NO EXCEPTIONS

Woody Allen is not everybody’s cuppa tea but his well-worn wisecrack about death will long outlive him. No, Mr Allen, God will not make an exception for you. You and I will both croak within a decade, max. (I know – your name is Woody). No one born in the year my father was – 1900 – is alive today. Jeanne Calment broke the record some years ago, but even she cashed in her chips at 122. My Dad died when he was 84 -my present age … I once joked about outliving Mlle Calment, promising on my 64th birthday that I would live another 64. If I make it for another six, I figure that four score and ten, the Bard’s limit, would be exceptional enough. Not sure I would want to live much longer. I just hope I can keep all my marbles till then.

Some dreamers believe that the repeated engineered postponing of death, mistakenly identified with immortality, is just around the corner. Artificial Intelligence is going to change radically the way we live, and may one day even allow us to delay natural death indefinitely. Even then our mortal coil will remain just that, vulnerable to a stray bullet, a lightning bolt or a truck full of vinegar. We will do what we can to avoid the ultimately inevitable and make our final years as comfortable as possible. But we have no illusions about the Grim Reaper in whatever guise he may appear. Many do have illusions about what happens after we die. With luck, a funeral. That’s all, folks, The End, and there ain’t no more.

You know what brightens my day when I think of all this ? Pretty soon, people reading this page may be doing so, not realizing that its author is dead. “Scripta manent, verba volant”. The words you are reading will outlast the bloke who wrote them. That is the only life after death that anyone could hope for. Charles Dickens died years ago and doesn’t have a clue that people are still reading his novels and that total strangers are getting his royalties.

So, my friends and faithful readers, “Carpe diem !”. I hope your life will be as interesting and as satisfying as mine has been. May I say “Au revoir” ? No. “A-Dieu” ? “God be with ye” (“Goodbye”) ? Not only would that would that be wishful thinking but a contradiction of all that I have been saying in this blog from the gitgo. At the end of the day when we stop moving forward, you and I have nothing to hope for, nothing to fear. We won’t even know we’re dead.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

JESUS THE HEALER

Let us, for the moment, set aside the serious arguments of many scholars who are convinced that Jesus never existed. Let us, moreover, accept that the Evangelists – none of whom was a witness of the life of Christ – were sincerely reporting what they had been told about what He is said to have said and done. And then let us lucidly examine the implications of the miracles of healing Jesus is purported to have performed.

The most elaborate account of a healing performed by Jesus is that of Chapter 9 in the Gospel of John. The whole chapter – a literary gem – is devoted to His gift of sight to a man born blind. All the Gospels recount similar miracles, though with less dramatic detail. Luke, the physician, tells of many miraculous healings, beginning with that of the leper (Luke 5 : 12-16) who explicitly asked to be cured and was. Jesus’ “reputation spread more and more, and great crowds gathered to hear Him and be cured of their maladies” (v. 15). This account is followed immediately by the cure of a paralytic, a miracle Jesus performed to convince the Pharisees that He could forgive sin. Jesus said to the Pharisees, scandalized by His blasphemous claim to do what only God can do : “Which is easier : to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say ‘Get up and walk’ ?” Lights, camera, action !

Miracles like these should make us wonder why Jesus cured only individuals lucky enough to have crossed His path. He cured the leper. He could have cured all lepers. He could have eradicated leprosy entirely, the way we did 2000 years later in eliminating smallpox. But He didn’t. Why ? One has to surmise that He believed that His Father had created the world and had introduced suffering, disease and death into His creation as punishment of our First Parents’ Original Sin (as St Augustine was later to call it). Leprosy and other maladies would continue to remind us of God’s “just” punishment, but Jesus would establish His credibility by curing a handful of their victims. He was not about to revoke the unjust decision of a “just” God. Which is why children today continue to die of cancer, why Covid-19 is decimating nursing homes, and why prayers for the sick and the dying with pitifully rare exceptions (which owe nothing to prayer) go unheard.

We have to ask ourselves what a vicious, absurd and literally incredible belief system we have created. It becomes increasingly difficult today for believers to gob the Gospel stories. Jesus comes across as Mister Nice Guy. But the God He claimed to be is in fact a monster, fortunately a figment of primitive imagination.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

B I N O S : BELIEVERS IN NAME ONLY

(We are interrupting here our brief series of OBITER DICTA, and return to the blog’s theme of religious credulity, a.k.a. blindfaithblindfolly. We will, from time to time, include other O.D. posts, marked as such.)

“Republicans in Name Only” – “RINOS” – obviously inspired the title of this post. I have, indeed, begun to wonder whether all those people who say they are Catholic, really believe what their Church teaches. Before Vatican 2, we called some folks “lapsed” Catholics, meaning that though they may still have been (lukewarm) believers, they no longer went to Mass or to Confession. “Nominal” Catholics were practically their equivalent. Today, many “good” Catholics have given up regular attendance at obligatory Sunday Mass. They go to Mass at Christmas and Easter and a few other times during the year, but they clearly no longer believe their “missing Mass” is going to send them to Hell.

How many other doctrines and commandments do they ignore, dismiss and roundly reject ? I suspect that many of them do not believe that Mary was assumed into Heaven , or perhaps even that Jesus rose from the dead before ascending into Heaven. The Resurrection is, of course, THE fundamental doctrine of Christianity. But to them it’s like so many of the other Gospel “miracles”, a story, nothing more. In saying “Amen” at Communion to the priest’s “The Body of Christ”, they no longer mean it literally. The one belief they have not abandoned concerns what happens when they die. They continue to fear the “Last Judgement”, and willingly accept the Last Rites, including the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, after confessing their sins and receiving Holy Communion, “Viaticum”, food for the journey (!). Even on their death-bed they may not be 100% sure about the “afterlife”, but feel safer by hedging their bets in accepting Eternal Life Insurance. They have probably never heard of Pascal’s Wager but, like the French philosopher, figure what have they got to lose ? Of course, they may not have the luxury of having a priest at hand when the time comes. Maybe an Act of Perfect Contrition will do the trick . . . Cross your fingers, mate !

RIDENDA RELIGIO

(O. D. 8) 84 YEARS YOUNG

We all know that you are as old as you feel. I do not feel old. My birth certificate, loss of teeth, shortness of breath, stiffness, lack of agility and my walking stick all remind me that I’m 84. But I do not think or talk or even look like an old fogey. My Dad, in a photo taken when he was 59, looked older then than I do now (he died, by the way, at . . . 84).

I know my future is behind me, but I’m not quite ready for a nursing home. I don’t see myself as a has-been on the way out. I guess I do talk a lot about my past but I live in the present, follow current affairs and keep up to date on geopolitics, the economy, political trends, and even popular predictions about Artificial Intelligence (I have no desire or intention, however, of prolonging my life indefinitely). I write two posts like this every week in my blog. I am in average good health, take my meds regularly (not to say religiously) since my triple bypass fifteen years ago, know I really should exercise (I would like to say “more” …), and am vulnerable to all sorts of illness, especially Covid-19, as well as the accidents people my age are prone to. However – if you allow me the cliché – so far so good.

I don’t pretend to be a young man (I was told long ago to “act my age”). But I don’t expect any special privileges given old folks. I just hope I can keep mentally alert, while I try to live with the inevitable physical inconveniences of senescence.

P.S. Someone who had just discovered that I was in my eighties told me – as many do in blatant flattery – that I did not look my age. So I asked him how old he thought I was (no one had told him that I just turned 84). He said : “89”.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

(O.D. 7) THE TROUBLE WITH CLICHES

They are not only too obvious to bear repeating. They also reveal, in embarrassing fashion, how naïve, if not stupid, people are in imagining that they are saying something pertinent, relevant, and extraordinarily incisive, as though it were new and original. “Better late than never”, “A stitch in time saves nine”, “Don’t get your knickers in a twist”, “Cat got your tongue ?”, “If you play your cards right”, “The grass is always greener on the other side” – all these are worse than padding. They provide zero-added value as a conclusion to previous unremarkable remarks and sound as though the speaker is expecting to be congratulated for his or her banal, borrowed “wisdom”. If you get my drift . . .

One should be particularly careful at funerals not to come out with classics like “Time heals all wounds”. Better to embrace the bereaved and say nothing, if that’s the best you can do. It would be worse, of course, if you managed to come up with a phrase that your facial expression reveals you to be too obviously proud of your talent as a wordsmith. Amateurs and even professionals are particularly pathetic when they think they are being clever in announcing phrases, as does a current clip on CNN, like : “It is not your company that makes you; it is you who make your company”. Inverse structure worked for JFK in his famous “Don’t ask what your country can do for you; ask rather . . .”. Copycats should abstain.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

(O.D. 6) PEOPLE WHOSE COMPANY I PREFER

I have never made a list like this. Nor, I’m sure, have you. I wonder how our lists would compare. (Yours may include people who do not make such lists.)

— People who like being with me.

— People who are interesting because of their opinions, their experiences, the people they have met and the places they have been, or because of their profession and their view of current affairs – and are willing to talk about them, if not eloquently at least coherently and with conviction, without bombast, theatrics or striving for effect.

— People who are interested in what I do, what I think, what I hope for and what I fear, and what projects and plans I may have for the future.

— People who dare to disagree and can tell you why.

— People comfortable with small talk as well as serious discussion.

— People with a sense of humor but who do not try to turn the evening into a festival of their own jokes and shaggy-dog stories.

— People who allow others, especially the more timid, air-time – perhaps by asking them questions . . .

— People who ask questions.

— People who answer questions honestly.

— People who know how to handle controversial subjects (including religion and politics !) without insensitivity or hypocrisy or dialogue-stopping dogmatism.

— People who keep their word and avoid promises they cannot respect or have no intention of respecting.

— People whose company you are pleased to renew and who themselves would welcome further encounters.

I saw none of these people in Trump’s mob in the Capitol on January 6.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

(O.D. 5) FILLERS AND FLUFF

The following is a very incomplete list of some of my pet peeves practised by people in oral discourse. Feel free to share yours with other readers. I am not talking about abominations like awful (even “awesome”) alliteration, but the padding people put into speeches and news reports. They are not only tired clichés but pathetic fillers to give speakers time to think of what they are going to say next. They are totally devoid of sense and serve to drive the rest of us, who have lent them our ears, up the wall.

First of all, there is “at the end of the day”. It used to be “when all is said and done”, equally meaningless. Why do we have to wait for nightfall ?

Second of all is … “second of all”. 99.9% of Americans seem not to understand that the expression is absurd. They clearly do not realize that “first of all” singles out the most important item of the list which is to follow. The second of these items is just that : the second. “Of all” is not at all necessary. No one ever says of the next one : “Third of all”. Google “second of all” for an eloquent confirmation of this peeve.

“We’ll just have to wait and see” is one of Trump’s oft-repeated fillers. Many journalists now use this truism to indicate that that’s all they have to say about the matter and that they are about to launch into another topic.

“Moving forward” – even if we could, is anyone suggesting that we move backwards ?

“We’ll see how this plays out” – a variation on waiting and seeing. In either case, we have no choice.

“When you think about it” – thinking is apparently a rare and unusual occurrence for some people.

“If truth be told” – suggesting that this is also a rare phenomenon.

“If you ask me” – I’m not sure I would bother . . .

“Science tells us” – which science, which scientists, what data ?

“It isn’t rocket-science” – you mean that even I (!) should be able to understand ?

“Off the top of my head” – you mean you’re just guessing and have done no research on the subject.

“As my Dad used to say” – was his name Socrates ?

“God knows” – are you sure ?

RIDENDA RELIGIO

(O.D. 4) CNN ‘S WOMEN ‘S VOICES AND WOLF ‘S LUNGS

For whatever reason, Nature gave women thinner and shorter vocal cords that produce a higher pitch. Radio and TV execs have always preferred women announcers with voices deeper than others. But many white and Asiatic (though not black) American women seem to have deliberately chosen to speak through their nose, making them difficult to understand – or even, on TV – to tolerate.

But there is worse. His voice is not nasal but his elocution is infuriating. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, the veteran who, in his “Situation Room”, loves telling colleagues to “stand by” for more “Breaking News”, has the shortest breath of the world’s TV journalists. A typical report : “The former President said earlier. Today that the election was. Rigged and that votes were stolen in several. States including. Georgia.” Enough already. I switch to the BBC.

We all have to face our daily challenges. Countless people suffer permanent physical pain, loneliness, poverty, hunger, mental torment, threat of eviction, life on the street, incarceration in a prison or an impossible marriage, addiction to booze and/or drugs and – perhaps worst of all – watching their children suffer in all sorts of ways. Some of us, on the other hand, complain about what we have to put up with as we watch TV, listening to unbearable nasal enunciation and broken diction. We forget about people who have no TV to watch, or whose blindness prevents them from ever viewing Netflix or even CNN. Some of us complain about having no shoes until we meet someone who. Has no feet.

RIDENDA RELIGIO

(O.D. 3) EVERYDAY MIRACLES

“What a piece of work is man !” — Hamlet

I am not referring to the supposed “miraculous” events claimed by the world’s religions but to the “natural” miracles we generally take for granted. For instance, I am presently writing this with a pen on paper, without for a moment marvelling at my ability to record my thoughts in a series of written words and phrases, without thinking at all how extraordinary it is that I can write all this effortlessly, not even wondering what letters I should be forging into the prose you are reading (itself a miracle we take as a given, which, literally, it is) – even before I touch-type this text on my keyboard.

We rarely, if ever, reflect on the extraordinary capacities made possible by our five senses. I am particularly impressed by certain exploits like lobbing a basket-ball – just the right angle, the right moment, the right thrust – into a net scarcely larger than the ball itself, and this sometimes from a considerable distance. Baseball, cricket, soccer, rugby, tennis and golf likewise fascinate me. One example : how on earth does a golfer manage even to make contact via his club with the tiny ball on the tee or the fairway, and send it sailing on its intended course so that it lands near or even on the green, more or less close to the hole ? Putting is a fine art in its own right. How does the golfer apply just the right force to the ball on the green, and – in spite of the latter’s slightly warped surface – direct the ball on the one possible successful trajectory ?

But the supreme example has to be the talent of musicians who, with or without deciphering musical notes on a score, strike the right keys at the right moment in the right combination on their piano, to produce the superb music we enjoy. Thoughts like these never occurred to me as I managed to play “Let It Be” on my eight-keyed, antique flute.

I have spent my life unconscious of the extraordinary capacities of the human mind and body. We flew to the Moon, we discovered DNA, we transplant human hearts, we see gifted children successfully rearrange the Rubik’s cube in less than a minute. My sister, an average golfer, once scored a hole-in-one. Hamlet was right, even about women . . .

RIDENDA RELIGIO

(0.D. 2) THE TIME LEFT

“There is an appointed time for everything and a time for every affair under the heavens”. (Ecclesiastes 3 : 1)

I began to write stuff I hoped others would read when I was 19. Some of my grandchildren have begun to write, with the same intention, at even earlier ages. But it would never occur to any of them to write what I am about to share with you. Even their parents, who have recently attained or will soon attain a half-century, are still too young to be tempted to write on the subject of the time they have left to live. There is a time to live and a time to die – and a time to spell out what one hopes for the time left. I am 84, and if I want to do that, I’d better start now before it’s too late.

No one will be surprised if I die before my next birthday. Four score and ten was the Bard’s limit and is very probably mine. Six years left – perhaps – but not sixteen. Most centenarians are physical if not mental wrecks. I don’t want to be either. So however short or long may be my present life-expectancy, I have begun to wonder about what I hope for, as well as what I dread, for the time I have left. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyhow : honesty, here, is the ONLY policy.

Freedom from discomfort, from physical pain and disability, freedom from accidents, physical immobility and mental degeneration, freedom from the loss of financial security, freedom from the suffering caused by that endured by loved ones, freedom – if possible – from dependence and commitment to an institution for decrepit seniors, freedom from loneliness (though I don’t at all mind periods of solitude), freedom from social upheaval, ecological, epidemic and economic disaster, famine and war : I want to rest in peace . . . BEFORE I Die. But when I lose one or more of these freedoms – as I inevitably will – I hope to find the courage to accept their loss and to continue to carpe the diem.

I have no bucket-list. (I’ve never been to Egypt and don’t need or even want to visit the pyramids; TV documentaries suit me fine.) I (no longer) have any urgent projects like publishing a best-seller (!) or becoming (at last !) famous. But I do hope to enjoy the company of my family during the years (months) ahead. I hope especially never to be a burden, or even a bore, to any of them. And I dearly hope that when I die – no need for a euphemistic, softer term – they will accept my mortality and not fear their own – for the time they have left. I have enjoyed my life, conscious of the good fortune I have had, and above all of the love and joy my family has given me.

Meantime I am free to do literally whatever I like. There is so much magnificent music I want to discover and rediscover, so much I can learn from books and articles and even TV (which, along with the radio, keeps me up-to-date on current affairs), so many new movies to discover and so many classics to enjoy again, so much I believe I still have to offer and discuss with readers of my blog, so much pleasure to be had in enjoying the company (real and virtual) of friends near and far, and the exquisite joy of witnessing the maturing of my precious grandchildren. I’ve already been spoiled for eight decades. I consider the time I have left icing on the cake.

P.S. I am writing this in my back-garden in L’Isle-Adam, rocking on the swing my children gave me and where, sometime in the unknown future, I would be happy to doze off for the last time.