Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Death, disbelief and spiders

I became an atheist almost overnight, about two thirds of the way through an Open University philosophy course, but I'll save that story for another time. What I wanted to write about today is the effect that all the deaths around me had on my thinking.

I live in the countryside - well, the wilderness really; well, it's wilderness compared to what I was used to. We moved to Puddock Acres as townies nearly a decade ago and seemed to spend the first eighteen months watching things die - well, being ignored by the neighbours and watching things die, actually, but that's another rant. In town, unless you are very unlucky, you simply do not see death at all. In the countryside, the cats kill the voles, the dogs worry the sheep, the farmers kill the dogs; every time you walk round the garden you risk tripping over the lifeless corpse of some innocent animal. It is hard to take all that death when you are not used to it. And so you either move back to town or you find some way to come to terms with it.

As I type here at dusk, the huge, muscular spider appears at her usual place at the centre of a web just outside my window. She sleeps during the day, unless something particularly juicy flies into her web, but at about this time every night for weeks, she has taken up her position and waited for anything to disturb the strands of her web. I have watched in admiration as she mends and sometimes completely rebuilds her web; I have watched in horror as she wraps up some prey in silky threads to keep for later (just like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings - yuk!) Every night I see creatures die and be eaten two feet away. Yes, when you live in the country death is everywhere.

Most of my family are dead. I've watched almost everyone close to me decline and die, or just die, and that gives you plenty to think about, too. You wonder what is the point of a successful life if you live a few years past your prime and nobody mourns you. You wonder if it is better to die young and loved. You wonder if it is better to go quickly but not have the chance to make your peace or to have some warning and be able to prepare but then have the discomfort of the decline. I've seen all the variations.

Of course, we don't get to choose. That's what makes life so tantalising - and precious. But, if you can accept that life is totally random; that you have no right to seventy or eighty years, no guarantee; that better people than you died years younger than you are now, you learn to take the knowledge lightly. I think that's part of being an existentialist. Sisyphus, in Albert Camus' mind, could be happy even though he was condemned to an eternity of torment - . Camus called him the ultimate absurd hero, because he took an intolerable situation, laughed at the absurdity of it and thus conquered it. I think that human life itself for the existentialist and the atheist requires a similar attitude: acknowledge that this whole fabulous world can be taken away from you at any moment, laugh at the absurdity of the situation and thus conquer it.

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