Tuesday, 30 March 2010
This post is a contribution to Josies writing workshop, although it is not strictly speaking a piece of creative writing, it was still very much inspired by prompt 3 which was itself inspired by Christine at Thinly Spreads beautiful post: What Comes Next?
Occasionally when I find myself unable to sleep and it is a clear night, I open my curtains and lie on my bed looking out at the sky. Its vastness is soothing, the moon always seems to stare back knowingly, and sometimes if I'm lucky I will catch a shooting star flaming across the inky backdrop as if intent on a last hurrah before its light finally goes out for good. It is a good time for thinking and for half-dreaming.
The Butterfly Effect is a metaphor that seeks to sum up the principles of Chaos theory - it is a metaphor that asks a question: Does the flap of a butterflies wings in Brazil start a ripple effect that could result in a tornado in Texas? Although the science behind it is beyond me really I have always loved this idea and the image it creates. Recently whilst lying half awake on a late and starry night I found myself gazing out at the sky and dreamily wondering if perhaps the death of one human being could set off a similar ripple effect - eventually causing a small but significant shift in the entire universe - with planets and stars all being forced to change course and realign as a result? Whilst I do not believe that this could be literally true, it is nevertheless an idea that I find beautiful, and that weaves seamlessly into my genuine belief that birth and death are simply a part of the cyclical nature of life along with the tides and the seasons.
Neanderthals were one of the earliest species of hominid to inhabit the earth. They lived 250,000 years ago and survived on their own wit and resources through an ice age, but perhaps most interestingly of all they are said to have been the first hominids to have buried their dead. Not only that but some evidence has also been found to suggest that alongside the bodies of their dead they sometimes buried trinkets and animal bones. The assumption made by many archaeologists is that this indicates a belief in some sort of an afterlife, and that this is turn is evidence of their humanity. Which then of course begs the question: is there an intrinsic human need to want to trust in our own relative immortality? If the most primitive humans who must only have been bent on survival in the harshest of conditions sought the comfort of belief in a life beyond the grave, what might this say about human nature in general?
None of this would ever have crossed my mind for long if it weren't for the fact that inevitably - like every other mother sooner or later - I was confronted with The Question.
'Mum, what happens when you die?'
Nothing. You just die. For some reason I balked at saying this to my child. It seemed almost cruel, so abrupt, so harsh and yet it is what I have always believed and it has never frightened me. I have no problem with the idea of an end point, of closure. Indeed the promise of eternal life - that triumphant carrot dangled so enthusiastically in front of non-believers by the majority of the worlds religions - has never held any lure for me. My money has always been on Darwin. But when my curious and sensitive eldest son first asked me The Question, an inner voice suddenly said, 'You can't just say 'nothing'. It won't do, not on its own. You will cut him off dead when what he needs is to explore the possibilities for himself.' So I have tried my best to enable him to do that, which has not always been easy to square with my own strongly held atheism. I have also tried to answer his many questions as honestly as I can, which has not always been easy to square with my desire not to steer his train of thought too sharply in any direction. He knows that I do not believe in a heaven. He knows that I do not believe in ghosts. He knows that I do believe that unquestioning and devoted faith in something which has been proven to be highly improbable can be dangerous, and that far from being a virtue I believe it can breed intolerance and inhibit moral behaviour. He also knows that he is absolutely free to make up his own mind.
My mothers father - my 'Diddydad' - was dying in a small cottage hospital just at the time I was due to give birth to my second child. My mother sat with him through the last days of his life and one night when she could not sleep in the armchair beside his bed, the nurse on the night shift took pity on her, made her a cup of tea and some toast, and sat down with her for a while to chat. My mum talked of how I was expected to go into labour at any time and how sad she was that she could not be there for me. Apparently the nurse had said briskly but kindly, 'Well I'm a firm believer in one in one out dear'. My mother still remembers this particular nurse fondly and repeats this story often, and somehow - although I know her words of comfort were essentially nonsense in light of the current global population explosion - it always brings me back full circle to where this post began.
A full circle back to the butterfly and its flapping wings. Back to my night gazing and nocturnal imagining that with every death the stars and planets might sigh, change course and roll over to make room for the new life that is to follow.