The photograph is of my favourite place on earth; the shores of Lake Buttermere in Cumbria, looking over to Haystacks in the distance. A great gift of nature and the place I go to appreciate the beauty of the world and how lucky I am to be alive. Once I had a dear friend who too gave me the most extraordinary gift. A gift I could not appreciate at the time. A gift to great it was impossible to cope with. In the final stages of cancer, with only four weeks to live, he said that he felt happier than ever in his life. He now saw the world and all his problems in perspective. The small details of nature shone out to him; he treasured a smile from a stranger; the taste of food became rich and full, it seemed to fill his whole being. A shadow cast by a tree became a wondrous work of art, the mud of a dried puddle fascinating. It was as if he had been blind all his life until this moment and had only just started to live. If only he could have felt like this sooner he could have achieved so much, helped so many, been so happy; he could almost have been a saint. My friend's life was a troubled one. Marred by self-doubt, alcohol, complex relationships, and ultimately self-destruction. He was my friend because I saw beyond those things, I saw in him creativity, kindness, intelligence, and a longing to do the right thing. I don't say this to suggest I had an exceptionally generous spirit; I say this because everyone that knew him saw what I saw, and this was his tragedy. In those final days, we spent time talking and drinking coffee together. One day, without warning, while we sipped our latte, he offered me his last gift with these words. '…I'd like you to have this feeling, this feeling of clarity and contentment; to see the beauty that has always been there, and to find the best in people and yourself. Make every moment count. Make every second a treasure and see that many of the things we worry about, the things we want to buy and own, are not important. My parting gift to you is for you to find freedom, but without having just three weeks to live. Take it now; it is there for you; it is there for everyone, this is my final gift to you my friend.' After he died, his words stayed with me for a while. I did see the world differently and savour every experience - for a few weeks. But soon, as the routine and grind of life settled back in, his words drifted away. I wasted time; I judged people and myself, I got caught in material aspirations, and all the things we know are bad for us. Somehow what we know to be right gets lost. Am I ungrateful to have had such a gift, or too naïve or arrogant to take it? Am I just so stupid? Or is it that the gift is impossible to bear, impossible to accept and embrace without the finality of our life sitting before us? Could anyone have taken his gift and achieved more with it and treasured it for the insightful kindness it was? I am not so sure anyone could. As we sit here in our lockdown, I am reminded of my friend because each day we are thinking about mortality. Sometimes the reported death tolls are just disjunct daily statistics; sometimes, we feel all those souls, their families, friends, children, colleagues - all who grieve their loss. Each of those people brought to the world, stories, good and bad habits, their handwriting, ideas, hopes and aspirations - now all gone. As I move from the abstract to the more personal, I cannot help but think of my own life. How mortal I am and how I might not be here next year! This is no longer some disconnected, academic or philosophical consideration, but a possible reality. I might not be here next year. I find myself saying the phrase over and over again. As I look into the eyes of my mortality, I cannot help but remember my friend's gift. I think, if I should survive, I will see the blossom on the trees, I will smell the air and taste my food. I will do good to all I encounter. I will hear that inner voice that knows me and knows what I want and need to be happy. I will thank the people in the shops; those often all too invisible people that make our lives work and function. I will love those around me and think kindly of those that anger and frustrate me. I will eat up every moment of my life to the full. In short, I could become a saint!
But could I really? At school, my first true love was a girl called Ali. An intelligent, classical guitar playing genius with long flowing blonde hair and thumbs that seemed far too small for the size of her hands (funny what you remember). I have no idea why she went out with me and, in fact, she didn't for long! Ali's dad (a man whose study had so many books in it, I used to think that if I sat in it long enough all the knowledge from those shelves of wisdom would somehow seep into my brain by a kind of osmosis) told me that I should read Dostoyevsky. This was another great gift to me, however, at the time, I only started reading Dostoyevsky's novel The Idiot because I related to the title and wanted to look smart to Ali. What I discovered was a story within a story that led to a life long interest and career in trying to understand human nature.
This beautiful is of St Agatha of Sicily by Giovanni Lanfranco (c. 1614). She is patron saint of an impressive list: breast cancer patients, martyrs, wet nurses, bell-founders, bakers, and invoked against fire, earthquakes and eruptions of Mount Etna. I thought all our key workers could do with her right now!
The main protagonist, Prince Myshkin, gives an account of an acquaintance he meets in jail who had been condemned to execution by firing squad but spared just before the triggers were pulled. The very same thing happened to Dostoyevsky himself when he was arrested for being part of the Petrashevsky Circle, a relatively harmless radical discussion group. They were sentenced, disproportionally, to death by firing squad but reprieved at the very last moment and (merely) exiled to Siberia for four years hard labour. The psychological repercussions of this incident weave their way, like leitmotifs, throughout Dostoyevsky's novels. This fascination with the infinity small moments of a person's life and the qualia at those points is at the root of my own curiosity. It is only with persistent curiosity and kindness that we get to discover and understand, those tiny, intimate, but crucial moments in a person's life. Myshkin tells the tail of his prison acquaintance "…this man [who] had been brought to the scaffold, in company with several others, and had had the sentence of death by shooting passed upon him for some political crime. Twenty minutes later he had been reprieved and some other punishment substituted; but the interval between the two sentences, twenty minutes, or at least a quarter of an hour, had been passed in the certainty that within a few minutes he must die." He assesses that there are probably five minutes left before his turn at the scaffold. ".....those five minutes seemed to him to be a most interminable period, an enormous wealth of time; he seemed to be living, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions - one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around. He remembered having divided his time like this quite well. While saying good-bye to his friends, he recollected asking one of them some very usual everyday question and being much interested in the answer. Then having bid farewell, he embarked upon those two minutes which he had allotted to looking into himself; he knew beforehand what he was going to think about. He wished to put it to himself as quickly and clearly as possible, that here was he, a living, thinking man, and that in three minutes he would be nobody; or if somebody or something, then what and where? He thought he would decide this question once and for all in these last three minutes. A little way off there stood a church, and its gilded spire glittered in the sun. He remembered staring stubbornly at this spire, and at the rays of light sparkling from it. He could not tear his eyes from these rays of light; he got the idea that these rays were his new nature, and that in three minutes he would become one of them, amalgamated somehow with them" (Chapter 5: The Idiot) What happened in those five minutes, portrayed by Dostoyevsky's character, were as my friend experienced in the last month of his life. When my friend reflected on his life, and Myshkin's acquaintance looked back on his, both considered '…how much time had been wasted, how much of it lost in misdirected efforts, mistakes, and idleness, in living in the wrong way; and, however they treasured life, how much they'd sinned against their heart and spirit….Life is a gift; life is happiness; each minute could be an eternity of bliss" (28.1 164/53: quote adapted from The Idiot). In the book the acquaintance asked, for me, the critical question "…what should I do if I were not to die now? What if I were to return to life again? What an eternity of days, and all mine! How I should grudge and count up every minute of it, so as to not waste not a single instant!" At that moment, he felt he could become a saint. My friend was more generous, he did not ask for a reprieve, but wanted to give me the wisdom and insight the pardon would have afforded him, to feel every moment to make the most of everything, do good and live the decades to come and not just a final month - a profound gift. Somethings are priceless treasures. Myshkin is asked what the acquaintance did with these riches of time, did he keep account of his minutes? The answer, of course, was not, he did not live one bit as he had intended, and wasted many, many minutes as did I with my friend's gift. The gift never changed me. Now we face COVID-19, and I think we all, at one moment or another, ponder whether, just maybe, we might not get through. Not only as individuals do we reflect on how we might improve our lives should we survive, but the whole of society, indeed the whole world, seems to be considering what all this might mean for a post coronavirus world - different life perspectives, the power and beauty of nature, how we treat each other and connect, different economic models of and work practices, better consideration for the environment, how wonderful our NHS is, so many things.
I hope we do see life as a gift, life as happiness, see how each minute could be an eternity in which to make a difference. I hope the world, humanity, stops and looks at itself and makes a pledge to be different in the future. What a wonderful world it could be. Most of us, and certainly me, could not be saints and when this is over, and we start to take tomorrow for granted again, we will inevitably be like the Prince's acquaintance and go back to our old ways. This is normal, healthy even, as we cannot walk through life every moment under the shadow of our mortality. But I hope, though, that enough of this experience stays with us and we can approach the world with fresh eyes. I think it is our attitude to that which is different, to those things we do not understand, and those things that do not fit our way of doing things, where we can make the most improvements. For those of you suffering from conditions that are deemed different and do not fit current models of illness, we hope that the world will approach your problems with openness, kindness, curiosity and bring creativity and collaboration to them as we have seen happe with this pandemic. In turn, we all have to try, if not in a saintly way, to remain open and collaborate, seeing those with whom we disagree with kindness. We can only do our best each day; we are none of us perfect only in those moments before we think we are going to die, the rest of the time we can but try to honour my friend's gift as best we can. Stay safe and indoors G