Birthday Thoughts

Story: The Waters of Madness


any years ago in a land far away,  there lived a king who liked nothing better than sitting down with his subjects and talking about important matters of life. He liked to discuss politics, religion, poetry, the books he had read and the plays he had seen at the theatre. Every day would find him in conversation with the wise and the not so wise in his kingdom, asking them questions such as, ‘Do you believe in God?’ ‘Where did the world come from?’ What is the best way for a human being to behave?’ ‘Is fighting wrong?’ ‘What happens when we die?’ His subjects had many different points of view to offer the king and he grew in wisdom as he conversed with them year after year. Each night he would tell the queen what he had been discussing during the day and she would offer her own opinions on the many subjects that had been covered. The kingdom was filled with happy and fulfilled people, who worked hard, brought up their children properly and settled their disputes in sensible and peaceful ways.
One day, however, a wicked magician entered the lands of the wise king and poisoned all the water. Into every river and every lake, every stream and every well he poured a deadly concoction to which there was no known antidote. But the poison did not kill those who drank it; it simply sent them mad. Anyone who drank the water in the kingdom would go insane, and start to behave in strange and uncharacteristic ways. Before they drank the waters of madness, the people had always been happy to solve their disputes with one another without violence; now they fought over everything, even inconsequential matters. Before they drank the waters of madness they liked to play sports and take exercise; now they just wanted to watch from the sidelines, and the more violent the sport, the more they liked it. Before they drank the waters of madness, they would welcome visitors to their land, offering hospitality and friendship to all; now they were hostile and unwelcoming, suspicious of everyone who spoke a different language from themselves.
Only the king and queen escaped. The wicked magician was not able to get through the high walls of the royal grounds and so the king’s water supply was unaffected. Although the king and queen weren’t insane, they soon became very lonely. They could no longer hold intelligent conversations because no one else in the kingdom was interested in discussion anymore. They didn’t want to talk about ideas; they just wanted to talk about each other. ‘Who does she think she is with her high and mighty ways?’ ‘He might be strong but I’ll bet he’s not as strong as I am!’ ‘Have you seen the state of their house? It’s disgusting! They live like pigs!’ And so it went, and it got to the point where the wise monarchs could bear it no longer.
‘What can we do?’ the king asked the queen.
They considered the options:
‘We can emigrate to some other kingdom where the waters have not been polluted.’ They dismissed this idea because they liked their homeland and their palace and anyway they didn’t know any other land.
‘We can search for an antidote to remove the contamination from the water.’ They soon realized that this was impossible. All the scientists in the kingdom were insane and didn’t want to do any serious work anymore.
Do you know what they did in the end? They decided to drink the waters of madness themselves, just so that they could be like everyone else.

This was written in June 2009

When I’m 64

Eheu! Fugaces labuntur anni. (Horace)
Alas! The swift years slip away.

It was in June 1967, exactly 42 years ago, that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. I was just 22 and had spent the previous four years or so with the Beatles. Their first records were released when I was in sixth-form, and, like all my peers, I’d eagerly anticipated, regularly listened to, and knew by heart every song on every Beatles L.P.
            But Sgt. Pepper was different. I thought on first hearing – and I remember exactly where I was when I heard it first - that it signalled a massive change in popular music, and so it proved to be. That year was full of psychedelic, drug-influenced music – A Whiter Shade of Pale, by Procul Harem, topped the hit parade for weeks, and Scott McKenzie’s If You’re Going to San Francisco was played non-stop in every bar and on every radio station throughout the summer.  The whole scene seemed to suggest that we young people had found our voice at last and it was a very different, and very much more confident voice than that of our immediate predecessors. There was full employment in Britain, and the young were quite affluent, probably for the first time in history; we didn’t have conscription to the armed forces, men were taking an interest in fashion, pirate radio stations were giving us popular music all the day long. And the contraceptive pill was widely available. Very useful, because our generation had actually discovered sex. As Philip Larkin so rightly points out,

Sex began in 1963
Sometime between the Lady Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first L.P.

Sex and drugs and rock and roll. Money, freedom, fashion, time. We had it all. Yes, there was the threat of the bomb, and the ongoing war in Vietnam, but they seemed quite remote and anyway they gave us ‘causes’ to demonstrate about, problems to solve on the way to creating our Utopian ‘love-in’.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

These lines by Wordsworth, written about the French Revolution nearly two hundred years earlier, seemed doubly applicable to us who were reaching maturity in the mid 1960s. And it was set to go on and on. ‘I have to admit it’s getting better, it’s getting better all the time’ sang the Beatles on side one of Sgt Pepper and nobody seemed to doubt it. I can remember standing on playground duty one afternoon and thinking to myself, ‘When I’ve lived as many years again as I’ve already lived, I’ll still only be 42’. But time didn’t seem to be an issue. There was lots of time. My mother had told me since childhood not to wish my life away, but I had plenty of life left; what was wrong with wishing it were Friday night on Tuesday, or wishing it were Christmas in November? ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64’ sang Paul McCartney on side two of Sgt. Pepper, but how far away was that? Sixty-four-year-olds were strange and foreign beings – people at the end of their life; people who, if truth be told, had never been young. What had they to do with me? Two years earlier, in 1965, I’d watched a Bob Dylan concert on television with my father. I was listening to what I thought were some of the most beautiful, the most poetic lyrics ever written – songs like She Belongs to Me, Blowin’ in the Wind, It aint me Babe; my father thought it was tuneless gibberish and laughed the whole way through. And he was only fifty-seven at the time! Sixty-four was even further away. Sixty-four will never come, so why worry about it?
            But it has come. I’ll be sixty-four next Wednesday. Not just twice, but nearly three times the age I was at twenty-two. And now I’m the one who finds modern popular music unintelligible. ‘Why don’t they have tunes anymore?’ I think. ‘What’s rap all about?’ ‘Turn that racket down!’ ‘If I stay out till quarter to three, will you lock the door?’ the song asks. If I stayed out till quarter to three Morag would be ringing round the hospitals! The only time I’m awake at quarter to three it’s to go to the cupboard for some Rennies to soothe my heartburn, or to obey my ailing prostate’s command to take another trip to the toilet. 
           And time seems precious now. Now I feel like Dr. Faustus in Marlowe’s celebrated play about a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for 24 years of unbridled debauchery and license. Twenty-four years is a long, long time, he thinks, a never-ending amount of time. But it does end. All too soon he has just one hour left. As the clock strikes eleven on his last day, he says:

O, Faustus,

Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned perpetually.
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come.
Fair nature's eye, rise, rise again and make
Perpetual day. Or let this hour be but a year,
A month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent, and save his soul.
O lente lente currite noctis equi.
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.

‘O lente, lente currite noctis equi’ – O run slowly, slowly (you) horses of the night. It’s a quotation from the Roman poet Ovid; a command to time to slow down. I certainly feel the force of that. Now there’s no time to squander, no wishing my life away. Time is undoubtedly speeding up. The months and years are flying by, and I’ve become conscious – especially since my illness in 2002 – of finality. My brother was eleven years my senior, and I always thought that, while he was alive, I probably had at least another eleven years left. But he died in 2001, eight years ago, and so in three years I’ll be as old as he was when he died. My mother died at 68, my father at 71. We’re not a long-lived family, and while I don’t anticipate an imminent demise, I have to be realistic. My dad had a heart-attack when he was the age I am now, and he told me that every day thereafter he woke with silent words of thanksgiving for yet another day of life. That’s how I feel now. Every day is indeed precious.
            However, strange as it may seem, I’ve no great desire to be younger. ‘No sane man wishes he were younger,’ someone, probably Dr. Johnson, once said, a sentiment that seems odd when you’re in your twenties and thirties, but when you get into your fifties and sixties you can appreciate the wisdom of it. I sometimes pity the young: the endless boredom of school; the dreadful emotional anxieties of adolescence; the disappointments and heartaches of young manhood; the financial burdens and career insecurities of maturity, are not stages through which I would willingly wish to pass again. One’s perspective changes as one gets older. Tolstoy, in his book What I Believe, written when he was fifty-five, puts it like this:

Five years ago ... ... my life was suddenly changed. I ceased to care for all that I had formerly desired, and began to long for what I had once cared nothing for. What had before seemed good, seemed bad, and what had seemed bad, now seemed good. That happened to me which might happen to a man, who, having left his home on business, should suddenly realise that his business was unnecessary and should go home again. All that was on his right hand now stands to his left; all that was to the left is now to the right. His former wish to be as far from home as possible, has changed into the desire to be near it.

The changes in my perspective have been more gradual than Tolstoy’s were, but they have been no less real. I now realise that much of what occupied my attention in the past has long since ceased to interest me or amuse me. Thirty years ago I would have been fuming with rage at the revelations about British M.Ps’ expenses, but now I can’t get too excited about them. Were I living in England now, I wouldn’t be adding my voice to the clamour for mass resignations. It’s not because I think it acceptable practice to swindle the taxpayer in the way that most of the House of Commons has done, but because experience has taught me that, given the right circumstances, most of us would behave in exactly the same way. Our common sense tells us that when a person has enough, they won’t particularly want more. But life teaches a different lesson: ‘Qui multum habet, plus cupit’, wrote Seneca two thousand years ago, ‘Whoever has much, wants more’.  In youth you don’t think it possible, that’s why you can hold idealistic egalitarian ideas; as you get older you realise that it is a profound truth about our species, a truth which lies at the heart of most of our troubles. Last week, an American author called Bill Elliott came to speak to us at the Lantern Centre about the interviews he has been conducting with famous spiritual teachers about the meaning of life and the meaning of Jesus. On Friday I started to read one of his books and was very impressed by a woman called Mary Morrissey. She used to run the Living Enrichment Centre in Wilsonville, Oregon. Three thousand people attended her services there each week, and her radio programme reached eighty countries. ‘Here’s a spiritually mature woman who knows what she’s talking about,’ I thought. So I Googled her, and what did I find? She and her husband have been swindling the Living Enrichment Centre to the tune of ten million dollars. She’s paying it back, but at the current rate of repayment, it will take her three hundred years to clear the debt. ‘Who has much wants more.’
            Life is stranger to me now; stranger, really, than it has ever been. On that day forty odd years ago, when I was musing on how long I had left, I probably thought that by the time I reached my sixties, I would have found the answers to my religious and philosophical problems. But I find that I’m more perplexed than ever. I haven’t got a clue what’s going on. I don’t know how I got here, what I’m doing here, and where I’m going. All I know is that the answers I’ve been fed by my culture make no sense at all. The answers given by the likes of Richard Dawkins seem almost laughable in the light of my experience, but no more laughable than those offered by conventional religion.
            But, as you get older, you realise you don’t have to take anybody else’s answers. You can stop drinking the waters of madness. You can stop thinking like everyone else just to fit in, just to appear tough minded, just to enhance your career or your reputation. You can go your own way, unimpeded by convention, and it’s a great consolation. Not too many years ago I would have been wary of airing my ideas about astrology to a Unitarian congregation – whose members have long been sipping the bitter waters of 18th century rationalism - or, if I had expressed them, I would have done so in a way that attempted to demonstrate my hard-nosed commitment to scientific investigation. But now, I’ve ceased to care about my reputation, and I care even less about upholding Unitarian orthodoxy. Now, I can really say what I think, without evasions and caveats.
Let me give you an example. I’ve been saying for a few years now that the Guardian newspaper on Saturdays often seems to anticipate the sermon I’ve prepared for Sunday. It’s uncanny when you think that my sermon titles are given to Paul for inclusion in our magazine Oscailt a month in advance – so it’s not that I read the Guardian article and then decide to preach on the same topic, or (even more unlikely) that some joker in Fleet Street is deliberately trying to drive me crazy. No, it’s coincidence, pure and simple. Synchronicity – call it what you will. Those of you who were here last week will remember that I told the children the story of the man who was plagued by dandelions in his lawn and who, after many unsuccessful attempts to get rid of them, was told that the only option left to him was to ‘learn to love them’. I told the story because Paul had put a superb picture of a dandelion scattering its seeds on the front cover of this month’s Oscailt. Imagine my surprise when, last Monday, the day after our service, I open the Guardian to find a picture of a seeding dandelion and a caption which reads, ‘Overrun by dandelions? It’s time to learn to love them’.

Oscailt, June 2009

The Guardian, June 1st 2009
 Now I think this is weird. As the celebrated psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said about a particularly startling coincidence in his own life, ‘I’m not clever enough to explain it, but nor am I stupid enough to deny it’. That’s how I feel. I’m intrigued by this and by countless other experiences of life. I’ve never been more perplexed, never been more content to stop reaching for explanations and just to observe. Now that I’m sixty-four I’m happy to observe. It’s enough, and I hope that I’ve got another ten, twenty or thirty years left, not because I fear death, and not because I want to live in a big house, drive a posh car, eat expensive food or visit exotic places. None of these things interests me. I just want to go on observing. And when I’m on my deathbed I hope I’ll be able to echo the words of the 18th century writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who said as she expired, ‘It’s all been very interesting’.

7th June, 2009


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