Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: life

Living Forever

The patriarch Ching of Ch’i was with his companions on Mount Ox. As he looked northward out over his capital, tears rose in his eyes. “Such a splendid land,” he said, “swarming, burgeoning; if only I didn’t have to die and leave it as the waters pass! What if from from eldest times there were no death: would I ever have to leave here?”

His companions joined him in weeping. “Even for the simple fare we eat,” they said, “for the nag and plank wagon we have to ride, we depend upon our lord’s generosity. If we have no wish to die, how much less must our lord.”

Yen Tzu was the only one smiling, somewhat apart. The patriarch wiped away his tears and looked hard at Yen Tzu. “These two who weep with me share the sadness I feel on today’s venture,” said the patriarch. “Why do you alone smile, sir?”

“What is the worthiest ruled forever?” asked Yen Tzu. “Then T’ai or Huan would be patriarch forever. What if the bravest? Then Chuang or Ling would be patriarch forever. With such as those in power, my lord, you would now be in the rice fields, wearing a straw cape and bamboo hat, careworn from digging, with no time to brood over death. And then, my lord, how could you have reached the position you now hold? It was through the succession of your predecessors, who held and vacated the throne each in his turn, that you came to be lord over this land. For you to lament this is selfish. Seeing a selfish lord and his fawning, flattering subjects, I presumed to smile.”

The patriarch was embarrassed, raised his flagon, and penalised his companions two drafts of wine apiece.

Lieh Tzu

Sometimes I hear scientists or others express great excitement at the thought that we might use science to extend our lives for many years beyond our natural span. Then I hear others express great concern that the planet is becoming too full and that human numbers must be curtailed.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Life of course (by which I also mean death) is designed to balance things out. To allow the new to replace the old. To offer us each a time under the sun and on the planet. We cannot have our cake (longer and longer lives) and eat it too (no overcrowding, no change, no rebirth); unless, like the patriarch Ching of Ch’i we suddenly become myopic and imagine that only our life matters.

Of course the reality of our limits – our mortality – an awareness of which is a moral obligation – raises fundamental theological questions. What does life or time mean in heaven? What of our life now could be ‘transplanted’ into heaven? How is the idea of heaven reconcilable with what we know of our own requirements and essential limitations? Some will say that this provides good reason to doubt the reasonableness of heaven, others will argue that this just demonstrates the limits of human rationality and imagination.

Yet the fundamental truth, which is captured in this story, is that any mortal desire for immortality is the highest form of vanity – imagining that it is we who are somehow worthy of such a state, unwilling to recognise how much we have relied on the passing away of others, and unwilling to pass on our inheritance to our children and grand-children.

Life is a Gift

The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same –
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your loan bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.

What prompts the melancholy key?
A long familiar melody.
It sounds again. So let it be.
Let it sound from this night.
Let it sound in my hour of death –
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for that which sometimes makes us lift
our gaze to the far sky.

You glare in silence at the wall.
Your stocking gapes: no gifts at all.
It’s clear you are now too old
to trust in good Saint Nick;
that it’s too late for miracles.
– But suddenly, lifting your eyes
to heaven’s light, you realise:
your life is a sheer gift.

1 January 1965 by Joseph Brodsky

I love this poem. I am sure most of us have felt the way he describes.

The epiphany at the end of the poem is tough. He realises that life is a gift, not just despite the pain, misery, fear and loneliness – but because of it. The gift of ‘sheer life’ is distinct from the many joys of life – and it is a gift we can lose sight of when we are full up with things – when we are happy, busy and in company.

When we reach ’empty’ – we may finally realise that there is something else – something that should be filled – sheer life itself.

God does not give us the right to exist – life is sheer gift.

What will we do with this knowledge?

We are Contradictions

Our life is impossibility, absurdity. Everything that we will is contradicted by the conditions or by the consequences attached to it. That is because we are ourselves contradiction, being merely creatures…

Simon Weil as quoted by T S Eliot in The Aims of Education

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