Last week we had the Sydney Siege and the terribly sad murder of young children in Peshawar. The heart-breaking photos of lives cut short in a pool of blood remind us that our vacuous celebrity culture is shameful and shallow in the extreme. The question of what really matters in life seems to elude most people these days. I want. I need. I must have. It is mine. We seem intent on possessing and taking ownership of everything. In fact nothing is ours.
A friend once invited me to help myself to the many books she had become the de facto owner of when she purchased the flat of a very old woman in London's trendy Holland Park. The lady had died alone, a spinster with no descendants. Everything in the flat had been included in the sale. Old photo albums, dozens of them, hundreds of books on art and culture, a rare King James Bible, dried flowers from the lady's trips to Bethlehem, paintings and Persian rugs. All of it, once treasured possessions, was reduced in sentimental value to zero because the owner had died. She couldn't take the money with her and those items amassed over a lifetime meant nothing to anyone but her. To this day however I use that King James Bible and at my father's funeral, I read psalm 23 from it in front of a congregation I could barely see through my tears.
Nothing is ours. We are just passing through this life and where to or from we shall never fully understand. When bad things happen such as Sydney or Peshawar, we are reminded of how brief our time here on earth really is. And why are we here if it is to only suffer? I once wrote a story about a young woman who unravels the life of a very intriguing and enigmatic woman through objects she once owned and which ended up in charity shops. In order to complete the puzzle of that woman's past, the younger woman goes from charity shop to charity shop in search of as many clues as she can. And by the time she has completed the puzzle there is a sense of an anti- climax that after all, that lady was just like her: she had loved and lost in the same way and apart from her beautiful possessions, had lived a relatively nondescript life.
Someone once famously said that seeking to disprove the existence of God is as pointless as attempting to prove he exists. One concept cannot be fathomable without the other. We too are the benefactors of past owners charity shop possessions as there will be a future ones who replace us. The diamond brooch will effectively outlive us all and is of a superior longevity than our skin and bones, which will turn to dust.
Ancient Tibetan texts say that it is better to live a short and unhappy life than a long and happy one. I have often pondered on the significance of these words especially since we are all living longer lives in the West. Are we therefore not allowing fate to run its proper course? I want, I need, I must have. It is mine. A number of famous former billionaires died this year and all penniless. All gone. And in the end all that was left was their reflection in a mirror and one they had grown to dislike.
Since I entered the second half of my life, I secretly long for the day that I will own very few things and preferably live in a hut- my hundreds of useless possessions that clutter my home are reminiscent of a past that both abandoned me and I abandoned. What therefore is the purpose of looking at these objects everyday when my reality has no connection whatsoever to them. As one gets older, the realization becomes obvious that the possessions we covet offer a hollow solace when the true purpose of life is anything but ownership.
I've spent the last couple of weeks trying to volunteer my services to any charity that will have me on Christmas Day. Everyone has said the same thing- they need weeks to get me through all the essential security checks etc. I truly wanted to help in some small way, in any way but no one will have me. Our world has become so bureaucratic that a random act of kindness is discouraged in a world where random cruelty is rampant. If we see a child crying in the street we are loathe to offer a hug lest we get harshly judged. A well-known journalist derided the misfortune of others who end up on benefits and yet, to assume that everyone is a scrounger shows a fundamental lack of humanity.
We are moving further away from the intrinsic values that define us as human. I recently had an altercation with a neighbour whose gardener lights bonfires practically every day. I wrote a polite letter and asked please to find a compromise to the incessant pollution making it impossible for me to step into the garden. I received no reply. And finally despite repeated requests, a wall of stony silence and a pistols-at-dawn glare if we cross paths. When we appoint ourselves as the centre of the universe, we forget that we make each other human. Tragically we are losing the ability communicate with each other because we feel that we do not need to. Treating others shabbily is OK because it suits us.
All is not lost, hopefully: it is Christmas, after all, which is first and foremost about family and giving thanks. Beyond the tinsel and the excess of food and drink, there is a simple message in the Christmas story: Practice random acts of kindness. Make someone smile. Say something nice instead of something negative. Ask friends and family if they need anything.
Love always, love and love.
Merry Christmas and A Peaceful, Happy New Year!
Photo copyright S. van Dalen