On Saturday, Chris and I were taking a stroll through the fields that surround our cottage here in the Scottish Borders. The sun shone down as Mr Kip rushed ahead hoping to flush a pheasant from the margins, his progress marked by skylarks rushing through a panicked repertoire of arias.
Peacock and Orange-tip butterflies hitched still-damp wings over garlic mustard levitating in field ditches, and all around us hedgerows and trees bustled with blackbirds, blue-tits, yellow hammers, chaffinches and sparrows. Bees bumped their shins against dandelions and small-things-unseen darted through tangles of meadow grass and nettles.
Aah, the electric pulse of spring. An expansive abundance coming into being; an unstoppable up-swell of energy – every creature, every plant, plugged into the grid. So obviously, swinging our linked hands chummily, our conversation took a natural turn:
Me: What d'you think would be the worst way to die? I'm not talking illness or disease – because hands down that has to be ebola. I mean, I'm not taking anything away from Covid-19 – hats off, damn good effort at awfulness – but I feel in the eyes of the public, Covid warrants a BBC documentary presented by Dr Michael Mosley in a pair of cords. Ebola, on the other hand, would star Emilia Clarke, Mother of Dragons, playing the only woman scientist in a lab full of testosterone that dismisses her brilliant and instinctive understanding of the graveness of the situation as PMT and single motherhood.
Chris: (Pause) Are you telling me you rank disease in order of Hollywood bankability?
Me: Not me, no. The public. Do keep up.
Chris: And anyway, heart disease and diabetes kill more people globally.
Me: Yes, but can you see box-office gold being spun out of Bradley Cooper choosing salad over pasta? I don– the public doesn't think so.
Chris: (Sighing) Okay. Burning. Being burnt alive. That's gotta sting.
Me: Yes! Very good! [I know from long experience that it's important to praise Chris's contributions to this type of just-thinking-aloud otherwise he panics and defaults back to something he heard Cerys Matthews say on 6 Music.] Although as far as I understand it, once the nerves have gone it's plain-sailing, pain-wise.
Chris: (Sighing again) Go on then.
Chris: You've clearly given this a lot of thought.
Me: (Firmly) Being run over by a steamroller. Feet first.
A brief exchange followed over whether COD would be shock or lack of bodily integrity, but I could see Chris's heart wasn't in it. Like many, Chris is Not Comfortable With Death and this type of conversation makes him uneasy. If there is an afterlife, he won't enjoy it unless there's doleful music, Scandi noir and craft IPA. And if there isn't an afterlife ... Well, that fills him with a cold, dread terror darker than an Eastenders omnibus.
Chris is not alone. Most of us, if we're honest, are horrified at the idea of nothingness, of no longer being us.The Covid crisis has wheeled our unhealthy death prejudice – deathism (TM) – into the spotlight. The fury towards politicians, Chinese, hoarders, shoppers not wiping down their trolleys, Amazon failing to deliver on time, too long fringes, Richard Branson, closed pubs, empty window boxes, social distancing ... Actually that anger is directed at death, in turn a cipher for fear.
Past generations knew too well that they were only one bad sprout from kicking the bucket. For them, life and death were playmates on the great Cosmic See-Saw of Uncertainty. In the absence of antibiotics and shunts, religion offered comfort and acceptance. Over time, though, we deified intellect and materialism, excommunicated belief. We undertook an existential cost analysis that proposed it would be more productive to think our way out of death, inoculate ourselves against it with technology, advances in medicine, building economies and glass cities. So we bolster our tiny sense of self – adrift now from any anchor – with houses, cars, holidays, designer gear and hot tubs. These days, it's easy to overlook that we are a bag of pink mush held together by twigs encased in a waterproof tarp. We forget that we are terribly, heartbreakingly, fragile.
Think of Covid-19 as a helpful aide-memoire. That friend in the pub who nudges you in the ribs, waving an empty glass with a cheery "Your round".
For many of us, our cultural spirituality is so thoroughly dismantled that you'd be hard-pushed to cobble together a raised bed from the remains. A big HUZZAH! then for the First Law of Thermodynamics, the most massive existential comfort blanket ever – Escape to the Country aside – for the secular thinker. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. FACT. Honestly, I really do feel that this should be enough to take the worry out of death.
Hard science says we will live for ever, but wait – it gets better, because death is the perfect opportunity for a do-over. You could come back as part of a raindrop or rose or a whisker on a kitten, maybe a photon bouncing off a retina, the smell of cut grass or freshly dug earth or a thunderstorm. You literally could be transformed into absolutely anything, no longer bound by academic attainment, lack of work experience, flat feet and a 2005 slightly racist post on Myspace. The world would be your oyster! You could BE an oyster!
And, for all the Christophers out there, if you came back as human of course you'd be a different you. But isn't that IMPOSSIBLY exciting? After all, you've already done you you, why do it again? It'd be like finishing a murder mystery and immediately re-reading it knowing it was belladonna by the estranged son of the gamekeeper. Would you really want to come back with the same dodgy shoulder, tendency to self-sabotage and moan about the cost of things? Wouldn't you like to experience James Blunt with a fresh mindset?
When we understand that everything is impermanent life perversely becomes less of a struggle because we're no longer trying to maintain our illusion of it. When we stop misidentifying ourselves as the stuff we have, the job we do, when we kick out the – quite frankly, shonky – props supporting our ego and accept that life is a terminal illness, we find ourselves operating out of empathy, kindness and compassion. Our true nature comes into focus.
It's an idea worth persevering with, if only so we don't feel quite so cross should we fall under a steamroller. Feet first.