I, like many people was very disturbed to learn of the recent and sudden death of the basketball icon Kobe Bryant and his 13 year old daughter, as well as several other people, in a helicopter crash on Sunday. With this, and the commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz currently taking place, it really is difficult to say to one’s self that we live in a beautiful world. Certainly not an exclusively beautiful one.
Yes, the world is a beautiful place, but it is also cruel and incompassionate, and I believe we must always keep this at the forefront of our minds, if we are to make the most of the short lives that we lead on this planet. As ancient scripture says ‘there is a time to laugh and there is a time to cry’. We cannot go through life with rose-tinted positivity every hour of every day.
In between the tragedies that take place, we tend to forget about the fragility of life. We struggle to achieve things that ultimately have no meaning or value, such as success, attention, excessive money and so on. There are many motivational speakers earning a lot of money by telling people how to achieve the good life, and yet I would bet that at least half the world’s population would sleep better tonight, if someone could knowingly tell them ‘it’s going to be ok’.
Lives are tragically cut short in the public eye and in our personal lives, and sometimes this leads to question what is life all about. What is worth living for, when ultimately, we are all going to die? We aren’t getting out of this life alive, and though those of us of more religious and spiritual leanings can take solace in the hope of a better world to come, it is not always a comfort to know that this life, no matter what we achieve or believe, can end suddenly and unexpectedly.
The simple question I pose in this blog post, is what books are there that help us cope with the fragility and uncertainty of life?
There is a passage from a book that I read 20 years ago, that has always stuck with me. It may not be a classic as we know them, although it might be considered a spy classic in the years to come. It is from the novel ‘Live and Let Die’ by Ian Fleming, the creator and writer of the original James Bond novels. Whilst the excerpt below is not the complete passage, it hits home the essence of it.
The context is this: James Bond is travelling on a plane to Jamaica, when suddenly the plane encounters violent turbulence, and he thinks the plane is going to crash. He begins thinking to himself about the fragility of life and perhaps the impending ignominious end:
You are linked to the ground mechanic’s careless fingers in Nassau just as you are linked to the weak head of the little man in the family saloon who mistakes the red light for the green and meets you head-on, for the first and last time, as you are motoring quietly home from some private sin. There’s nothing to do about it. You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death. So take it easy. Light a cigarette and be grateful you are still alive as you suck the smoke deep into your lungs. Your stars have already let you come quite a long way since you left your mother’s womb and whimpered at the cold air of the world. Perhaps they’ll even let you go to Jamaica tonight.
I don’t think about this every hour of every day, but it reminds me every so often of how lucky we are to come as far in life as we already have. The world in general has been good to us and if we are lucky still, it will let us see a lot more. I should thank the stars.
There are many books that help us get through life. I’m sure I have not nearly read them all, but I am grateful to have read a few books the give me comfort in this world. In a strange way, it is actually the books that tell how tough life really can be, that I find the greatest comfort in.
In keeping with the Auschwitz commemorations mentioned earlier, one of the books that undoubtedly had a powerful influence on me was Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. Frankl was a prisoner at Auschwitz during the latter years of the war and is one of the fortunate ones (not an accurate description I know) who survived the ordeal.
The book is not only one of the most heart wrenching accounts of the holocaust, but is also perhaps the greatest worldly wisdom you will ever read, based on Frankl’s work as a psychologist after the war. He puts his experiences in Auschwitz into the context of living in the free world during times of peace, and how we will all struggle, prisoner or not, if we lead lives of no purpose or meaning. It is in finding this meaning, that the world stops to become such an awful place.
Another book that gives me a lot of strength is ‘The Imitation of Christ’ by Thomas A Kempis. Written in the fifteenth century, this of course has a religious leaning to it, but it’s worldly advice is timeless and I believe can be applied to all walks of people. For instance in Chapter 11, he writes:
We could enjoy much peace if we were not bothered by what other people say and do, for they are no concern of ours. We cannot remain at peace if we meddle in other people’s affairs or if we find the opportunity to rush about and make little or no attempt at recollection. Blessed are the pure in heart for they will enjoy much peace.
If that doesn’t limit your time on social media, nothing will. And on the theme of the fragility of life, Kempis writes in Chapter 23:
Very shortly, the end of your life will be imminent, so reflect on the state of your soul. We are here today and gone tomorrow, and when we are out of sight, we are out of mind…..Tomorrow is uncertain, so how can you be sure of it? If we have put so little right, what use is a long life?
There are many books I have read that make life worth living, but there are much fewer that provide you with strength and comfort, when the fragility and uncertainty of life is staring right at you. For some (like me) there is great strength within religious devotional books such as The Bible, and some people may have a particular novel that helps them cope with life’s uncertainties.
I am very interested to know what books have given you the ability to cope with life? No Spoilers of course if it is a novel that gives you the strength to cope, but I would love to hear why the book makes you feel the way it does (without discussing the ending!). As I said, there are many books that give people comfort that I am sure I have not read, so please share which books these are for you.
I’m sure my next blog post will be of a lighter tone, but this is one of those moments that makes me think about how fleeting and precious life really is. ‘Here today, gone tomorrow’ as Thomas A Kempis wrote. It would be nice to find some written words that help us get through this brief time we have on this planet, and if there is something to give me strength and the ability to cope during these hard realities, then I can accept the world as it is, and hope my stars will take me to many more places in the years to come.