Every time I come home for the holidays, or for a special occasion, or just because I need to, mortality and the fragility of life seem to become more and more apparent. In the last year there have been family and friends deaths that have shocked, the bloodiest month of the war in Afghanistan, the sale of our family business, my God Mother turning 70, the culling of analogue TV (joke) and the death of legends such as Michael Jackson and John Dankworth.
I’m lucky to live in the same town as most of my close family, my Granny lives just next door. For as long as I’ve noticed she has been hailed as ‘remarkable’ for her age-still driving, still bright eyed and quick witted, still going on holiday, and still making jewellery at 93. I.e. she is still passing comment on what I wear with a designer’s eye, winking at…everyone, snorting into her whiskey etc.
We also have a pretty cool dog, a beautiful striped greyhound that always seemed to me to be able to run faster than a cheetah. We have had her since she was 2 years old, I was 11 when she joined the family. Now that I’ve reached 20, I can see her legs failing, her laps of the beach getting slower and fewer, and eyes going murky.
Just like the dog, every time I return home, Granny seems to take a step closer to death.
She no longer has ‘interesting conversation’ because all she wants to tell me about is this bruise and this ache and this pill and this life that she no longer wants for herself. Her tenacity to not wear beige like the rest of the retired population of this town has been transferred to threatening me with her walking off the harbour wall and beating the demons that haunt in her in her old age rather than feeding the aspects of her life that warded them off in the first place.
Would frivolity lessen the pain of facing death?
Would a trip to the other side of the world shroud her aches and pains in cultural diversity and distraction?
Would drinking herself to oblivion make her remember better times so as to override and smother the current ones?
Well apparently not.
I have suggested all of these things, and apart from the latter, which she has always done anyway (she doesn’t like water) the cons of her life always win over.
What is the psychology behind this? What are her motivations?
From the outside it is hard to see past how annoying it has become, your sympathy is marred by her selfishness in focusing on it, it should be easy to be frivolous, but if I put myself in her place I cannot think I would be much different. I’m sure, being a do-er, that I would feel like enjoying myself and throwing caution to the wind all the more if I could walk properly, if I could do it all without wincing in pain and having to drag a scarily purple leg around with me to see the sites of the world. To do it anyway requires a lot of money and a lot of organisation to make up for your lack of capacity; thus my efforts day in and day out to reduce that pain, to solve the problem, to replace my teeth, are all the efforts of a compos mentis human who still has pride in themselves, and still has the sense of self to be embarrassed by the slow unravelling of what you know about yourself, with the ultimate knowledge that death is the only outcome.
To desire to put it off, to remedy your ills so that you can enjoy life more, has got to be an indication that the capacity to enjoy life, and to hang onto it, remains within.
Recently I have noticed that countries of the world can suffer from this too. I hate to mention it so close to Granny (the other day she said to me “it’s all very well saving the planet but if you can’t save your Grandmother….”) but in the UNFCCC process, i.e. the UN Climate Change Negotiations, those countries who sit in plenary at the negotiations brazenly telling the world they are going under water or being starved to death by the climatic changes their country is facing betrays the same thinking as Granny.
Obviously every human knows that death is their final destination, and that it’s what comes in between now and death that counts. But, if you see death every day, in the colour of your leg, your teeth falling out, in the tides lapping on your doorstep, or the face of your child who you can’t feed because the crops have failed and it’s your only source of income, it is no longer an issue of deciding how to best use your in-between time, it is survival.
As the youth emphasised in Poznan in 2008, survival is not negotiable.
That fear of death, that reflex for survival is surely what drives the brazen please in plenary to commit to 350 parts per million, and agree on 1.5 degrees maximum temperature rise without compromise-it is not a matter of choice but necessity.
Similarly it is my lack of proximity to death that makes me unable to empathise with my Granny when she just doesn’t shut up (I am sympathetic though), and equally the Saudi Arabians who follow Tuvalu’s pleas for survival with excuses of loss of crops and profits from oil as a reason to commit comes down to a lack of empathy and concern because it is not happening to them. If they were fighting for survival, oil profits would be the least of their worries, but they are not.
Countries with the money to get themselves out of any fixes they come across, are the fully endowed frivolous people, they are the ones who no matter what nature throws at them, they believe they can throw money back at it in equal weight and see a solution without compromising anything of what they do.
The SIDS (Small Island Developing Nations) and African countries are those with immense national pride and culture but who are already seeing the worst effects of nature’s aging and unravelling, thus they are ones who need to reduce the pain, plug the gaps, and get help. They are the 93 year olds in this process, the ones who cannot consider frivolity until they have solved the ills that they already have, a lot of which happen to be caused by a changing climate.
The developed countries, who have the funds, and already feel the impacts of climate change, such as Australia and New Zealand are the 93 year olds who are the same as my Granny, but they have the money to throw at the situation, so that instead of changing their reality, they simply become frivolous to cover it up.
The developed countries who aren’t yet in that position, like the UK and most of Europe, are something like my God Mother who has just reached 70 and is, as of yet, vehemently without aches and ailments that need servicing, so she can be frivolous with her time and focus in any which way pleases her-after all, the pain isn’t imminent, it is merely something we all accept as a future possibility, and one which we could take vitamins for today, but really, are we convinced it will make the difference in the long term?
I draw two lessons from this; firstly that life is precious, in all its forms, in all its pains and in all its beauty. Secondly, it is this inspiration and pride in one’s life and lands that will keep international negotiations and agreements alive in the coming years. As long as we have headstrong countries like Grenada and Tuvalu, Kenya and Bolivia clinging onto survival because they love their country and their life, we have a reason to negotiate.
To apply the question I ask of Granny, would frivolity lessen the pain of facing death?
I would answer no.
Frivolity in the face of death makes everything more acute.
When you know what the frivolity is masking, what it is really trying to achieve, rather than add pleasure to a dying life it creates an excuse for inaction, it is disturbing to witness and sickening to face because you know that death came unhindered and without fear of a challenge.
The day we give up on life and the future, the day we stop campaigning and lobbying our MP’s and Governments to solve the pains and ailments of our earth, is the day we become frivolous with ourselves and our children’s futures, and thanks to globalisation, this is not acceptable on more than a merely personal level because we are not only carving out a future for ourselves but a reality for the SIDS and African countries today.