with a lot of free time. Sometimes that even happens. But more frequently it doesn’t quite work like this – as most people working with such kinds of structures know. The reality of organising shift rosters for round-the-clock jobs means that you often finish up with a plan which involves working two or three days, then having one day free, then a day working, then the next day free, then three days on, etc. etc. If the plan gives you three or four free days in a row, then the chances increase that one of your colleagues will phone in sick and you’re going to be called in to work anyway.

Or at least that’s the way I perceive it at the moment. And, if I’m going to be honest, some of the deeper roots of why my posting here has decreased recently are to be found here. The vague feeling of frustration which I’ve had for quite a long time now regarding the basic conditions defining the work I’m doing has been increasing of late. Increasing to a degree which has finally started to communicate itself to others at the job, including my bosses. Which doesn’t make things easier.

I’ve been aware of this and (as I’ve written here already) I am currently involved in planning to change things. But my plans involve more training and a lot of reorganisation in my life before things can really change, while carrying on working at what I’m doing through all of this – and this will take time … and energy.

Energy, aye, there’s the rub. Although at a purely physical level a tiny amount of mass potentially contains huge amounts of energy, humans aren’t atom bombs and the liberation of personal “spiritual,” psychological energy is subject to different, complex, very personal laws. Apart from the physical drain which working a longer series of twelve-hour shifts entails (and this itself is not to be underestimated), I’m finding recently that continually coping with a situation in which I feel discontented and frustrated is putting a considerable strain on my personal energy levels.

This is not the first time I’ve been in such a situation and I like to think I have learned a little about dealing with them over the years. The positive side of things is that I am working on a strategy to change things. The negative side is that I have to go on enduring what can’t be immediately cured. And there are all sorts of things I can do in the short term to live with frustration, reduce it where possible, do positive things for my energy levels and go on, basically, finding life positive and enjoyable.

One of these tactics is not to stress myself unnecessarily about stuff. And that includes posting to this blog. If a post doesn’t get written – or get finished – well, that’s just the way it is. At the same time, if the power and the inclination is there, all the better – then something gets done, like writing this. And it is good to give oneself a shake every now and then and do one of those things one knows that one enjoys, even if it initially seems to demand some of that scarce energy. The positive personal feedback and consequent synergetic increase in energy which results makes it all worth while.

And sometimes you can trick yourself, in a positive fashion. As with this post, for example. I have a half-finished post on Rupert Murdoch and the whole News International scandal in Britain, which I just didn’t feel like today – one of those single days off before working another couple of twelve-hour shifts. So, instead of trying to slog on with it, or doing nothing much at all, I decided to write something else. This.

There are times when life runs lightly, like dandelion seeds dancing on the breeze. There are times when it is more difficult, like trying to wade through treacle in rubber boots. I suppose I’m in one of those treacle phases at the moment. The thing to do is to keep moving …


Pictures retrieved from:

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

On yer Bike! - Le Tour de France

It’s July again and a couple of years ago this would have given a definite structure to my daily routine; come home from work in the late afternoon and turn the TV on to watch the last hour or so of the Tour de France. There was something intensely relaxing (I found) about sitting down to watch nearly two hundred men compete day for day in probably the most gruelling sporting event in the world, with tactics, drama, excitement and the beauty of the French countryside all thrown together.

In the past few years, my interest for the Tour has waned; the constant revelations of doping and the level of the cheating mentality they signify have finally gone beyond my tolerance levels. It is, in my view, a great shame, because it detracts from the marvellous spectacle and what it says about the possibilities of the human will and spirit. But I shall return to this theme presently.

For a number of reasons too complex and boring to go into here, I was ten years old before I learned to ride a bike. But, having learned, I found my bicycle to be an amazing extension of my freedom. Living in a small town in the west of Ireland with practically no public transport worth speaking of, my bicycle extended my radius of action to the whole town – and beyond, into the marvellous countryside around Sligo known as the Yeats Country, which I have already written about here

My attachment to my bicycle waned considerably as my teenage years advanced. The more my consciousness of cool developed, the less attractive the bike was. And this had a lot to do with the nature of cycling itself.

Despite the fact that you can go cycling with others, there is something solitary about it. Admittedly you can have conversation with your companions when you’re pedalling gently along on a flat road – provided the traffic doesn’t force you to cycle single file. But – unless you live in areas like Holland or Northern Germany – long, flat stretches of straight road with little motorised traffic are generally more the exception than the rule. The increased energy you need to put into climbing hills, along with the increased demand your body has for oxygen, tends to concentrate your attention on yourself, your effort, your breathing, your goal of reaching the summit. The desire for conversation fades into the background. And the pleasure of racing downhill, combined with the concentration you need to keep on the road and the fact that the wind will whip your words away anyhow, is also a fundamentally solitary one.

Undoubtedly, if one of the girls I was interested in a fifteen had been an avid cyclist, I would probably have had to be surgically removed from my bike, but such girls are few and far between (particularly in their teenage years) and there weren’t any like them in the circles in which I moved. No, cool meant “hanging out,” walking, talking, preening – all the exciting rituals of puberty – and bicycles are of limited use for most of them.

The solitary nature of cycling is also one of the factors which characterise such major professional events such as the Tour de France – one man, taking part in a competition with all others, testing his body and character to the their limits and beyond with a goal which only one can achieve, wearing the maillot jaune at the end of the final stage around the Champs Élysées in Paris. Of course, in the course of the years the Tour has become so complex that it contains many other goals worth reaching; winning a stage, being the overall leader (and thus winning the right to wear the Yellow Jersey for the next stage), winning one of the various classifications like King of the Hills or the Green Jersey for the points leader, etc. But, significantly, all of these goals are individual ones.

At the same time, no-one can win the Tour de France on their own; you need a whole team behind you and a good one too. The complexity of the three-week event, cycling around 3,500 km with all sorts of different stages which include travelling through two major mountain ranges (the Alps and the Pyrenees) involving climbing elevations which have been estimated to total three times the height of Everest, necessitates all kinds of tactical and strategic thinking, co-operations, temporary alliances and, above all, team work. This is the other aspect of the Tour which I have always found so fascinating. It’s not enough to get up every day and ride your damnedest to get to the finish as fast as you can. It’s not even enough to get up every day, analyse your weaknesses and strengths (and those of your opponents) and plan your stage accordingly. Because, depending on all sorts of factors, what you achieve is dependent on what the others let you achieve and what kind of dedicated support and help you get from others.

This is where the teams come in. They are composed of all kinds of specialists (and I’m only talking of the riders here, the whole support apparatus is also vitally important), from sprinters, to climbers, from those who can keep a long sustained effort going to those who are capable of short, sharp attacks. The tactical and strategic planning becomes more complex, because you have to coordinate the various talents in the team to support the rider they see as their leader (who, depending on the way the Tour has been developing, may not be the formal team leader) and, more, depending on what the other teams do and what their strategies and tactics are, you have to enter into short-term tactical alliances with your opponents.

Every year, there are only around ten candidates who can be seriously seen as candidates for the overall victory. Most team members will never be any more than one of the mass of the peleton. But one of the attractive aspects of this incredibly complex event is that there are always individual chances for glory, for every rider. A small group, or even one individual, may make an early break in an individual stage – it’s something that nearly always happens. Even if they manage to work up a lead of many minutes, the pack – by sharing the hard work of controlling the pace – usually catches them in the final hour and they (exhausted by their hard work) are generally swallowed by the group, often coming in far behind the stage winners. But sometimes – and this is something you can never predict – the strategies followed by the teams of major contenders, combined with the overall placement of the members of the small group (or the one lonely man) may lead a collective decision to just let them go. And so, it’s always possible that an ordinary humble spear-carrier may achieve the undying glory of having won a stage of the Tour.

Although there have been phases in my adult life where I have cycled quite a lot, I don’t do a lot of it at the moment. Much of this has to do with the topographical characteristics of the Duchy of Berg, the region of Germany in which I live. Berg is, to put it mildly, a hilly region and that serves to make cycling the kind of sport best described as extreme. The centres of Remscheid (where I live) and Solingen (the nearest neighbouring town), for example, are only five miles apart as the crow flies. Five miles – and a valley over a hundred meters deep between them. This may be nothing for an ardent cyclist like my old friend and fellow blogger, Michaelbut it’s a food too rich for me.

But the Tour de France is generally decided in the mountains, and these mountain stages involve climbs which make the hills in my area which generally lead me to leave my bike at home look like mere bumps. Legendary ascents like the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees or the famous Alpe D’Huez (involving a climb of 1,100 meters over 15.5 km) are the kinds of challenge which many of us would think twice about doing on foot. The guys on the tour go all the way up on bicycles, more; quite a lot of them are capable of bursts of acceleration on inclines where any ordinary cyclist has long succumbed to the consequences of the fact that you only have a finite number of lower gears and got off to push the bike further on foot, gasping for breath as you do so.

It is in the mountain stages that the real decisions over who will win the ultimate maillot jaune take place. Depending on form and the tactics followed on the day, even the best cyclists can lose many minutes in a mountain stage. The ultimate champion doesn’t have to win a mountain stage, but he has to be well up with the field in all of them and, if the competition is close, then he will have to defeat his closest challengers here.

The kind of challenges posed by the Tour push even a perfectly trained human body right to its limits – and beyond. And this is where the contemporary tragedy of the Tour de France, and professional cycling in general, has its roots. For modern research has produced numerous methods of helping the human body go beyond its limits. It’s known as doping. And professional cycling (more than any other sport, with the possible exception of some forms of light athletics and weightlifting) is riddled with it.

Imagine you are a young cyclist, talented and superbly trained, who has made the decision to subjugate his life to the sport which is his passion and become a professional. You have won a place on one of the big teams and been offered the chance to compete in the most prestigious event your sport offers. You know you are good and, even if – as an ordinary spear-carrier – you’re only just earning enough to survive, you have hopes that you can become one of the best. There you are, grinding your way through the torture of the climb up to the summit of the Tourmalet, dragging up the last of your oxygen reserves, when another guy sails, seemingly without effort, past you. And you know that one of the reasons he can do that is because his blood, enriched by EPO, is capable of carrying more oxygen than yours. And you know that there are good chances that he won’t be caught for it, because he took the EPO to build up his red-blood count months earlier, waited until the traces of the substance had reached a low borderline level, transfused a litre or two of it out of his body, and transfused the enriched blood back in yesterday evening. And because nobody is really interested in dealing with this whole situation.

Later that evening, your team manager calls you in. He’s critical of your performance up to now, wonders about your future in the team and comments that you’re going to have to do something to improve yourself if you want to continue competing at this level.

Would you condemn this young rider for doping?

When it comes to the question of doping, it’s possible to take different positions. It can be argued that modern sportsmen and women are adults and, as long as they are aware of the risks they may be taking, it should be their decision whether to take possibly damaging methods to optimise the performance of their bodies. But this argument, in my view, misses the point – particularly when it comes to sport.

Whatever type of sport one is talking about, they all have one thing in common; they have agreed rules, rules which are obligatory for everyone taking part in the sport. The rules of sport don’t even have to be logical, but they are binding for everyone who participates. And, for many good reasons, doping is not allowed in cycling – or in any other sport, for that matter. Which means that anyone who dopes is cheating.

But rules will only work when they are seen to be applied and when the breaking of them has consequences. And this is what has poisoned professional cycling in the last decades. That doping is the rule rather than the exception is something the dogs have been howling in the streets for years now. Many of the top names have been caught, or admitted to doping (Riis, Zabel, Vinokourov, Basso, Rasmussen, Kohl), others remain under strong suspicion, including Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong. Floyd Landis, who won the 2006 Tour, was subsequently deprived of the title for illegal use of testosterone.

And last year’s winner, Alberto Contador, is under suspicion. The case is complicated, he’s been banned, then the ban was lifted, appeals are pending. Under pressure from his lawyers, a decision on various appeals has been deferred until next month. This means that he’s competing in this year’s Tour.

The conclusion I have reached is that cycling is rotten and that there is no great interest on the part of most in cleaning it up. There’s too much money involved, as well as a cult of secrecy and, let’s face it, cheating.

Which is why, reluctantly, I don’t really follow the Tour de France any more. I can only hope that the sport gets serious about cleaning itself up – it owes it, above all, to its young riders. And, to be honest, I’m not very hopeful.

Still, if I happen to be home during the mountain stages, I might just turn on the TV. Despite all the dirt and the cheating, I still find them simply amazing to watch …

Pictures retrieved from: 

Friday, 1 July 2011

Death: Don't Fear the Reaper?

We nearly lost Jenny – the little girl I wrote about recently here – last Saturday.

She had seemed a little out of sorts after her nap. She and I had worked on a jigsaw puzzle together and she had trouble concentrating. She was staggering a bit more than usual, but we suspect that she may have some balance problems as a result of the damage to her ears I mentioned in that previous post – it’s a difficult thing to be sure about with a three year old, particularly when they’re always dragging a heavy, corrugated double hose from their neck attached to a respirator as Jenny has to.

I had just mentioned my suspicion that something wasn’t quite right to my colleague when Jenny keeled over. She’d lost consciousness, had turned deadly pale and her lips were turning that shade of blue which tells you that she’s not getting any air. I picked her up, my colleague grabbing the respirator and we rushed to her room where there was a new tracheotomy tube, CPR bag (also known as an Ambu bag), and more equipment generally. I removed her tube as quickly as possible (noting in passing that it was blocked with a thick plug of mucus) and inserted a new one. My colleague started working the bag immediately, efficiently pumping air into the child’s lungs while I connected a tube from the tank in the corner to the bag to try to put some of the oxygen she’d been missing in the previous minutes back into her as quickly as possible. Reboot the system with a kick-start.

And nothing happened. We’ve had Jenny in this situation before but up to now, as soon as the tube was replaced and she started to get air again, she responded almost immediately. Not this time. My colleague was pumping away but Jenny still lay there, unmoving, white and blue, her eyes wide open, seeing nothing.

I started doing compression, briefly alternating both bag and compression while my colleague phoned for an ambulance …

… tell them as quick as they can, sirens and lights, no, we’ve already started resuscitation … shit, come on Jenny, come on girl, everything’s all right, come on now, darling, you can do it, come back to us now …

A minute went by, maybe two. I’m not sure – I certainly didn’t have time to look at my watch – and we continued compressing and bagging. A black feeling of despair started to knock at the edge of my consciousness as I sensed the possibility that Death had joined us in the room. Then she twitched.

Just once, then nothing. We carried on. She twitched again and then started to trash around weakly. The horrid inky blue colouring around her lips faded back to something approaching normal. Jenny was there again. I could almost hear the whispering whish of his black robe as Death slowly withdrew. Obviously he’d decided there was nothing for him here. Not this time.

When the ambulance crew arrived a few minutes later, Jenny was huddled in my arms, clinging tightly to me. A little girl, needing comfort.

Thanks, guys, no, it’ll be all right now, we’ll keep her here, we can do nearly everything they’d do in hospital anyhow, it’d just freak her out and they’d probably have to sedate her … sure, we’ll call you again if we have the feeling anything’s not quite right …

* * * * *

In over twenty years of nursing in one form or another, I’ve shared a room with Brother Death more frequently than most people – if not as often as those colleagues who work in Accident and Emergency Rooms around the world. But I’ve been there often enough when he arrived on the scene and, noting that the sand in his hourglass had run through, beckoned implacably with his bony finger.

While I would have fought him every inch of the way for Jenny – for there is something especially insulting, deeply wrong, which we are properly hardwired to feel about the potential death of any child – there have been many times when I will admit that I have seen his coming as welcome, inevitable, even overdue. But then, most of the over twenty years I have now spent in nursing have been, in one way or another, either in the area of geriatric care or the care of long-term very seriously ill people. I suppose this gives me a different perspective on death to that of most people – particularly in our society.

The instinct to see death as the ultimate enemy, to fight it with every fibre of our beings is programmed into that very fibre of our beings – at its most ultimate biological level. That which makes the double helix of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) unique is its “drive” to replicate itself, to continue and, ultimately, develop its existence by reproducing itself. It is dynamism, life, in its most elemental form; it can do no other than to strive to live, for this is what defines it and thus death is its antithesis.

Yet if life is the governing postulate of the DNA which defines our biological reality, the second law of thermodynamics – the tendency to entropy, the decay of order in any system to a formless random soup – is its counter-postulate at the level of the physical reality in which biological existence finds itself; death. And it is within this field of tension created by our biological drive to live and the inevitable ultimate failure of that drive (at least on the individual level) in death that we experience and attempt to make sense of and infuse meaning into our individual livings.

Given this basic existential tension, it is no wonder, then, that our initial deepest reaction to death is one of instinctive negation; our very genes cry out, “No, this cannot be, this must not be!” Yet another part of us knows that it is inevitable, that it comes for every living thing, for the experience of birth, growth, growth, maturation, decay and death is something ever present. One of the images we use for death is that of “the Grim Reaper;” when the grain is ripe it will be harvested and the scythe will cut through the stems, mowing all that comes into its path.

This challenge for us to find meaning in the fundamental existential experience of contradiction between life and its inevitable ending defines us in all sorts of ways. It is, I believe, a basic impulse for our deep instinct towards religion – for most religions have, as one of their central themes, the question of death and our inability to accept it as a final ending. The unthinking urge to live, the defining aspect of our genetic coding at a level much deeper than our reason, finds an expression in our rational, “spiritual” attempts to affirm life as an absolute principle beyond the caesura of death. Death, the ending of the existence which defines our experience is unthinkable, unimaginable, therefore it cannot be the end – instead it is explained as a phase change, or as something which entered the world as a kind of flaw which is to be overcome.

It is not my intent here to use this argument to refute any religion, or religion as such; rather to try to see it within a wider existential context without making any claims of validity, one way or another.

Still, the contradiction between our drive to live and our realisation that this living must end has exercised humanity through all its history. While our very living is a continual negation of death – more, we also possess the ability to make new life through our children – at the same time we know how fragile that life is, how it can be wiped out in an instant. Memento mori [remember your mortality] is also a continual theme, from the slave whispering reminders of human finitude into the ear of the Roman general celebrating a triumph to the Catholic tradition of signing the foreheads of believers with ash on Ash Wednesday, accompanied by the saying, “Remember, man, that you are dust and into dust you shall return.”

And, of course, like most such antitheses, the art is in finding a balance – a balance between our driving lust for life and our realisation of our inevitable mortality. This challenge faces us daily as individuals, it also faces us as societies. For societies have tended in one direction or another – from the ancient Egyptian obsession with death to the sybaritic classical Roman Nunc est bibendum [let us eat, drink and be merry], from the post-plague medieval danse macabre to a tendency today to try to banish dying and death completely from the public consciousness into hospitals and funeral homes.

The immense advances made in hygiene, nutrition and medicine have made death a much less commonplace occurrence in the developed world in the past century and a half. Whereas for most of history death was an ever-present companion of life and could happen to you at any time, today, in much of the world, we confidently expect to live well beyond seventy or eighty. With tragic exceptions, death has become a province of the old and is done quietly, away from a society which often seems obsessed with the icons of youth, vitality and rude health.

Yet Brother Death is not defied, he still waits in the wings, the inevitable final encounter we will all make. It is right that we fight him with all the means available to us, for such is the very drive of life itself, but it is also the defining fact of our existence that this is a fight which we will all eventually lose. It is not space, as Gene Rodenberry poetically put it at the beginning of Star Trek, which is the final frontier, the final frontier is death and it is the boundary we all ultimately reach at the end of our journey through life.

Living fully, richly, is accepting that our lives are bounded by their ending, tapping into the power caused by the dynamic tension between our burgeoning vitality and the inevitable victory of entropy. Keeping the opposites in balance without denying or abandoning either. It is the very transitory nature of life which makes it so marvellously sweet. At the moments which are the most wonderful, the most ecstatic, we find ourselves wishing that this could go on forever. But the very impetus of that wish has its roots in the germ of knowledge that this too, like all other things, will pass.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas, 1951


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