Thoughts & Insights
Viva La Vida
Times of uncertainty like those we’ve been going through in the past weeks and months and that are set to last for a very long time across the whole world call for all our skills and abilities, all our strengths and all our senses. A state of extreme emergency such as the world has long not seen. Dynamic complexity in full flight. And what’s at stake here is nothing less than what we have always held to be most dear in our lives – life itself.
Living is learning to die, said the Roman philosopher Seneca more than two thousand years ago. You can hardly imagine a better way of putting these two opposites of existential importance in context. Yet while we cannot get enough of life, we have increasingly been averting our gaze from death and dying over the past seventy years in our modern world. In many places death has been excluded from everyday life and everyday consciousness. Average life expectancy has steadily risen in affluent societies and has now reached the 80 year mark. Everyone wants to live as long as possible yet nobody wants to die. Recently there’s been talk of research that can reverse the ageing process and make people ten to twenty years younger. The dream of eternal youth might always remain just a dream yet preventing the onset of age has become a realistic objective of life. Now although this might have to do with love of life – what is love of life that accepts the basic principle of the transitory nature of all things in this world for all beings except itself? It represses the fact that life is finite and that death is a part of life just as birth is.
What does love of life really mean? This is a question I’ve often asked myself during the course of my life and with particular intensity when someone I dearly loved has died and left the life of the body behind them. It was in my childhood through early experience of the death of people very close to me that I first became aware of ultimate irreversibility, that you can only live your life once and once only and that a day past can never come again. Ever since then I have borne this awareness with me – yet must immediately add that it has never been a burden to me, quite the contrary. The knowledge of the limited time of my own existence combined with the uncertainty about the point of my own ending has constantly nourished my appreciation of what is and of all that life itself has to offer. Instead of being annoyed about getting older – a ridiculous mood that befalls many people of a certain age on their birthdays – we should be happy and thankful that we’ve first seen the light of this world and are still alive to see it. Perhaps the meaning of life is simply in just living it, in leading a good fulfilling life and loving every new day because life makes it possible.
“Every day counts!” was the smart toast given by poor Jack Dawson who’d won a ticket for the maiden voyage of the Titanic to New York in a poker game in the harbour, and had been invited to dine first-class in the upper decks of the luxury steamer. The invitation came because the previous evening he’d saved the life of Rose, the young daughter of an upper class family. In the shortest of time he also awakened her love by freeing her from the golden but very narrow cage of a life of luxury in which she was trapped. Just a fictional story from the script of one of the most successful films of all time. If it reached people all over the world and moved and fascinated them this certainly has to do with the director, the music, and not least of all the actors. And yet at the heart of the film is a story celebrating real life. This is why it’s inevitably that death is ever present from the very beginning of the story and plays a role that’s just as important as love.
Some three hundred years before in its own way the well-known injunction Carpe diem was a similar expression of the knowledge that nothing in this life is certain and that tomorrow any life may end. It celebrates life just as it celebrates awareness of its fleeting transitory nature. This has nothing to do with hedonism or dolce vita. It’s an attitude born in the dark times of Thirty Years War which terrorised and traumatised the populations of Central Europe when huge swathes of countries were laid waste by religiously fuelled hunger for power, gold and land, and reduced to smoking ruins. For centuries political accounts of the war dealt with the events that caused it, the intrigues and battles, the great names. It was only much later that attention shifted to the psychological devastation wrought in the minds and souls of the people by massacres and plundering in the name of religion. And with it the issue of living and dying in its human, social and cultural dimensions. Who thinks of this time nowadays? OUBEY did. He once spent many weeks totally absorbed in his reading on this war and I still have a very vivid memory of the conversations on it we had together. Carpe diem is a mark of respect and humility to every single day we live.
With two world wars following in quick succession, the world’s first industrialised wars, the state terror of fascism and the historical nightmare of the Holocaust, the 20th century spread fear and horror among people on an unprecedented scale – only this time not in the name of religion but trumpeted as the forward march of the unleashed ideologies of the master race, nationalism and colonialism. Within 30 years these wars cost the lives of over 80 million people – an unimaginably horrifying number. The memory of my walk through the barracks of Buchenwald concentration camp is indelibly stamped on my mind as is my visit to the catacombs of the memorial to the battle of Verdun at Fort Douaumont in France where the bones of fallen soldiers are stacked meter-deep alongside and on top of one another.
All this happened at different times in the past. The more distant in the past things lie, the more they tend to slip into the inaccessible depths of collective forgetting in Europe’s consciousness. Yet even in unconsciousness trauma still unfolds its effects across multiple generations. Even now people with a particular sensitivity to the interconnectedness of all things can still feel the traumas of long vanished times.
And now in Europe and the western world we have been living in peace with one another for over seventy years. No other generations have been privileged to live so long in peace and liberty as those born after the end of the Second World War. Even if so far we in Europe have still not succeeded in forming a genuine community, in just a few decades we have succeeded in overcoming enmities that have endured for centuries, and this is indeed great progress – despite all the misgivings that many countries might still harbour about their neighbours. Processes of such historical dimensions need time. And above all they need robust goodwill carried by a love for life that is stronger than the readiness to risk death for the interests of others, but also by the awareness of how greatly we are dependent on and rely on one another even in the smallest details of our daily lives.
Over the past two months this has become more evident than ever before due to the pandemic triggered by a virus called COVID 19. Like a magnifying glass the virus reveals the strengths and weaknesses of our society and the interconnectedness of people all over the world. And not the least of its effects is that it has brought death and dying out of the shadow taboo zone and into the glare of public attention. It has brought us the horror of refrigerated trucks in the yards of New York hospitals in which the coffins of the dead are stored because the hospital mortuaries are overflowing, and the night-time columns of trucks bringing coffins from Bergamo in northern Italy to surrounding cities because all the cemeteries of Bergamo are full. A discourse on such horror seems to be emerging, a conversation about things that have never been talked about in this way in public before and talked about in a general tone that pays them fitting respect and reverence. In these times death looms before us closer than it has done for a very long time, simultaneously across the whole world for all people. And yet this also means – quite in the sense intended by Seneca – that life also comes closer to us than ever before, giving us a truer sense of its real meaning and making us seriously examine how we really want to live. Which leads to the question of whether we really do want to continue living “post-corona” exactly as we lived before. Here too the magnifying glass effect is apparent in the way we weigh the priorities that will set our future course. With what outcomes remains to be seen.
In the darkest and most difficult days of the pandemic in Italy I found a video on YouTube posted in March by the twelve year old twins Mirko and Valerio from Agrigento in Sicily during their quarantine. They played a masterly version of Coldplay’s song Viva La Vida on their violins and radiated such joy and warm-heartedness that life itself could have received no better tribute. Two wonderful boys whose performance brought a moment of brightness and hope into the lives of many people in these troubled times.