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We Dying Creatures – For a’ that…

The great thing about coming towards the end of (surviving) a tough year is that the mind tends to turn to the future with a little more hope, humility and wisdom (the latter two I always need plenty more of; quite how much more I hadn’t really realised till this year).

The stumblings and flailings of a somewhat battered body and soul can leave one weary indeed. Yet in that weariness there is also a sense of relief, a calmness. Things fall apart, it is true. But the anticipation of that moment is, of course, far worse than the actuality. For when they do, an ancient memory resurfaces –  a knowledge that this was inevitable, natural, unavoidable. The body will fail. The mind will fail. The when, how, why of it we cannot know, or even guess. Fate controls that. But that it will happen, we do know really.

We are scared of that knowledge. We try and hide from it. We spend ridiculous amounts of time burying ourselves in trivia, in work, in material, physical and spiritual longings in an effort to escape it. But as the Buddhists have told us for hundreds of years, that way lies madness. For all our affectations and games and distractions, we are all, from the day we are born, simply dying creatures. We spend so much time worrying about how to live, when perhaps it would be better to think of the challenge as “how to be a dying creature”. Knowing the destination, we should really plan our journey a little better. In the final moments all we need is each other – the time, attention and kindness of each other. A good death is one in which we travel together with dignity and respect for each other to that final moment.

My own journey had an unexpected speeding up this summer, and though frightening in parts, it did encourage me to let go of a little more of my fear and arrogance. For that I am grateful. I end this year with a hope for the future – that I can learn better how to be a dying creature. That I can create the kind of environment a dying creature needs for me and those around me: a place where the collective is more important than the individual; where being with is more important than being against, or being better; where time to attend to each other is valued more than time to attend to self; and where kindness is prized above all other human qualities. (As I write this I feel a huge gratefulness that I lived in the era of someone who epitomised all of that in a truly human and humane way – Nelson Mandela.)

Poetry and music have been wonderful balms these last months, and recently my eye and ear has been drawn back home to Burns. His poem Is There for Honest Poverty (sometimes known as A Man’s a Man for A’That) reminds us that we do know really, and that one day surely it will come; that our lives mean nothing when we don’t hold each other in mutual respect and regard, when we don’t see each other for the dying creatures we are… for a’that.

Is there for honesty Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.

Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a’ that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
A price can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

At Home in the Heat of the Moment

As a young woman I suppose I was as prone as the next person to believing that “anything is possible”, that life should be lived with “no limits”. Neither flirtations with Buddhism in my youth nor lifelong deep seated attraction to socialist ideals could seriously dent my underlying belief that “life was for the taking”. Even as I entered the world of design and learned the enormous value of constraints on design, the idea that constraints could be useful for life too never occurred to me. I was fully signed up to the ideology of better living through “more”. What the “more” would be of I didn’t know, just that it would be more, and that more meant better. Life seemed to be an endless journey on the road to more. I jumped enthusiastically on the treadmill. I softened my more of course – no crude Boris Johnson style greed for me. My more was a little more subtle, or at least I like to think it was. More adventure, more “big achievements”, more “pushing myself outside my comfort zone”, more “start-ups”. Somewhere in my youth or childhood I may not have done much good but I did pick up the notion that whilst I would never seek to be part of the establishment, would never seek acceptance, I would seek adventure, novelty, challenge, “authenticity”. I would seek to be better than I was. To be more than I was.

Multiple sclerosis being basically a speeded up version of the decline that time will visit upon all of us sooner or later, I have been blessed with an inbuilt sword of damocles these last years. When it fell this past summer it swept away a great deal. Or perhaps it just cleared the way for the essential me to reclaim her place in my psyche. I’d been so caught in “the world” – in trying to be someone, do things, “make a life” – that I had totally lost sight of what I knew instinctively as a child; that me existed most fully when freed from all of that. When there was nothing to do but lie in the sun and marvel at the feeling of the wind on my skin, or the sound of wood pigeons in the trees, or the feel of my dog’s side as it rose and fell with his breath while I lay resting my head on him. That intensity of simply being was utterly unaffected by all the constraints of childhood. So why is so hard to re-capture it as adults, when apparently we are so unconstrained?

Adapting to the changes my illness and disability have wrought in my life has created such a huge challenge to my sense of self it’s been difficult to even begin to appreciate, let alone engage with it. Returning to work I have had to accept what in fact has been happening for some time –  I simply cannot work at the pace I did, with the intensity I did. I cannot cope with stress beyond a certain quite limited level. My workplace, like most, is a daily round of “better living through more”. Only those who achieve more are deemed to be successful. And only those who are successful are deemed worthy of a story, of attention. One begins to see how the old are air brushed out of life like out of favour comrades in a Soviet era photograph. But it is undeniable that at this point in my life success is not so much a matter of more as of “not less”, or at least “less but not too dramatically so”. Work a little too long, worry a little too much, push a little too hard and my body slips back into “relapse foreshadowing” mode. It did this before, but I didn’t have the fear of relapse I did then. Past relapses were more subtle affairs than this summer’s. Now when those telltale harbingers of future trouble flare up, my fear sends me scurrying to bed.

I look around my workplace and the endless narrative of more, better, onwards, upwards, that we are surrounded with constantly and I know I can no longer engage, no longer be part of that. Truth be told I was never that good at engaging anyway, perhaps luckily for me the need for workplace approval has not been a strong driver. Nevertheless I was bought in to the idea of more. Now there is no “more”. There is simply being and doing. The sadness at the thought of the “upwards” that will not be scaled, the future trajectory that will no longer be explored, is far outweighed however by a sense of something else. A familiarity. As children we have no upwards trajectory despite how often the adult world wants to force one on us. We simply have now. Perhaps that is why all the constraints on us seem so irrelevant most of the time. Adult games invented to annoy us, easily forgotten in the heat of the moment. For in losing the desire for upwards, choices become so much easier to navigate. Like a vegetarian in a French restaurant I am faced now with a very limited menu of life options. I am beginning to feel unwell? Stop. Rest. Stress is beginning to creep up on me? Let it go, fast. I want to devote some precious, finite, energy to something that is not “in my interests”, will not “further my career”? Fine. Go for it. Carpe diem.

Slowly, re-assuringly, it has begun to dawn on me that whilst the air “up there” is thin and cold, here, in the heat of the moment, it feels welcoming and warm. It feels like home.

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