I can’t remember if the editor of this fine organ has warned me off writing about anything that might come under the general Dewey classification 200 [religion] or ‘Mind Body Spirit’, as they call it in Waterstones. It’s the kind of thing hard-nosed, pinot noir glugging magazine supremas might do, but then, our editor has a soft nose and can take or leave the pinot noir. Whether or not I have been instructed not to, I’m going to write on the dangerously amorphous topic of the human soul this month because if ever there was a moment in modern human history when spiritual reflection is relevant, that moment is now, however long it lasts.
No commentator is in any doubt that what is going on is utterly unprecedented, not least in their complete inability to make any kind of meaningful predictions. Dominic Cummings’ super-forecasters, in whatever Whitehall dungeon he has harboured them, must be vacillating uncontrollably like so much seaweed in a turbulent sea.
What I will predict is that a lot more people than usual are contemplating the non-corporeal aspects of their existence as they have never done before. Besides, I’ve often noticed, with some surprise and a little optimism, that the ‘Mind Body Spirit’ shelves in the bookshops are usually bustling with thoughtful, earnest-looking individuals of all genders looking for answers. Books on such topics feature consistently in the non-fiction bestseller charts; pieces on mindfulness, meditation, wellbeing and yoga fill fat columns of the woolly sections of the Sunday broadsheets.
While some, perhaps Nigel Farage or Katie Hopkins, Marc Francois or Tommy Robinson may not be expending much intellectual energy on their spiritual destiny, it’s abundantly clear from some of the audience participation radio shows that there are a lot of people out there who are thinking very hard about their noncorporeal existence, whether it’s on Anita Anand’s Any Answers, or Dotun Adebayo’s Up All Night phone-in. Adebayo, one of the nation’s most broadly erudite broadcasters who can talk about anything from Soccer to Soul to Socrates, has used his breadth of understanding to evoke some unexpectedly uplifting insights from his callers.
People are thinking about death, and a refreshingly large number seem ready to accept the inescapable truth that they will die, sooner or later, and that it’s only sensible to have your own exit strategy. However, for the majority, now the cultural norm, it is the pretence that it will never happen, indeed, should never happen in this era when, ironically, older people, through their confinement in care homes, are in effect more socially irrelevant to their families than ever before, that makes the contemplation of death for many such a potent source of fear. This pandemic, like hundreds that must have occurred throughout the history of mankind, should have the effect of a natural cull, seeking out, generally, the oldest and the weakest; in practical terms, the least contributive. It is a process which in all other species of animal would be seen to be beneficial to the species as a whole, but for homo sapiens in the 21st century the needs of the individual trump the greater claim of the common good. Prevailing culture posits that any human life is worth whatever it costs, even simply to defer death for a few more years.
Nevertheless, the evidence of the radio phone-ins indicates that there is a growing number of people prepared to question this ethic. Last year, visiting a friend regularly over the three months before she died, I tried to calm her fears by suggesting to her that there was nothing to be afraid of, that with the right palliatives, death wasn’t going to hurt. Personally, I’m well within the sector of society ripe for culling. My children don’t depend on me, far from it; my wife doesn’t depend on me. I ask myself if I’m ready to go. I’d rather not be culled just yet, and the people close to me will miss me, (I hope), but so they will if I die in ten years, even twenty years’ time. Avoiding their grief now is simply deferring it. On the other hand, I’m enjoying life now as much as I ever have, because, luckily and, for the moment, I’m not ill and have no particular health problems. But if I did become ill, I’m uncertain how much the NHS should spend on deferring my death for an unknown period of time. I’m certain though, that it wouldn’t make sense to spend say, £50k on someone my age when it would be far more practical to spend it saving an otherwise still viable forty-five year old, or twenty-five year old. If the NHS had limitless resources, which a lot of the public seem to believe they should have, perhaps I might justify them spending it on me. But of course, the NHS doesn’t have limitless resources, nothing like, and never will have. And if they did, it still wouldn’t be enough.
Consider the life and death of Howard Hughes the absurdly egotistical billionaire who spent millions of dollars trying to protect himself from infection and, presumably, death by isolating himself and instructing his staff to practise immensely elaborate processes to keep him away from any external infection. He died aged 71 of heart failure, and in terrible physical condition. No amount of money would have allowed him to avoid the inevitability of death. He died worth $6.5 billon at current values, providing ample proof that however much you spend on medical treatment, death will get you in the end, and sometimes sooner than you think. Beyond the more obvious conundrums surrounding death, it seems likely that this pandemic and the strange social conditions it has caused will give rise to several critical new perspectives. At a simple, practical level, we could reconsider the amount of travelling we do. The residents of Richmond, and anywhere under Heathrow flight paths are likely to realise after a few weeks of peace, just what hell they were suffering before.
We might recognise the value of physical exercise, the interdependence of society, as well the inadequacy of our approach to death. We might also reassess our relationship with Gaia. Where I am now, in the midst of the South Shropshire hills, with no neighbours and miles of deserted open forest accessible from my front door, I couldn’t be luckier, and I know it. I’ve been walking every day that I’ve been here for several years and I’ve been learning, especially now in the deep peace that pervades this place in a warm spring, to nurture my relationship with what is beneath my feet. It is an essential aspect of homo sapiens that every member of our species, along with the whole panoply of animal species, every entity that possesses life, every type of plant, amoeba and microbe, was originally spawned by Mother Earth. She gave birth to the very first in the subsequent process of evolution that produced us. She is our common ancestor, our great, great nth grandmother and we should treat her with the enormous respect that she deserves. We can learn to love all our trillion, trillions of cousins, from the rats in the barn, the owls who predate them, the oak in which the owls lives, the primroses on the banks, the bluebells, the catkins, the lichen on the trees, the myriad insects, the earthworms, the soil and its microbes that support directly and indirectly every other living thing. Now could be the moment to recalibrate our priorities and to stop concurring with a society that is trashing so much of the living world around it, and diminishing the very existence of the world herself by consistently putting the needs of homo sapiens above those of every other living thing that Gaia has procreated.