As I have said before, when I am brave enough I am an atheist, which I find little enough comfort in life asking, as it does, all the big questions of the universe and everything. It’s a system I sometimes find frankly terrifying in the face of death.
So I read physics at a pop level and take comfort in the idea that energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed, and that the particles that make everything were equally created and remain so until the next Big Bang, or whatever.
And, bearing in mind man’s awareness of his own finitude, I think about the meaning that we make for ourselves, through our relations to others and the planet, whilst we shuffle about the coil. I can’t deny it’s a tiring meditation and there aren’t a lot of laughs; not least because there aren’t a lot of people who want to engage at this level to leaven the loaf.
But none of that means it’s not worth doing. However, on a morning like today, when we have lost four men in Gleision Colliery in Wales, men mining coal to meet one of our most basic needs: warmth, it seems merely self-indulgent and pointless.
I am grateful then, this morning, to have ended up reading an online journal entry by someone who clearly is engaged with the bigger questions of existence and ensuing lack thereof; it’s an authentic piece by Robert Ebert, a Pulitzer prize winning film critic who has come close to death during treatment for cancer.
You can read Ebert’s original superb piece here, the page takes a while to load so another here.
I don’t mind saying it’s been a ray of light for me, after all, who could be more qualified to review life and certain death than a film critic?
There’s some text Ebert refers to, attributed to a letter by Vincent Van Gogh, that resonated strongly with me. Van Gogh is one of my favourite artists and that’s a funny sort of thing to write because I by no means appreciate all of Van Gogh’s works… in fact I can’t stand the reproductions of the Sunflowers. But I am always moved by the energy that surges from his canvasses when you stand close to them and, like Ebert writes that his wife sensed his own heartbeat when the medics couldn’t find it during one emergency, so you can still sense Vincent’s in the pen and the brush.
Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why? I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age, would be to go there on foot.
First Law of Thermodynamics: energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed