The End of the World: The lottery of mutual self destruction!

The illustration above shows a bag of creativity containing thousands of balls. Each ball represents a somewhat unclear or unknown technology that advances or influences humanity in a major way. A few examples of balls that have already been pulled from the bag may include petrol engines, the internet, flight and nuclear power. In amongst these technological balls is a black ball, representing the one time a technology that assures a very high number of people are going to die or even the complete destruction of humanity. This black ball is the final ball.

We, as humanity, continually pick balls out of the bag. We continually strive to create and develop new technology without too much consideration of its potential negative effect on the world. It’s only by chance that we’ve luckily avoided blowing ourselves up and not picking out the black ball. 

We have been very close however. A good (or rather bad) example of a potential black ball from the past is the development of nuclear weapons. The drive to split the atom, to release and harness this massive energy and then through the Manhattan project, to develop weapons. This drive, step by step, by scientists to develop a bomb was largely unchecked and we soon find ourselves on a precipice of mutually assured destruction. 

The checks and balances to police, restrict and protect the population of the world was left to chance. The proliferation of nuclear weapons was self limiting only because the technology and construction was specialised, expensive and time consuming which only a few countries could adopt. But just imagine if anyone could make a nuclear weapon with a bag of sand and a microwave.

So, if there was an easy, unfettered way to access the technology to detonate an atomic bomb, we could be fairly certain that it would have been used, even if just a small number of individuals would wish it. There are significant numbers that have radical religious ideals or ideological doctrines, mental illness, a dislike of the culture in which they live or insular, oppressive political dictatorships and their opposition and those that seek to extort and threaten. There are many reasons, unfortunately, that killing a large number of people seems like a good idea to a significant minority of the global population.

Today then, we do not have nuclear weapons as an immediate black ball. It was close, but thank goodness for chance. We are now continuing to pick out balls from the bag so who knows how technologies like artificial intelligence, digital DNA printing and synthesis, bio technology or the final effects of global warming and climate change will influence and effect us all.

The question is not so much whether we will stumble onto a technological black ball that wipes us all out but rather that we have nothing in place to reduce the risks or stop it if we do. How do we stop developing things that will kill us like the nuclear weapons in which we were literally a hovering finger away from destroying the planet. The measures could involve stopping or restricting the development of technology or ensuring there are just no bad people. we could also have effective policing and monitoring of individuals that could cause harm and intervene if action is required in a somewhat dystopian totalitarian future under an effective global governance.

Technology has and continues to be , in the most part, an incredible benefit to humanity. I’m sure we’ll continue to keep pulling out those technological balls with our current insatiable drive. Let’s hope we don’t find a black ball.


Listen to an outline of the ‘Vulnerable World Hypothesis’ by Nick Bostrom on the Sam Harris ‘Making Sense’ Podcast. The section on this starts at 28.30 minutes if you want to go straight to it.

Read the ‘Vulnerable World Hypothesis’ by Nick Bostrom. This opens a PDF.

Nick Bostrom’s website also contains other interesting articles.

Death

Can death reveal a way of leading a better life?

Avoiding the Subject 

In the future, a billionaire may fund a medical breakthrough that cures ageing by replacing body parts grown in a laboratory or by integrating nano-medicine. They may simply upload the mind into a bank of servers to be downloaded later into a fresh host. Death will be just another illness to overcome. But, until the problem of dying is cured, we will all be forced to confront our own and others deaths whether we want to or not. Mostly we do not want to.

“I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier to the land of the malady.”  (1)

When we lose someone close to us we experience a variety of overwhelming, painful emotions (talk about stating the obvious!). It is because it is painful, too morbid and too ‘emotional’ that we just want to avoid thinking or talking about it, unless we absolutely have to. It is a subject unlikely to be dwelt upon for too long in friendly conversation or when contemplating alone. It’s a subject that is treated in succinct, minimal conversations, if at all. It should not bring down the joy of an occasion or ruin a perfectly cheerful dinner party. The result of constantly swatting away the conversation and contemplation of death and grief effects our ability to ‘deal’ with death when it occurs. More importantly, we fail to appreciate and take aboard the insights that it could teach us.

Death is like an awkward but clever uncle we rarely see, lets call him Albert. Albert will turn up at random times to say “hello” and send a card each Christmas, reminding us he’s around. As we’re absorbed and distracted with our own lives and not too keen on Albert, we quickly forget about him, accept for timely reminders. Over time, we start giving him our greater attention. We start appreciating his nuggets of wisdom he’s been trying to tell us for years. We start listening and become stop rolling our eyes or wait for him to fall asleep before turning over the Queen’s speech. The time with Albert becomes an enriching experience, despite his flaws and awkwardness.

As well as considering or experiencing the loss of someone close to us, we must also cast our minds to the rituals that help us say goodbye to the physical body. This, for many, involves a God or Gods and tapping into the ‘off the shelf’ cremation or burial. This embalms us in religious certainties that there is a Godly, unknown reason and over-arching meaning for our loss. This is followed by subsequent calming through speeches, scriptures and hymns. All this within the beautifully cold, auditory echo of a church and the uniforms of piety. This becomes a less attractive option if you do not believe in a God and want something more personal, less solemn and maybe more celebratory of the persons life.

So, the following questions or similar may arise: 

  • How can we better ‘cope’ with the grief of a parting family member or friend?
  • What practical rituals or ceremonies do we choose to say goodbye to the physical body?
  • What on earth can all the pain of thinking or living through death teach us about living today?

Death, like Albert, will always be around. This poses a choice. Death can either be thought about when we, our families and close friends are well and of a constitution that is robust enough. To use our current strength to tackle the potential turbulent emotion of its raising. Or, it is forced upon us through illness, injury or accident and we find ourselves searching for the right words and coping mechanisms when sat next to the hospital bed. The understanding that could be received from thinking about death can not only help us through the events of a loved one’s departure but also illuminate our lives today. A truth that both disturbs and enlightens.

Creating Powerful Stories and A Sense of Awe

Stories can be powerful and contain nuggets of explosive wisdom. Good stories lead to understandings and changes in perception. We have stories about who we are, wether we think we’re nice, too aggressive or too soft. Whether we are too boring or always running around exhausted. We have stories about other people, about how they are too busy and never say hello or how generous they are when we go out for a drink. These are stories that constantly change and make up our subjective view of the world in which we live. In the same way, we can have stories that help us accept a loved ones passing. 

“when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” (2)

We are all descendants of stars. We are made of stardust (3). All the elements that exist around us, the suite of elements listed in the periodic table, all originate from the heat and energy at the beginning of our universe. Our bodies are formed when some of the elements are brought together and are bound by energy for a brief period. The energy holds as life, until we are then released back to the earth, sea and sky in the cycle of birth, life and death (more on this later). When we lose a loved one, they too are returned to the universe and surround us for the rest of our own lives. We will then eventually join them as, we too, relinquish our energy and elements. This grandiose, incomprehensible scale is humbling and awe inspiring. We are very small part of a universe but intricately connected. A further perspective of our fragile place in an indifferent universe is described in the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ by Karl Sagan (4), inspired by an image captured by Voyager 1 in 1990 of earth viewed from 4 billion miles away.(5)

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there, on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” (6)

We are connected to the universe, the world, our families, the nature and wildlife around us and the loved one who has just died. We all share a common heritage, experience degrees of suffering as a human and a relatively short life in the “cosmic arena”.

“To the dumb question “why me?”. The cosmos barely bothers to return the reply “Why not?” (7)

The connection between us and those that have passed is a continuing relationship. Where it was once two, now it is just us holding the memories and continuing their story whilst we live out the rest of our lives. It’s the continuing story of us and the story we carry of them. A story that will change, fade, and be retold for our remaining days. The relationship is transformed through loss and grief but does continue. We don’t after all, immediately forget them. As the pain of grief subsides, their story can be shared and their lives celebrated with friends and family, invoking tears of joy intermingled with sadness. A typically human story in which we were, and are, a part. 

The story that effects us the most is the story we have of ourselves. This is quite often not a good one. Not because we have led a bad life particularly, but because we generally give ourselves a hard time over the way we think our life has gone. This inner voice can often be critical and unforgiving, constantly tainting our everyday experience with negativity. “I am not good enough,” “I should have done better,” or “I’m a horrible person.” This story is fluid and changing, but the inner voice can constantly and exhaustively work against us and reinforce our alleged inherent ‘badness’. It is just not a true reflection of the world or of us. This negative view of ourselves, sometimes referred to in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as ‘The Inner Critic,’(8) does its best to ruin our day and we feel down because of it. The challenge is to go some way in understanding how our negativity appears within our minds by paying close attention to it, to be mindful of the effects it has. The experience of living through a death does a lot to change our negative narrative as it places the act of the ‘Inner Critic’ firmly under the category of ‘unnecessary suffering’. Even a momentary realisation of this harsh inner voice can open a door to realising the power our habitual thinking has over us. It distorts our view of the world and ourselves. How it can dominate and restrict our lives. This small insight could install a determination to live life fully and not to be limited by our own self imposed restrictions that are just not true. Death is a catalyst to a better story of ourselves.

The story of what happens when we die stretch back over millennia. A non-religious person may struggle if we are to follow the truth of reason and science as we know it today. The fact is we really don’t know what actually happens. The most likely scenario is we become part of the earth, sea and sky and have the same awareness of life as before we were born. A state that is simply, not being. Death is the ultimate finality, no more joy or laughs, but no fear, pain or discomfort either. The ultimate indifference to the rest of us alive. This is the essence of deaths instruction. This life is all we have, all we have been and all we’re going to be, and all over a short period of time. In the absence of a ‘sole’ we rely on our memories to carry the love felt for a person. We can lament and reminisce from our memory of them once the rawness of grief has passed. This is a way of keeping their natural sole alive. The physical discomfort felt after an immediate loss is there to sear the memory, give it a good push so the ‘essence’ of their character endures through many years to come.

The very fact that any individual is alive today is miraculous. To think of the multiple relationships that needed to be. The unlikely chance that a sperm managed to find an egg, setting in motion a process of cell division that culminates in a child autonomously breathing. The evolutionary steps needed to create a human life, from crawling out of the sea to typing on this computer (I have actually just crawled out of bed). An infinitesimal string of encounters, mutations and changes that lead to any of us being here today, right now, are very, very long odds indeed, leading back to the big bang. A long string of cause and effect. This story singles out life as sitting on the precipice of unlikely, and when it does occur, we are fortunate.

We live the cycle of birth, growth and death. The person we’ve lost today is a reminder of the immense backdrop of this simple understanding. We are born, we live and we die. We experience this cycle every day. The pause, inhale and exhale of a breath, the summer abundance of fruit appears and then disappears as the winter approaches. A plastic bottle is moulded, used and then thrown away to break down in a landfill, our pets have babies that grow and die, the shoes on our feet are sewn, walked in and then wear away. A toadstool rises from the ground, bright and waxy but soon blackens, wilts and decays. Even a hard piece of volcanic rock, forged in the inner heat of the earth is cooled and then eroded over millennia by sands drawn up in winds until eventually it disappears. A star like our own sun, expends enormous energies to warm its planetary satellites, eventually burns out. If we cast our mind to this simple process of birth, growth and death and look around, we already know it. The cycle is hiding in plain site everywhere and comes to us all. This truth connects us to the land, sea, sky and universe as we are born from them and return to them as everything else must do. It is a beautiful thing.

This birth, living and dying pattern is a cycle of constant change. Death can be a stark reminder of the lack of permanence that we make great efforts to believe. We cling to and comfort ourselves in the illusion of permanence. Change is, after all, as certain as death and taxes. The denying of the enlightenment that can be gleaned from knowing that all things change seems a simple idea, but is a cause of a lot of our suffering. We have an impulse to collect, to hold on, to expect a certain story of how our lives will unfold, from when we are children right through to old age. We plan for the future and cling to loved ones. At the root of this longing is fear of loss and a subsequent aversion to dwelling on the ‘darker’ things in life. To turn away from the glare of misfortune as if merely thinking about these things will highlight the fragility of our lives and that everything will change. This can be a scary story to tell ourselves but we need to find courage.

“Most to us choose comfort over truth” (9)

Gently accept that things change and loss always follows life. We are quite often shielded or turn away from thinking or discussing this simple truth. In denying change and loss, it is like succumbing to a flu in which we have no protection. The understanding that we’ll lose everything and eventually die becomes harder if we don’t accept the smaller coughs, scratches and infections along the way. Those smaller understandings of splitting from a partner, of changing or losing a job, of emerging from the winter into spring, accepting the ailments of age and the loss of vitality or saying goodbye to an old friend moving away. They happen so we must accept them as part of life, as hard as it is. To stop holding on and refusing to accept change. Take in a little pain at a time as we move through life with brave acceptance. Permanence and control are painful illusions and impermanence is normal so stop fighting it and embrace it.

“Whatever view one takes of the outcome being effected by morale, it seems certain that the realm of illusion must be escaped before anything else” (10)

The Formalities of Saying Goodbye

To gather at death can be a celebration of life but to say a final goodbye is crushingly tortuous. The desire to enter systemised ritual that is honed to guide and console can be a vital part of healing. The many religious systems embrace the grieving through ceremonies developed over hundreds of years. These were born out of the desire to ease the pain and bring some essence of meaning to both their departure and the lives of those still living. We look around for support. It is these times we rely on the help of friends and family.

We often fall easily on the traditions of our religious community. These rituals, or funerals, are designed to reinforce the religious doctrines as well as sooth and comfort us. If the doctrines of ancient texts fail to resonate and instead illustrate that this is not really what we want then we can look to other options. I’ve been to a few funerals, each one different and carried out professionally and with dignity. We would spend some time with the Vicar beforehand where he or she gleaned some pertinent points about the deceased and did their best to bring their character to the rows of relatives and friends. But I always felt a little distant and considered something conveyor-belt like about the ceremony, with the next family sometimes hovering outside. These traditions are easily available and an accepted norm by the majority of society. We’ve all been to them so we can answer our own questions about how helpful and cathartic they have been. If they do not help, or do not live up to what we want for the passing of our loved one then we can look for alternatives.

If we would like something that reflects our true lives and the way we live it then why not plan our own funeral? To think about our own life so far and how we would like to be remembered. To also consider the best way in which those you leave behind can be consoled. There are formal humanist funerals (11) that create a framework for consolation that can be explored, with trained people able to help. Any ritual is a way to gather family, friends and associates so they can have a common connection for a few hours, witness the departure and celebrate the life of the loved one who has died. A shared experience, reinforcing links with those close to us. In thinking about our death and possibly planning it out when we are well, not only ensures that our wishes are adhered to (although should we actually worry about that as we’ll be dead!) but it also takes the practical planning burden off another. More importantly however, for our own benefit, is that by reflecting on our end earlier in life, it reinforces the urgency to live as fully as we can. If we write our own eulogy, typing out the words that sum our lives, it can be an intensely revealing project.

So, we can think now about practical things. What to do with our body, what ceremony we’d like and who should lead it. We can consider writing our own eulogy and planning to get our will in order so material distribution is all arranged. This will all go some way to help console those we have left behind by freeing them of the practical burdens and allow more time for greif. The emptiness and loneliness we all feel after a death requires great courage and a mustering of friends and family. We should not be afraid to lean on others, whatever the ceremony. Taking care of these practicalities will also bring a resonating urgency to how we live our lives now and help appreciate the moments we experience today.

Just Let Things Be

As we age, we must relinquish the roles we once played in our families, amongst friends, our places of work and let go of the dreams we have held onto for a lifetime. We have to let go of the future and everything and everyone we’ve ever loved. These are all part of the birth, life and death cycle. The process of change which we should not think of as ‘giving up’ but rather accept that they simply disappear. Life is like the pause between breaths, the life cycle of stars and the burning out of the sun. To just accept and ‘let go of’ rather than trying to grasp or control. It is not worth wasting our whole lives trying to insist that the life cycle does not not exist. We can try to welcome what is ‘right now’. As we’ve explored, grief can be so overwhelming that we try either controlling or avoiding it. The process of grieving needs time to breath, to change us and to transform us. We must let this process ‘just be’ as outlined in Frank Osteseki’s book ‘The Five Invitations’ (12): 

“We don’t get past our pain. We go through it and are transformed by it… we speak of loss, losing and loosening. These are not stages and nor are they meant to be map. There is no linear process through grief. Loss, losing and loosening are simply common experiences that we might cycle through as we grieve or that might suddenly explode to the surface of our awareness.

The initial experience of loss is often visceral. Even when death is expected, our bodies and minds can’t seem to take it in right away. We don’t want to believe the person we loved has just died. Just as when you’ve been punched in the belly, grief can take your breath away. A common reaction is shock and uncertainty. You might feel disconnected from other feelings or people. It can seem like you are sleep walking or living in a dream. It can be difficult to find your balance.

Losing can go on for weeks, months or even years. When someone we love dies, we keep on losing that person over and over again, especially at holidays, in times of difficult decisions, and in those little personal moments we long to share. During this period we realise most clearly the roles that the other person has played in our lives, and we grieve the loss of those also. This is the phase of grief where we feel most alone. Friends drop away and others give us unwanted advice. Losing is the time to be around the people whom you trust the most, those who have earned the right to listen. It helps alleviate the feeling of being disconnected from life. Those who have consciously lived through a loss of their own also know the importance of listening without judgement or agenda.

Loosening is the period in which the knot of grief is untied. It is a time of renewal. You can’t go back to life as it was before because you are a different person now, changed by your journey through grief. but, you can begin to embrace life again, to feel alive again. The intensity of emotions has subsided somewhat. You can remember the loss without being caught up in the stranglehold of grief. You can move forward without abandoning the one you love.”

The length of time we spend grieving is unique to us and should not be rushed. It is important to have faith in ourselves. Grief can also evoke feelings from other past losses, not just of loved ones, but an umbrella of experiences related to losing in everyday events in our lives; losing a job, a break-up, losing touch with a friend, the children finally leaving home or having to give up on a dream. A bundling together of what we’ve had and lost and what we’ve never had.

This brings us into the possibility of regret. Imagine we are now old, on our death bed and looking back over our lives. As we think about questions like; “what have I done?,” “how have I been?,” “who am I loved by,” and “what could I have done differently?” What would you say? In our changing lives, the great moments can be fantastic, resonating in the memory for years but are interspersed with sadness. The ups and the downs. A review of our life we have led, or at least the current narrative we tell yourself, makes itself especially poignant at the time of a loved ones passing. Grief and regret focuses its beam on those of us around the coffin and says ‘well, over to you’. This is a call to do the things we want to do now where we can, and release ourselves from the burdens of regret where we can’t. Try to act now or let them be. It is very unlikely we will be able to do and have everything we desired so let go of regrets.

“Don’t wait is a pathway to fulfilment and an antidote for regret” (13)

Another part of letting go is forgiveness. I was chatting to an elderly lady today, lets call her Ella, who recounted the feelings she had for her mum, now passed on. Ella was often told by her mum, “I regret that you were ever born” so there was little love lost between them. Ella felt she had not been able to experience full grief because she was not near to her. Ella went onto say that in later years her mum had asked for forgiveness but Ella could not give it. As we talked, her discomfort at this memory was obvious to see. To not forgive is a burden we have to relinquish, just as much for ourselves as for the subject of our anger or resentment. Holding onto a grudge builds up like a tight knot, a constant nagging that gets under the skin. It nibbles away at our mind and looms shadow-like. Holding a grudge encourages anger and resentment and adds a few more wrinkles to our foreheads! We can go easy and forgive ourselves. In the glare from grief and regret we are forced to ask; “I should have been a better Dad,” “I’m not good enough to be his friend” or “I should have been by her side when she died.” To forgive ourselves and others frees us from from its hold and the pain that it causes. That doesn’t mean being weak, forgetting or agreeing with someones behaviour but it is a benefit to us. Not forgiving is a resistance to living fully.

“what we resist, persist” (14)

The grief, regret and suffering is going to be with us wether we want it or not. It is up to us how we respond. We have a choice. We can let it in or try to push it away. It seems clear that pushing away does not stop the suffering but prolongs it. It seems we can turn towards our suffering and embrace it as part of living our lives fully, warts and all, as part of the whole human experience. To welcome the good and the bad as equally valid experiences.

“if we didn’t feel the heat of the fire, we’d burn our fingers. pain has an essential role in our lives” (15)

The experience of being human is multi-faceted and not just about the happy days. In fact, in a world of opposites and greys in between, great joy is deeper when sorrow is experienced fully. So how can we learn to embrace the full suite of human experience? 

A Matter of Attention

In any moment the mind is a scattered, wildly speculative generator of thoughts that often hold us hostage. It’s great at sweeping up all the baggage from our lives and dumping it at the front door of every experience we have. Even if we fully understand the stories we hear about change, life, birth, death, wisdom, compassion and all the other things that we may strive to understand, how can we actually experience them if we are on a roller coaster, clinging on with our eyes closed? How do we at least try to understand how to open our eyes?

We are constantly looking forward, lost in thought or an activity.  The day flicks past quickly and the moments are constantly swamped and buried. Our view of the world can be insular and limited to the events that swamp us. The stresses and anxieties are multiple. We constantly comparing ourselves to others (instead of ourselves yesterday(16)). We measure our worth on wether we are good at our job or if we’re liked by others. We have mortgages, bad health and shaky relationships. In the middle of all this is a moment, a calm space that can be reached at any time. We can try to access this space and allow a familiar ground beneath our feet that can help hold us steady.

This calm space can be reached through mindful attention. We can sit calmly with our eyes closed and focus on our breath or the weight of the body at any point during the day (please keep your eyes open if you’re driving at the time). We can start by trying to feel the sensations as they occur in our fingers, toes or cold wind on our face in this very moment. We can then aim to ‘see’ thoughts entering the mind and inspect them with curiosity before they fade out. Thoughts themselves have a birth, life and death, constantly appearing and then disappearing. We can observe the emotional attachment associated with those thoughts, wether that is anger, anxiety or fear. It takes practice, like any new skill, but bringing this attention to any moment wrings out the full experience of the moment. The present is the one place we can rest and the only real experience. 

To practice living the full human experience, the ups and downs, bringing our full attention to them seems a sound way to approach life, to me anyway. We can learn to recognise how and when the mind leads us away from the moment towards a future goal or desire at the expense of what is happening right now. We can allow the space and time for all events and feelings, including grief, to flow through us whilst paying mindful attention to how it manifests and changes us. To try and be aware of the moments of life as they occur and not take them for granted. To be mindful allows all our attention to focus on the person talking, the walk in the woods, the feel of sunshine on the eyelids and the sting of snow on our skin whilst knowing that it is fleeting and will soon pass. To allow the attention to quench its thirst and soak up each moment.

“I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to “do’ death in the active and not in the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance” (17)

In grief, we can observe the moment, using the breath to ground us, and invite in what hurts. Get to know the effect it is having on us really well, observing with curiosity and not push it away. We can also have compassion for ourselves and others when we are present in the moment, allowing our attention to listen fully. We can be present in our experience right now and develop a capacity to pay attention. To not grasp the next experience by hoping for a particular outcome, but rather just relax and extract the most from each moment by just being aware of its presence. By truly living in the moment, as they say.

“its not the activities that bring joy, its the attention to the activities” (18)

The Greatest Story

The ultimate finality is just that. It is the end. But in this moment we have already been born and are not yet dead so we’re left with the nice bit in the middle. What do we want to do with the rest of it? Nothing lasts for ever so try and embrace all experiences of grief, loss, pain, joy and love. Stop trying to avoid the worst bits when they arrive or hold onto things like regret or resentment. Be curious and proceed with surprise and wonder. Stop being so hard on ourselves, show some self compassion. It is largely a matter of shifting our attention.

“Embrace the whole experience of life. No part of our experience should be left out. the joy and wonder or the pain and anguish. All are part of our lives. When we embrace this truth then we step more fully into our lives. Be present during grief and submit to it, accept it and don’t runaway from it” (19)

Life, each of our lives, is a painful, strange, wondrous and mysterious event. As far as we’re concerned, this is the greatest story which, when on our death bed, we should look back and say to ourselves, “yes, I lived a good one.” The transformative effects of grief is a major accelerant to reaching this finale in style along with being open, moment to moment, to the full experience of being us.


References and Further Reading

  1.  Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic Books. 2012
  2. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” is attributed to John Muir and appears on a YouTube video on the John Muir Trust website at https://www.johnmuirtrust.org/our-work. Accessed March 2018.
  3. Humans Really Are Made of Stardust, and a New Study Proves It.’ A website article dated 10 January 2017 at https://www.space.com/35276-humans-made-of-stardust-galaxy-life-elements.html. Accessed April 2018
  4. Pale Blue Dot:  written by Carl Sagan. Video produced in 2013 by Cosmos Studios available to view on YouTube at https://youtu.be/GO5FwsblpT8. Accessed March 2018.
  5.  A Pale Blue Dot: Planetary Society. ‘A Pale Blue Dot’ article outlines a little of the background and features a transcript from Carl Sagan’s Book ‘Pale Blue Dot’. Webpage: http://www.planetary.org/explore/space-topics/earth/pale-blue-dot.html. Accessed April 2018.
  6.  Pale Blue Dot: Carl Sagan.1994 and Democritus Properties 2006. Appears on Planetary Society in ‘A Pale Blue Dot’ article from Carl Sagan’s Book ‘Pale Blue Dot’. Webpage: http://www.planetary.org/explore/space-topics/earth/pale-blue-dot.html. Accessed April 2018. 
  7. To the dumb question “why me?”. The cosmos barely bothers to return the reply “Why not?” Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic Books. 2012
  8. ‘The Inner Critic’ is used here in an example under ‘How to lead a better life’. Dr Purves developed a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy programme for the NHS in the UK. The article and website can be viewed at http://drpurves.com/why-you-dont-notice-the-pickpocket-and-techniques-for-changing-that/ 
  9. “Most of us choose comfort over truth” is from ‘The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Life’ by Frank Ostaseski. Published by Bluebird 2017
  10.  Whatever view one takes of the outcome being effected by morale, it seems certain that the realm of illusion must be escaped before anything else”. Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic Books. 2012
  11. Humanist Funerals with the British Humanist Society. Webpage: https://humanism.org.uk/ceremonies/non-religious-funerals/ Accessed March 2018
  12. Passage taken from pages 158 to 164 of ‘The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Life’ by Frank Ostaseski. Published by Bluebird 2017
  13. “Don’t wait is a pathway to fulfilment and an antidote for regret” is from ‘The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Life’ by Frank Ostaseski. Published by Bluebird 2017
  14. “what we resist, persist” is from ‘The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Life’ by Frank Ostaseski. Published by Bluebird 2017
  15. if we didn’t feel the heat of the fire, we’d burn our fingers. Pain has an essential role in our lives” is from ‘The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Life’ by Frank Ostaseski. Published by Bluebird 2017
  16. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today” is one of Jordan B Peterson’s 40 rules for life as listed on Quora. View the page at https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-most-valuable-things-everyone-should-know. Accessed March 2018
  17. I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to “do” death in the active and not in the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance” Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic Books. 2012
  18. “It’s not the activities that bring joy, its the attention to the activities” is from ‘The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Life’ by Frank Ostaseski. Published by Bluebird 2017
  19. “Embrace the whole experience of life. No part of our experience should be left out. the joy and wonder or the pain and anguish. All are part of our lives. When we embrace this truth then we step more fully into our lives. Be present during grief and submit to it, accept it and don’t runaway from it” is from ‘The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Life’ by Frank Ostaseski. Published by Bluebird 2017

Consolation, Memories and Lessons of Death

Dumpling in the dandilions

This article touches on how we might consolidate the loss of loved ones without the comfort of a religious belief.

As I sprinkle a last handful of soil into Dumplings final resting place, the wind whips. A giant Holm oak in its winter greenery grows next to our garden. It’s girth is wide and its sprawling muscular limbs are dark-set against the bright, overcast sky. The wind pulses violently again. The air is cool.

As I look upon Dumpling for the very last time I feel tired. I imagine Dumplings molecules dispersing back to the earth. The multitude of compounds and atoms that were gathered up at Dumplings creation, held together to give him life for a short time, are now free of the energy that bound them. Those same elements that were born within stars billions of years ago, today return to the vast and timeless earth on which I stand. Dumpling, and indeed all of us, are testament to a mind boggling collection of inherited miracles that started at the birth of the universe.

In years to come, some of those elements will eventually soar up into the sky continuing the epic story of our physical bodies as our energy moves on. The molecules of Dumpling will surround me for the rest of my life and when my life ends, I, as my constituent physical properties, will join those same molecules and altered energies soaring the landscape.

There is some solace to be gleaned from the absence of consciousness and the discontinuation of being. Dumplings current experience, of which there is nothing, is devoid of all life’s joys but also pain, suffering and hunger. The ultimate indifference. The suffering is currently only felt by those of us stood around the lip of his tiny grave. Dumpling will now be ‘experiencing’ exactly the same thoughts as before he was born. A total and absolute absence of consciousness.

The physical effects of loss are common to all who experience it. A tight stomach, a numb throat and burning eyes. I try, painful as it is, to etch these feelings and the discomfort of this moment onto my life with Dumpling in the hope of making the memories stronger and more permanent. Dumplings life is held within the memories of those of us still alive. This is all that remains.

In the rawness of separation, a smile. A small furry Lagomorph shared a house with three apes in a weird interspecies relationship. A bizarre situation really, but the soreness of the final departure is equitable to any I’ve experienced before. As far as our understanding of rabbits extend, we consul ourselves with the hope that we have made Dumplings life comfortable and maybe even happy, whatever concept that forms within the mind of a rabbit. As a product of modernity and separate from the ethics of a society that breeds pets for our own amusement and comfort, we did our best by him. He was plucked from a rescue centre, paired with another, and we were witness to signs of affection and contentment in Dumplings behaviour that we now hold onto.

Over the next few days, it’s the little reminders that stretch a smile of reflection. The habits that once saturated the mundane and the everyday. The expectation of Dumpling greeting me at the front door, the stretching out relaxed as I stroke him by my side, the half used bag of favoured kale in the fridge, the eagerness of Dumpy’s attention as he’d stand on my slippers as I tried to walk past. These are little shadows of moments that my thoughts still fall upon. An expectation for a continuation of Dumpy’s life before the regular, intermittent dawning that these times have passed.

The Reflection on other Losses

The loss of Dumpling is not just about Dumpling. His passing stirs up the memories of an  amalgamated line of losses that pepper my life. The times I’ve walked through the sunshine, wind or rain to watch a coffin disappear behind a curtain, marking the sombre melancholy of a passing. We all have these moments.

Death is our only certainty. It will happen. Sometimes it appears sooner than we would like. To avoid thinking and talking about death is to deny ‘knowing’ this single piece of clarity. The encroachment of age also forces me to consider my own mortality and the questions of how to deal with death, both of others and my own. The calm reflection during and after grief is a ‘good’ time for this. To dwell on the joy and enrichment other people and animals have brought into my life and absorb any lessons to which I’m instructed.

It is worth having some further clarity here. It is a fine line between calm reflection on the close people that have departed your life and the permanent lamenting of the past in an overly sentimental shroud and self diminishing flagellation. There are the memories of the direct experiences which have now ended, but their absence should only serve to illuminate the space that is left. That space of our own lives.

Death as a Reminder of the Urgency and Limits of Life

Why should I think any more of the inevitable, final, painful death? It is because it is the opposite of life? In a world of opposites the more you experience one side, the greater the secrets of its opposite are revealed. The more discorded a chord, the sweeter the harmonies. The deeper the depression, the more exciting the joy. The colder the winter, the more elating the arrival of spring. Pain and joy. Dark and Light.

In the melancholy and quiet after Dumplings death and of those before him, there seems to appear a clarity that sets life on a pedestal. A further insight into an understanding that is usually buried by the mundane distractions of every day. Just how fragile and fleeting life is when viewed from enough distance. Just how beautiful. How urgent.

Much in life becomes trivial and is rendered superfluous in the wake of a loved ones permanent absence. Often I dwell too long and apply too much concern and attention on activities and thoughts that I feel drawn to against my will. To be vigilant against these unnecessary distractions in the hope that the magical moments of life will not pass me by unnoticed when they occur.

There are occasional times when fear of loss of the close people still alive in my life threatens to overwhelm me. To torture oneself with the imagined loss of another close friend or family member. To think that the last glimpse of your loved one could be the last. This is the flip side of an acceptance of the uncertainty and unpredictability of death. We would like to see order, to see a carefully fulfilled narrative from birth to death, hopefully a reasonably long narrative. As the saying goes ‘Life’s what happens to you when you’re making other plans’. Except the uncertainty. If someone dies it is painful, but we have time to heal. There will be new experiences and the slow, inevitable drip of time will eventually sooth, hard as that appears at the moment.

I am also aware of my own insular, more fortunate world as separate from the incredible suffering and unfairness that curses so many around the globe. The reflection in grief shines a little light on my position as a Human Being and brings certain things into focus. The oppression of people under theocracies and tainted governments, the gulf between the rich and poor and even the distractions and illusions of celebrity importance when brilliant minds go unnoticed. The suffering and unfairness is packaged as entertainment in 15 minute news articles. So many of us are touched by a dying pet or close family member but seemingly so dispassionate to other human beings, so dismissive of their desperation, unable to transpose the emotions conjured at personal loss and extend them to a fellow human. The gulf between the connection we have with a family member or pet and the plight of human beings we see every day is so vast.

Finally, and it is difficult to avoid cliches at this point, but existence is truly in the moment. A tiny moment perched on the top of an finite wave that quickly gathers up the future and sweeps away the past. This very moment has already passed. If you can at least momentarily glimpse that moment, sandwiched amongst the myriad and busyness of thought and rumination, maybe through meditation, you can see time’s persistent march through your life. We can choose to engage those moments in whatever way we wish.

To this end I have promised that I will take good photographs of the day to day. I realised when looking for the photographs for this blog that my memory is not as sharp. I strain as I reach for those distant links to smiles, touch and smells. As time moves on, memories fade. Those photos, if only snippets, can help focus and recall the smiles, laughs and pains I had with each of them and if possible, share them with others who knew them.

Dumpling has gone. The memories of him and the others I have loved, still love, are reinforced within me during another important period of reflection. A new shift in outlook feels right, better, clearer. I am left with my life spread out ahead of me, however long that is.


Notes

Rizvi. Ali. A. 2013: ‘Grief Without Belief: How Do Atheists Deal With Death?’ A Blog from Huffington Post. 22/10/2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ali-a-rizvi/atheists-death_b_4134439.html

School of Life 2016: ‘from the ‘School of Life’ You Tube Channel. 5/11/14. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yg6i7nppkAw&feature=youtu.be

The British Humanist Society (BHS) 2016: ‘Humanist Ceremonies: Funerals’ https://humanism.org.uk/ceremonies/non-religious-funerals/

Hitchens. C. 2012: ‘Mortality’ Published by Atlantic Books. 25/08/2012

Christina. G. 2011: ‘Grief Beyond Belief: How Atheists are Dealing with Death’ Blog article on www.freethoughtblogs.com. 15/08.2011. http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2011/08/24/grief-beyond-belief-how-atheists-are-dealing-with-death/

A Journey Of Disconnection

In Your Brain Illustration for Ade Blog

This article reflects on growing up in a mildly pervasive Christian culture, with an indication of how even moderate influences dictate how we think. It tries to then explain an account of moving away from this engrained dogma.

I guess there are many people who have some concept of a Supreme Being, overseer, creator or ‘other-worldly’ force that shapes our lives, whether people are affiliated to one of the many organised religions or simply see themselves as religious without going to a church or other house or place of worship. I somewhat unwittingly subscribed to a very loose set of religious beliefs. A set of beliefs that permeated into my subconscious as I grew, the local culture providing the social framework that I operated within, dictating my social limits and setting forth a mind set that shaped my world view. I just happen to have been born into a Christian culture.

This ‘religious’ world view will often be called upon in assessing a course of action in a social situation or a moral decision, whether that’s in the course of raising a child, interactions with friends, deciding on helping or leaving a person to suffer, to judge right from wrong, provide concepts of good and evil as well as an array of challenges that everyone has to navigate throughout their lives. That is not to say that religion provided all the answers to situations. Basic humanity and humanist qualities are always a major factor, but the religious filter in which all things were considered was a major one. The level at which we draw on a religion or religious belief to assist us along a path varies greatly of course, from the subtle, gentle rumblings of ‘there is something more’ to the more extremist view, each scale of doctrinal faith providing another filter in which to assess and make decisions.

As I mentioned, I considered myself to be around the ‘very loose’ or possibly ‘moderate’ end of the religious spectrum. I attended Sunday school and the usual Christian ceremonies including baptism and marriage and swore an oath to God and the Queen in the Boy Scouts and attended various parades. The church was the epicentre of the community, respectable people attended and circled around the church and its activities. The mild religious world view manifests itself as a set of responses to certain situations based on those childhood and early adulthood experiences. It is a deep, subconscious filter creating habitual thought processes. If there is a death in the family then you would console yourself with the thought that it is part of a larger plan by an all knowing being or that you will be reunited after your own death or be consoled that they are still by your side as a presence, helping you the rest of the way. There are other moments I would pray for a loved one if they were ill, to do well in an exam, to show appreciation for something good that has happened or to help draw me out of a long patch of depression. This religious reasoning served me well enough and most things in my life could be attributed to a greater force. When my closest friend died at 15 years old in a car accident I consoled myself with the thought that it was his time and I would meet him again one day.

There then came a time when understanding and reasoning without religion were sought to provide comfort, albeit unconsciously in the beginning. A moment, or series of moments, when religion was just not enough or did not provide any comfort. This is an incredibly powerful switch where reason is called upon to help me through a difficult time rather than the default religious comfort of my youth. I began to address difficulties through understanding, applying the mind using parameters that embrace reason, and it worked. The joy is incredibly intense as there was a shift in my outlook on life from one of a passenger to an active participant leading in the healing and shaping of my own mind. A click of resonance that can physically reverberate through your body and a technique that can be applied to all life’s experience. A seed of reasoning that demands facts and understanding to grow and is critical of everything in the search of truth that is often very elusive, from the spoon fed news to the intricate workings of our own mind, from the seemingly unfair nature of the monetary system in which we live to the slow depletion of the planet as we extract resources. The shift in my psychological outlook from one of religious passenger to fact focussed driver was at first a subtle shift but one that eventually grows and finally turns its attention to the religion embedded within me from those early days of my Christian culture.

The reason inspired de-construction of a closely held personal belief is hard and the dissection of one that includes religion can be incredibly painful, even for the mild-mannered moderate like myself. It takes courage to pick apart your own beliefs, even if it means you will be in pain during and after doing it, especially in the moments where your religious beliefs act as a crutch through difficult times. To think that the person close to you will not be going to heaven and you will not see them again. This newly discovered ultimate finality of death is difficult to swallow and forms just one of the ideals propped up by faith. The attention falling on my own beliefs was an inevitable consequence of a broader dissatisfaction with my understanding of my own mind and the world in which I live and a desire to see things more clearly. The start of the replacement of those religious comforts with something purer and simpler had started.

In the midst of the dissection of my beliefs I also realised that religion was not applied to every minute of every day so there were already large gaps where I would not consciously dip into its assistance, realising more and more that it is possible to live large parts of my daily life already without turning to religion. There were already large gaps in the day where I may operate away from the conscious thoughts of a God, only applying religious meanings in the quieter, lonelier moments to help console and sooth. There may be moments when I was spending time dealing with the bills, thinking my way through a bad day at work with a colleague, chatting to a therapist or laughing at a comedy show on BBC radio 4. It is only occasional moments that I would apply the religious significance to things, although quite often I would realise that I’ve solved and worked my way through some problems using reason and understanding alone. I realised again that I have a new set of skills and the dawning that I can use these same learnt skills in the future.

The religious ideals and understandings from my early years ultimately required believing in something that cannot be proven by facts and science and becoming comfortable with this in the face of a new reasoning outlook. The more you rely on empirical evidence, the more it becomes difficult to reconcile your religious differences. The workings of your own mind are difficult enough to comprehend and figure out; the emotions, anxieties, loves and passions without a mix of unnecessary cloudiness and a belief system that was becoming less useful in actually helping.

So ultimately, painful as it was, I slowly shed my religious beliefs and replaced them with a fresh new view of the world, one of intricate beauty, awe, amazement and of just one life that teeters on the edge of chance and impending death. The reason it was so painful was because this mythical, Godly companion had been there my whole life in times of need, but now leaving me truly alone, scared and isolated. But, this was gradually replaced by a feeling of urgency. An urgency that I am alone, life is fragile and every minute is a moment to be enjoyed and appreciated, every conversation with a friend to be relished and every person I hug to be done as my last. The view that I will not meet my loved ones again is a painful thought and to not turn to this for comfort in times of need is very hard, but think about it; the moment you are with them now could be the last, the moments you spend with friends on this earth are the only times you will see them before you’re the wrong side of the grass. If you hold onto that urgency then it places so much emphasis on the moment and dispenses with the illusion of immortality. Religion is often proposed as an antidote for the human condition of loneliness but I can no longer suspend reason to attain it. My disconnection from God was a hard but an incredibly valuable realisation for me and one I needed.

This inevitably leads onto the question of the space that is left when religion is removed and what we do to fill it. How can the wonders of life be reconciled with science and reason when they seem so woefully inadequate to encapsulate the whole human experience? What can reason say of love, awe, wonder, deep felt connections with people and family and of course, the unexplained. This is where we can develop our own view of the world and, importantly, being comfortable with just not knowing. There is no shame in the not knowing and it does not need a ‘God’ to explain things that there is currently no evidence for. As a starting point for life beyond science and reason, its worth accepting that some of the things science unveils is intensely inspiring and our recent history has been peppered with an incredible new understanding of the world never before experienced by humans. This contains a great amount of groundwork for rebuilding a personal ‘spirituality’ without religion. The next step is really up to us.


Religion affects and permeates every element of society. In this blog, I examine how I disconnected from religious beliefs and pose the question of what is left when it has gone. This blog first appeared on the No Side Effects Website.

A Hidden Conversation

Death Star and X Wings

This blog tries to illustrate the battle between negative subconscious thoughts and the reasoning, rational conscious ones that can defeat them. 

In the quiet and still of the evening, when conversations and distractions subside and the patter of rain drops can be heard above all else, just before retiring to sleep, are the times I feel most vulnerable, most aware of the world as distinct from me and the times I wonder just who am I?

It is these moments a conversation ignites, stirring the mind, drawing attention and keeping me infuriatingly awake! It is a conversation that goes on all the time, day after day, but only now I notice it because of the absence of external stimulus and clutter.

This conversation is in my mind. It is between thoughts that randomly appear from my subconscious over which I have no control, and those that I generate through conscious thought, ones over which I have some element of control.  The question of whether I have the ability to create and control a thought or whether I am subject to an endless stream of uncontrolled thoughts is related to the question of free-will. I refer to an understanding of free-will that suggests that all thoughts appear from your subconscious, from somewhere beyond the tangible spotlight of internal consciousness. If thoughts that appear un-announced, uncontrolled and preceding conscious thought implies that our will is actually not free and subject to hidden workings.

So, in the quietness a thought will pop into my head. Where does this thought come from? I would ask you the same question. Where do any of our thoughts appear from? As I lie in late evening semi-slumber, a thought will be created ‘I did not do that speech very well at work’ or ‘I am really not liked very much’ or ‘I am ugly’. I did not ask or try to create these thoughts, they just appear.

If we had free will, would I ever have bad thoughts? The fact that we have bad or negative thoughts is surely testament to the fact that we do not create them. Why would I purposely place bad and negative thoughts in my head? What does it serve me in terms of my well-being? This is a fundamental component of understanding for me and for understanding depression and anxiety because once I recognise that these thoughts appear in my conscience mind against my will, then I can seize trying to stop them. In fact, it’s important to accept that they will appear and concern myself with the things I can control.

These unwanted thoughts will appear then, building a narrative of yourself, pretending it is the true you, the depressive you and there is nothing you can do to stop them. But, you don’t have to believe them. It is not that these thoughts are true in themselves, it is my belief that they are true. So, when a thought pops up in my head unwillingly from my subconscious and says ‘I am a failure’, it is only a statement. It is my conscious mind that turns this into ‘I believe I’m a failure’ that it starts to take its negative effect. The goal then is not to stop these negative thoughts but to stop believing them. They are falsehoods collected from past experiences and uninvited. They throw their collective weight into the narrative of who I am, an incorrect narrative.

There are times when I can recognise the distinction between automatic unwanted negative thoughts and conscious thoughts. As the negative thought appears it is tied up with all sorts of associated emotions so it is not easy to battle against but it is becoming more and more possible, with practice and understanding. As they appear I can send a conscious arsenal of reason, understanding, testing the truth of a particular thought against the reality. I feel that being aware of this interplay between automatic and conscious thoughts is a big step to overcoming depression.

So who am I? I guess I’m still working that out but what I am not are all the automatically generated negativities that disturb my peace and quiet and keeps me up at night.


 

A Social Anxiety Will Do Nicely

Isolation Ade

A blog touching on and recounting some of the feelings and thoughts associated with a social anxiety.

The weight of your body is pulled around your waking day by muscles that try to carry its  weight. Those muscles will be used to their burden, delivering you about your daily comings and goings with relative ease and automation. It could be that one day you realise that you have been carrying around an unfair weight your whole life, unknown until this moment. A weight exerted by the mind that cripples, isolates, dominates and tears at your every joy. A black mental filter that twists words, cast shadows on every event, pulls you away from those you love and shoves harshly at those you care about and who care about you. A mind that torments itself in the silence and relishes in pain and suffering because this is the normal practice.

This heavy burden of long term anxiety was saturated deep inside through your childhood, given to you by the culture in which you live and through unknown instruction from family, friends, school, news and the mediocre of the day to day. Your mind has had many years of practice reinforcing just how bad, useless and worthless you are by repeating this mantra over and over again until it is normal. In the minds desire to see just how correct its view of the world is, it will extract any little morsel of supporting evidence it can from wherever it can get it. The smile of a girl is turned to a smirk, the complement on your physical appearance is a secret joke, the offer of a cake is a hint at how fat you are, the praise by your boss is a subterfuge for redundancy and the trust of a friend is just a manipulation ready for exploiting you. An endless tiredness claws at you earlier and earlier each evening, this exhaustion draws you away from friends and solitary quietness and rest becomes a persistent necessity.

It becomes difficult to spend time with anyone and fear joins the normal run of things, fear of failure, rejection, insult, death and loss of loved ones. The fear sometimes manifests itself when multiple people are present in a room, in a bar or in a restaurant, the knotting ripples tighten your abdomen, picking up the baton and running with the dysfunctional messages from the brain, broken and false messages that the body does not question. A repetitive cycle of learned responses, homed and trained over a lifetime.

The consumption of this fear instigates a clinging to your homely sanctuary, wherever that may be: a home, a shed, a toilet or a corner of a woodland. A place to shut off, to re-coupe and prepare for the inevitable social interactions that litter the day and bring persistent anxiety when they fall upon you.

A friend or partner you have known for years will become impatient with your inexplicable intolerance of friends or family and the reluctance to venture outside into the dangerous, critical, brash world beyond. When part way though a group interaction you’ll constantly question your role:

Do I deserve to be here?

What do they think of me?

How will I be remembered?

In the quiet of the evening, you’ll constantly ruminate, question and concern yourself with the social events of the day and how these interactions contribute to other peoples perceptions of you and whether or not you have rectified with the outside world the intended story about yourself.

This persistent burden limits your every waking moment, saturating and draining the joy out of each day. The weight of those extra bags on your shoulders are part of you and learning to live with them, rather than removing them is the most realistic option.

It is actually useful to understand that depression and anxiety is the subconscious’ way of letting you know that something is not right and your thinking is faulty. It is difficult to see when trying to gather up your feet from the thick mud that depression is a positive thing. The recognition of your predicament is actually the baseline from which you start fighting your way out.

It will take courage to firstly except your inherited condition, then to the face the world with it. Social interaction is such a large part of your life that when it becomes a displeasure to instigate this wondrous activity, the fear and anxiety is compounded and hardens within.

So how can an individual move away from this heavy burden of long term anxiety? This is where you will need courage and a new way of looking at the world. The key component is slow, careful reasoning, dissection of your outlook and the way you think of yourself.


 

Yes, Just One Little Rabbit

Polly the Rabbit

This blog recounts the passing of a pet rabbit and the intense bond that can be created between a moderate human being and a regular old rabbit.

A rabbit. A small animal among millions of similar rabbits.

A rabbit that is our rabbit. She is not one of the many contortions seen on a drive through the countryside, laying limp on the tarmac. Nor is she one of the millions serving humans and cats as food, boxed up and processed. This particular rabbit is exalted by the two of us above all others by the simple virtue of rescuing her from the fate of millions and investing time in the burden of care during her remaining lifetime.

The day has come and passed for our exalted rabbit, for which we have named Polly. Her final night was spent in quiet comfort lying by my wife in our bed (yes, that is indeed what has come about) as Polly slips from our lives, a few shallow breaths remaining. It is Polly’s end and there she goes, quiet, peaceful and imperceptibly, she slips away.

How much pain is felt for this small animal among millions? I will admit that we have been guilty of anthropomorphism, bestowing human qualities and characteristics, but I can say with absolute clarity that the enormous sense of grief the passing of Polly created is equal to the passing of relatives I have known. This is not meant to downplay the death’s of others close to me, as if I need to justify that, but rather reiterate how entwined our lives with Polly had become and would happily mark her high if grief was to be compared on some morbid scale.

As we cast our minds back over the four and half years since Polly’s rescue from abandonment to the wilds of Greenham Common, the memory selects and amplifies the key events in our lives and places Polly next to those moments in some capacity. There were times I would lay mentally exhausted and burdened and she would lick my arm. The simple joy of seeing her laying in the sunshine of the patio doors as I look up from tapping on my laptop. The therapeutic comfort for my wife in times of stress was, well, utterly and completely responsible for helping her through. I can only hope we gave Polly a good life, whatever comprehension a good life would conjure within a rabbits mind. We have however consoled ourselves with the satisfaction that we were responsible for providing a long and joyous life for her.

The intense surges of grief grip the throat, stomach and muscles as they ebb and flow, teetering on the cusp of control. I cannot discern any distinction between Polly’s passing and that of my dearest Nan. How has this come about? It is simply time with another species with emotions, needs, affections and compassion. We needed so much from Polly it could have been an utterly selfish act for our own well being.

The grief for a rabbit sounds trivial but is testament to the attachments humans can build with another species, especially one so entwined in daily life. As this strong emotional attachment ends in the absolute finality of death, it unlocks the reminders of our fragile and brief existence and trivialises much of the things we do everyday. I am reminded of those we’ve already lost as I think of Mathew, Tony, Nan, Gordon, Betty, Larry, Sandy, Smokey, Brian, Sue, Pat and Auntie Flo.

It is also a reminder of the saying ‘Where there is life there is hope, where there is hope there is life’. It appears to me that it is fairly rare nowadays to by intimately close to someone or something during their last few days, instead we are removed from the pain by shear suddenness, distance or lack of time. I mean, seeing every minute as the body slows down, shuts down, and gets to a point that we realise that the hope of continued life passes and is replaced by acceptance and the hope that they will go soon without pain and in peace.

Polly has gone and it is painful but the days will become easier I am sure, with the rawness of Polly’s memory becoming softer so we can look back on her life as part of ours with affection. If there is anything the fragility, shortness and unpredictable nature of life can show us is that each moment deserves our maximum attention. There is today’s life to enjoy.

A rabbit. A small animal among millions of similar rabbits. We named her Polly.


Polly died on Tuesday 30th September 2014 after four and a half years of life with us.