No More Gold Stars – Chapter 8: Our brief finitude

Photo by Justin W on Unsplash

What a strange couple of weeks it has been in the UK! Whatever our thoughts and feelings about monarchy, it has been hard to ignore the National Period of Mourning. Loud has been the praise for Queen Elizabeth 2nd. Clearly, doing your duty and being consistent for a very long time indeed, brings the gold stars pouring in. I wonder, however, what the Queen herself would think of all that adulation? I’m told that her choice of hymns included ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling,’ the last lines of which read:

Till we cast our crowns before Him

Lost in wonder love and praise.

Charles Wesley

Nice choice for a queen! Was she very publicly telling us that, as far as she was concerned, earthly glory is not the biggest deal?

It’s an appropriate moment, perhaps, to stop and think about what we’re chasing, if we’re searching for gold stars. However splendid the funeral and despite a lead-lined coffin, we know what will happen to the earthly remains of our late Queen. And we also know what will happen to the memories of her life. They will become distorted. Gradually, stories will be created about her reign which will reflect the truth of it, but will not be the truth.

Several years ago I wrote a short biography of Elizabeth 1st for children. I researched it as well as I could but there was so much one simply couldn’t know – and so much that was down to experts’ opinions. When I started the work, I thought Mary 1st was the big burner of heretics and Elizabeth 1st was much more moderate. It turns out that that’s debateable. I remember vividly arguing with Professor Eric Ives, an expert on Tudor History, about this point. In my view, she was hardly moderate seeing as she sanctioned the burning of Unitarians. ‘Of course, she was a moderate!’ the Professor spluttered impatiently. ‘You just don’t understand. That didn’t make her immoderate! Everyone burned Unitarians!’

Moderate or immoderate? Who knows? The point is that the received wisdom, the story that is generally told, is only an approximation to the truth. In my view, Elizabeth 1st was an extraordinary woman and Queen, worthy of many, many gold stars – but at the end of the day, what we are left with is whatever can be pieced together by historians, and even that, despite the writings and the huge body of other evidence that she left, creates only a small window into the person she truly was.

Photo by Asep Saeful Bahri:

Keeping the end in mind

I said I would write about ways to live happily with our neurochemistry without being a slave to it, and perhaps discussing two dead Queens seems a long way from that – but in my view it helps to keep in mind that, ultimately, we will be gone and, if not forgotten, remembered in ways that are not an accurate reflection of ourselves. That great motivational writer, Stephen Covey advises us in ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ to ‘Keep the end in mind’. He would have us imagine what people will say at our funerals in order to keep us on track, to sort out our priorities and motivate us. I have no problem with this – his seven principles are wise and helpful. The danger of derailment is in what we choose as our priorities – collecting gold stars or something more life-enhancing.

In the words of Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, subtle thinker and writer:

‘Our brief finitude is but a beautiful spark in the vast darkness of space. So we should live the fleeting day with passion and, when the night comes, depart from it with grace.’

I was both baffled and sad to hear a report that some people who queued to see the Queen’s coffin, were notifying friends when they arrived so that they could be watched on the live feed and photos taken. Selfies were prohibited so this was a way round the ban. Maybe ‘I was there’ T-shirts should have been sold! What is the selfie phenomenon but a craving for notice? Look at me – I did a thing! When I was a child, it was called ‘showing off’ and was frowned upon. Even children told each other, ‘Don’t show off!’ That wasn’t entirely healthy either – I meet many an adult who is unwilling to admit to their skills and achievements as a result – but we certainly seem to have swung too far in the other direction if paying respects to a dead monarch becomes yet another closet selfie opportunity. It seems to me that, if we are more concerned to record our presence than be entirely in the moment, we are more concerned with notching up an achievement than with ‘living the fleeting day with passion’.

One of the most helpful speakers and writers I have found on this topic (amongst others!) is Eckhart Tolle. His book, ‘The Power of Now’, is a modern classic and rightly so. Personally, however, ‘A New Earth’, the follow-up, more helpful, despite is rather questionable subtitle – ‘Create a better life’. (I wonder if that was Tolle’s choice or his publisher’s?) Tolle writes profoundly about his concept of the ego (subtly different from Freud’s) and the way it enslaves us. I can’t do justice to him if I try to summarise here, but I would like to highlight a few of his comments which seem especially relevant.

Playing Roles

Tolle suggests that the ego plays roles. Why?

‘Because of one unexamined assumption, one fundamental error, one unconscious thought. I am not enough.’

He goes onto say:

‘In form, you are and will always be inferior to some, superior to others. In essence, you are neither inferior nor superior to anyone. True self-esteem and true humility arise out of that realization.’

He also writes:

‘The underlying emotion that governs all the activity of the ego is fear. The fear of being nobody, the fear of non-existence, the fear of death.’

Back to death again. It seems to me that this lies at the heart of the matter. We want to be somebody, we want to prove our existence, we want to defeat death.

But we won’t do it by amassing achievements, however hard we try. Elizabeth 2nd was definitely somebody but she isn’t any more. Her brief finitude is over.

This is our almost insurmountable hurdle: believing we are somebody, whilst knowing that one day, whatever our beliefs about an afterlife, we will be here no more. As Shakespeare would have it in ‘Cymbeline’:

‘Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, turn to dust.’

(If you’d like to hear a particularly dirge-like but very poignant version of ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’, from which this is taken, try Kneehigh Theatre’s version: )

Tolle again:

‘A vital question to ask yourself frequently is: ‘What is my relationship with the present moment?…since Life is inseparable from the Now, what the question really means is: What is my relationship with Life?’

So ask yourself the question! Is your life about proving to whoever happens to notice how amazingly talented you are, how many achievements you’ve notched up and how much better you are than whoever you want to be better than? Or is about something else? And if so, what?

I don’t often associate Nietzsche with guidance for a happy life but this is perhaps an uplifting note to end on:

‘For happiness, how little suffices for happiness!…the least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest thing, a lizard’s rustling, a breath, a wisk, an eye glance – little maketh up the best happiness. Be still.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Meg Harper

    A friend sent this lovely poem as a comment on this post. It’s by Fyodor Tyutchev.

    Be still, hide away and let
    your thoughts and longings rise and set
    in the deep places of your heart.
    Let dreams move silently as stars,
    in wonder more than you can tell.
    Let them fulfil you- and be still.

    What heart can ever speak its mind?
    How can some other understand
    the hidden pole that turns your life?
    A thought, once spoken , is a lie.
    Don’t cloud the water in your well;
    drink from this wellspring- and be still.

    Live in yourself. There is a whole
    deep world of being in your soul,
    burdened with mystery and thought.
    The noise outside will snuff it out.
    Day’s clear light can break the spell.
    Hear your own singing- and be still.

  2. Veronica Zundel

    Moving and pertinent post, but I have one quibble – you have misquoted Shakespeare. It’s ‘Golden lads and girls all must/Like chimney sweepers, *come* to dust’. That way the pun works better!

    1. Meg Harper

      Sorry, Veronica, only just saw this comment. Yes, of course – don’t know how that mistake crept in!

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