Saturday, May 17, 2014

Journal of a Soul 54

Keeping it Real

Ardgillan Park, April, 2014
"Keep it real," is a colloquial phrase that has become very popular in more recent times. The online Urban Dictionary explains it as "being true to oneself and representing oneself in an authentic manner," see here.  Strangely, this explanation all sounds very philosophical, if not existential in its import.  I like to define it as not allowing ourselves the comfort or luxury of escaping into either a dream world or a world of make-believe or quite simply into a world of pure denial.  After all, we all like to take the easy way out, but if we do so continually we become very unreal people, or in the words (actually one word) of the hero or antihero even of Catcher in the Rye, we become "phony."*  That's why I like teaching adolescents, especially Special Needs kids, as they surely do keep me in the real world.

Getting Lost in Abstractions 

Ardgillan Park, April, 2014
I have always found taking flight into abstractions to be one of my weaknesses, in the same league indeed as my love for chocolate.  In my last post I indulged in this a little.  Being of a philosophical and literary frame of mind my imagination can often take flight... and indeed, it is so easy to do so.  After all, which of us does not like indulging himself or herself in either chocolate or philosophy.  However, that's where the import of my opening paragraph comes in. Philosophy, Theology, Mathematics, or whatever subject you wish to mention here becomes quite irrelevant to the man and woman in the street unless it is seasoned well with the spices of reality.  All subjects have to be applied to the very living of life.  Now I am not decrying or vilifying Pure Philosophy, Pure Theology or Pure Maths or any of the pure sciences, I am merely saying that while they all impact upon their applied variety, for the man and woman in the street they are almost wholly irrelevant. (No wonder, all subjects have their applied branch!)

And yet, dear reader, there is a sort of symbiotic relationship between the pure and the applied in all the sciences, both human and natural/physical.  However, life has a way of keeping us all real, and there are no better ways at its disposal than illness, dying and death.  When any or all of these three events hit us we are taught in no uncertain terms "to keep it real!" Let me indulge in a little poetic allusion here by quoting one of my all time favourite poets, T.S. Eliot:

Unreal City,  60
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.  65
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine. (See here)

That's one thing you will find in all T.S. Eliot's poems, namely the reality of death.  For the modernists contemporary culture was moribund, lacking in depth and in meaning.  People were almost the "living dead," existing on a superficial level, especially in the cities where it is so hard to put down roots in the unfeeling and lifeless concrete.  Reading such poems always kept life real for me. 

Again reading autobiographies and biographies has always been another passionate hobby of mine, especially those that sought as far as possible to tell the truth in all its naked honesty.  Two recent memoirs come to mind here, that of Nuala O'Faolain and that of Michael Harding, the latter of which I reviewed here.  

In a now famous and moving interview that the writer Nuala O'Faolain did with one of our leading radio presenters Marion Finucane (12 April, 2008) on her then recent diagnosis of cancer in late 2012 she said:
Even if I gained time through the chemotherapy it isn't time I want.  Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life.... 
For example, I lived somewhere beautiful, but it means nothing to me anymore -- the beauty. For example, twice in my life I have read the whole of Proust. I know it sounds pretentious, but it's not a bit. It's like a huge soap opera. But I tried again the week before last and it was gone, all the magic was gone from it.... 
You see, the cancer is a very ingenious enemy and when you ask somebody how will I actually die? How do you actually die of cancer ?... I don't get an answer because it could be anything. It can move from one organ to the other, it can do this, that or the other. It's already in my liver, for example. So I don't know how it's going to be. And that overshadows everything. And I don't want six months or a year. It's not worth it....  
I actually don't know how we all get away with our unthinkingness. Often, last thing at night I walk the dog down the lane and you look up at the sky illuminated by the moon and behind the moon the Milky Way and, you know, you are nothing on the edge of one planet compared to this universe unimaginably vast up there and unimaginably mysterious.  And I have done that for years, looked up at it and given it a wink and thought 'I don't know what's going on' and I still don't know what's going on, but I can't be consoled by mention of God. I can't.... 
I think look how comfortably I am dying, I have friends and family, I am in this wonderful country, I have money, there is nothing much wrong with me except dying... (See here.  In fact, this whole transcript is worth reading, as is listening to the podcast itself which is even more moving, see here. )
Now, if after reading the above, or perhaps having either read or listened to the interview with Nuala O'Faolain either in part or in full, you are not brought into the real world, then you are totally unfeeling and lacking in even a little empathy.  

The Spire, Dublin's O'Connell St., April, 2014
"Keeping it real" means always living with an awareness of our mortality in the background, even if it is only somewhere in the background.  In other words, I am in no way advocating an obsession with death or dying or even that we become somewhat morbid or pessimistic in our outlook on life.  Most religions see death as not the end of life, but rather as a gateway to another more spiritual realm.  Our above quoted author and journalist, Nuala O'Faolain was an unbeliever, and indeed all humans, believers and unbelievers alike, have a spirituality, a system of beliefs that give their lives meaning.  So, I am in no way decrying any one spirituality or any one belief system at the expense of another.  My thoughts here are about "keeping it real," maintaining a perspective on our mortality that sees illness, dying and death as an inextricable part of the very fabric of life and not an end of that life.  After all, we are creatures of nature ourselves and nature proceeds in a cyclical sense, to such an extent that life goes on despite us.  In a sense our individuality is just one little inconseqential and insignificant dot in an ever expanding universe.  Again such considerations lead me to marvel at the very wonder of existence, at its sheer plenitude and beauty, and at the very wonder of my own mind's drive and passion for knowledge and wisdom, that is a veritable infinite desire to know.  This sheer wonder at the mystery of living endows me with a deep spirituality which makes me fall down in humility before the wonders of the universe.  One of my favourite poets and philosophers, more properly I suppose a philosopher poet, one Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the quintessential philosopher of The English Romantic Movement, once paid a wonderful homage to his father by saying that ever since as a young boy his father had brought him walking out in the countryside to view the night sky his mind had "become habituated to the vast." In Coleridge's sense, he had become a believer in God the Creator of such a vast universe.   And yet Nuala O'Faolain could look at the same vista and remain an unbeliever.  It all depends on one's perspective and one's own feelings in a way. I am inclined to belong to the Coleridgean crew myself! One way or another, whether you are a believer or unbeliever, you have a native or innate spirituality which seeks to make meaning and sense of your own lived experience, of making your own life worthwhile.  


These soul outpourings were inspired by the death of the mother of a friend of mine.  I drove up to the funeral home in Drogheda, some 35 km. away, through the hubbub of speeding traffic and weaving motorways, travelling towards the stillness of death.  There is a lovely tradition in Ireland, which I very much like, and that is reflectively touching the joined hands of the departed.  I noticed several people doing it before me.  That sense of touch brought me back to all the other many times that I touched the hands of the dearly departed: my late grandmother Mary Phoebe Brophy (when I was only 10), those of my father (1993), my mother (2013) and some relatives, friends and even departed pupils over the years.  That feeling is like touching the stone or marble on the altars of my youth.

I would like now to conclude with some quotations on death and dying that are hopeful and inspiring rather than morose or dispiriting:

  • The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. ~ Mark Twain
  • Some people are so afraid to die that they never begin to live. ~ Henry Van Dyke
  • While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die. ~ Leonardo Da Vinci
  • Watching a peaceful death of a human being reminds us of a falling star; one of a million lights in a vast sky that flares up for a brief moment only to disappear into the endless night forever.  ~ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross


* The hero or antihero's name is Holden Caulfield and the novel is, of course, written by  J.D. Salinger as long ago as 1951.  However, that book remains all too contemporary in the very universality of its sentiments and indeed in its attempt to make meaning of our little lives.  Here is just one quotation from Holden on the phoniness of life. “I was surrounded by phonies...They were coming in the goddam window.” 

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