The View From the Top of Death Hill

I cannot guarantee much in life but I can absolutely guarantee that the vast majority of people alive at this moment will be dead before the next century arrives.

Including me.

We all think we understand this but do we? Or do we just put it out of our heads as if it isn’t likely to happen at all?

Ignoring death – for whatever reason – is a mistake –  because knowing – really knowing – that we will most definitely die – gives us perspective on living.

It’s as if death is a vantage point from which we can get the best view of our lives.

None of us know the day or the hour, the how or the why or the way of our death.

But we do know it is inevitable.

So maybe we should take off our blinkers and look around from the top of Death Hill and, seeing the vista of our lives, choose our paths?

This is what I have been thinking about lately.  Life.  Death.  Suffering.  But it’s hard to think about these things in a truly comprehensive way because they are so big.  I’ve always found that a useful thought experiment with the huge and indefinable is to imagine it smaller and easier to see.

So I made a list – not a very exciting list – a pretty boring Five Years and I’m a Memory list, in fact.  But while the items on the list were pretty unspectacular, the fact that the obstacle to every single thing on my list is the same, jumped off the page and mugged me a bit.

It sounds too simplistic to be true – but it is true.

It seems like a coincidence that it reminds me of Brené Brown’s TED talk on shame that I watched – and wrote about – last week – but it does.

According to my list, the single obstacle in the path of my life is what she describes as shame.  The big, fat, blood-sucking parasite of shame, tinged with fear and humiliation.  It turns out that I may well be waiting to be perfect and bullet-proof before acting in many ways. And that I am caught – like a demented insect – in the ‘I’m not good enough’/’Who do you think you are?’ bind.

Which is a bit of a shocker for me as if there’s one thing I would have thought I’d learned, that was to try.   I know that the lack of money or time or expertise or opportunity may influence my chances of success but none of those things can stop me from trying.

If you don’t make it you can’t sell it.

If you don’t try to fix it, it’ll stay broken.

If you don’t try to invent it, it’ll remain uninvented.

If you try, you may or may not succeed but if you don’t even attempt what you want to do/create/fix/dream then success is absolutely impossible.  And that’s a guarantee.  Like death.

Turns out I wasn’t applying that philosophy to everything in my life, which leaves me with lots to think about as I sit here atop Death Hill and survey the terrain.

If you’d like to think about death – and therefore really think about life – you might find this talk interesting –

Butterfly Effects…

In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same. (1)

We tell ourselves that only the big stuff matters.  That isn’t the case.  If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then a society is only as truthful and just as it’s tiniest act of truth and justice.

Stands to reason, don’t you think?

The light of men is Justice. Quench it not with the contrary winds of oppression and tyranny. The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men. (2)


Photograph – UNICEF – Photo of the week, 19 September 2011
Pakistan, 2011: A man and his daughter cross an expanse of flood water in Digri, Sindh Province. More than 5 million people have been affected by monsoon rains and flooding. The crisis comes one year after the country’s 2010 monsoon-related disaster, flooding that affected 18 million people and covered much of the country in water. UNICEF is working with the Government and other United Nations agencies and partners to supply safe drinking water, medicines, vaccines and other critical relief.

(1) Albert Einstein

(2)Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 67

Search For Truth

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

In Plato‘s Republic, he asks us to imagine a Cave in which prisoners live from birth. These prisoners are chained in such a way that they can’t move their heads or bodies, therefore they all face the same direction. Behind them is a screen and behind that is a fire.

The prison guards move about behind the screen and the fire casts their shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners.  This is their reality.

Plato then asks us to imagine what would happen if one of these prisoners was released. This man would first find it difficult to look at the fire in the Cave behind him. But this difficulty would be nothing compared to what would happen if he was dragged above the ground, where he would be completely blinded by the natural light.

But gradually, the released prisoner would be able to look at shadows, then reflections, then objects themselves.  After that he’d be able to bear looking at the sky at night and finally – once he’d developed an ability to see – he’d be able to look at the day-time sky and the sun itself.

This famous Simile can be interpreted in many ways but one of the most useful is to see it as a description of the search for truth.

It’s a hard job this quest. It definitely requires us to move and often to be uncomfortable.  It’s easier to stay where we are and not bother looking for the reality of things. Plato refutes the idea that real knowledge can be planted in a human mind and instead suggests that it can only be acquired by making the effort to acquire it for yourself.  Because, according to Plato,

…the capacity for knowledge is innate in each man’s mind.(1)

But also – according to Plato – getting access to this knowledge within us requires a voluntary turn towards truth.

In other words – come on out of the Cave – it’s sunny outside and who knows what wonders you’ll see if you make the effort to search for truth yourself?


(1) The Republic, Plato (To read The Simile of the Cave itself, click on More About…)

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Why We All Need Science and Religion to Work Together (even if we think we don’t)

Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source. Albert Einstein (1)

Everyone would agree that we are material beings but we also know that much of our experience of life is not material.  We love, hate, imagine, dream, think, guess, wish, hypothesize – and there is no one way to explain it all. Along with our material reality we have another reality – a transcendent reality. Which is why we need as many paths to knowledge as we can get.

Because, as Albert Einstein also famously said –

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. (2)


Photograph – A glowing emerald nebula seen by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

(1) This article appears in Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions, pp.41 – 49. It is taken from an address at Princeton Theological Seminary, May 19, 1939. It was published in Out of My Later Years, New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

(2) Albert Einstein“Science, Philosophy and Religion: a Symposium”, 1941

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