2014: My Life

Just realised I forgot to post my regular chart of the year!  As regular readers will know, I give every day of the year a specific grade, then take each month’s average to chart the ebb and flow of my life across the year.  This is the chart 2014 made:

2014 chart

It’s pretty much as I expected.  My Dad’s death in mid January explains the downward curve at the beginning, with February being the first month in negative figures since 2011, while May as ever proved unenjoyable for students everywhere.  The latter half of the year was fairly steady though noticeably a bit below where previous years have been.

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How to Help Someone Experiencing Grief

About two and a half months ago I learned that my Dad had died.  The death of a parent, being an occurrence in most peoples’ lives, is the sort of thing you occasionally wonder how you would deal with but never really give serious consideration (not least because that would be unbearably morbid) and certainly isn’t something you can prepare for.  In this instance my Dad’s death was not completely surprising, if still out-of-the-blue, which may have numbed my reaction to it, as well as the fact that I hadn’t had regular face-to-face contact with him for several years – although we’d stayed very much in touch.  Therefore my experience of grief may not be as sharp or overwhelming as that experienced by others who’ve lost a parent, but nevertheless I think I’m in a position to give some advice on the best ways to help someone that is experiencing it.

Because grief isn’t something anyone really knows how to respond to unless you have extensive experience of it.  Our society has quite a strong taboo on the subject of death, I suppose because mortality is scary, and I certainly wouldn’t have known how to respond if one of my friend’s parents had died.  Maybe this is just me but I always felt very awkward whenever someone’s bereavement came up in conversation since I knew I had no way of empathising with their loss.  Then when my Dad did die I suddenly felt as though I could relate to everyone else I know of who’ve experienced similar losses, which I think is an overly simplistic way of looking at it; everyone experiences grief differently.  If you can’t necessarily relate to someone’s individual grief even when you yourself have experienced a loss, no wonder it’s challenging when you haven’t.

That said, the support I received from friends, other family members and university tutors was absolutely incredible, showing me just how many wonderful people I have in my life.  Without their support I’m really not sure how I’d have got through it.  By writing this post I don’t mean at all to suggest the support I received was in any way deficient; my purpose is more to relay the things I’d have liked to know about grief before I experienced it myself (…if that makes sense!).  So, drawing entirely from my own experiences and in the full knowledge that this may not apply to everyone, here are some ways I would suggest you can help someone experiencing grief:

Be there for them.
An obvious one.  I was astonished at how so many of my friends, many of whom I hadn’t even known for very long at all, rallied round to offer me their company, condolences and support.  My initial reaction upon hearing the news was a fear of being on my own – for whatever reason – and, through the kindness of my friends, I didn’t have to spend any time on my own for the next 24 hours, by which time it had begun to sink in.  I often felt incredibly lonely during the weeks which followed but there was always someone willing to meet up for a chat.  There’s no way you can fill the gap the bereaved person has left in your life, but I found surrounding myself with people did ease the overwhelming nature of that gap.  On the other hand, there will also be times when the bereaved person needs time alone, which most people also recognised.  I think the best strategy, is to tell the person that you’re available if they ever need someone to talk to – and make clear you really don’t mind, as our society also seems to discourage asking people for things.  This lets them decide how much company they need without feeling they have no space to grieve privately.

Don’t be afraid to talk about the bereavement.
This could be entirely subjective, but after my Dad died all I wanted to do was talk about him.  I wanted to remember the things I liked about him, bring back long-buried memories… I suppose I wanted to resurrect him in my mind.  I think the initial reaction most people have – it’s certainly how I’ve always reacted – is seeking to avoid the topic for fear of saying the wrong thing.  Again, this could just be me, but in my experience I think it’s very difficult to say the wrong thing.  You don’t even really need to say anything, just listen.  They’ll talk about as much as they feel comfortable discussing.  I think talking is also a way of simply getting your head around this massive event.

Keep in mind grief doesn’t follow a pattern.
I think there’s an assumption that grief is a process which hits extremely hard shortly after the bereavement, perhaps after a brief period of numbness, but gradually improves over time.  This isn’t wrong, but in my experience it definitely hasn’t been that straightforward.  If you were to make a graph of grief, rather than look like this:

grief graph 1

For me, it looked more like this:

grief graph 2

The massive spike in the middle of the second graph is admittedly artificial – my Dad’s cremation – while the relatively subdued nature of the beginning was due to my attempt to block it out while remaining in Edinburgh before returning home, but the point I’m trying to make is that my experience of grief varied extremely rapidly.  Sometimes I’d be fine when I had no right to be fine, such as during the 24 hours after hearing the news, while weeks later I would break down with no apparent trigger.  It’s definitely improving over time as I’m coming to terms with it, but there are still moments when it feels overwhelming.  So what I’m basically saying is that don’t assume the bereaved person is doing better just because time has passed.  I think in most cases the grief actually has to get a lot worse before it gets better.  So when you’re being there for the person, I’d say make sure they know you’re still there if they need to talk or any other support weeks later – though at the same time without smothering them (grief is complicated and weird)…

Try to follow their needs.
Since none of us can read minds I’m aware this is virtually impossible, but what I mean is that the bereaved person may switch between wanting to do something fun as a distraction and then feeling upset and needing company within a matter of minutes.  This is a natural part of how all over the place emotions can be during grief.  I’d say just try to go with what they seem to need at any particular moment.

Remember grief is confusing.
I think the most noticeable reaction to my Dad’s death was the way it messed with my cognitive abilities.  My short-term memory completely broke down – it felt like I just couldn’t keep remember anything –  while my sleeping patterns became slightly erratic.  I wasn’t acting in entirely normal ways; for instance, one day I made a sudden decision to board a train to the countryside somewhere in Fife, with no pre-prepared plans, which anyone who knows me can testify is not the sort of spontaneous action I generally take.  I just felt an irrational need to get out of the city to somewhere peaceful.  I also found it difficult to communicate things to people in the way I always tended, and occasionally felt quite incoherent in my thoughts.  So just bear this in mind also when someone’s been bereaved.

As I said, grief is a different process for each individual person, but hopefully these are some comments which can at least give you a vague idea of how to help someone experiencing it.

Death on Mars

As far as we are aware, no organism has ever lived or died on our red neighbour, Mars.  Perhaps evidence will one day emerge of fossilised bacteria hidden within Martian rock.  There is indisputable proof that water once flowed freely on the surface after all, which is one prerequisite for life as we currently understand it.  Some scientists have even suggested life could exist today in underground, water-filled caverns, though I’m not sure how likely this is.  Whatever the truth, nobody has doubted that Mars’ oxygen-less, atmosphere-limited, distant surface would be an easy place to live, but this hasn’t deterred humanity’s persistent dream of one day walking on the red planet.

The Curiosity Rover’s latest discovery, on the other hand, might do just that.  Apparently the level of radiation potential astronauts would endure in both traveling and settling on Mars are far beyond what is considered safe for a human to experience.  Here are some figures, taken from the BBC (measure in millisievert, the unit of equivalent radiation dose):

  •  Annual average: 2.7mSv
  • Whole body CT Scan: 10mSv
  • 6 months on the International Space Station: 100mSv
  • Traveling to and from Mars (excluding time spent on planet): 660mSv

For the average human in a developed country exposed to 2.7mSv a year (so perhaps just over 200mSv in a lifetime), the chances of developing a cancer are around 1 in 4.  If I understand this correctly, this makes the chances of developing a cancer after traveling to Mars far greater than ought to be acceptable.

This, understandably, poses huge problems for the future of space exploration.  It’s incredible that such a haven for life could ever develop on the Earth considering how many dangers exist to us outside of the planet.  While I think some scientists are still optimistic, I find these figures very depressing.  They serve to remind me that the Earth is not a cradle, but a prison.  We are trapped here for each of our tiny lives until the prison walls break down and then even here won’t be inhabitable – once the solar flares beam down, or the surface becomes irradiated by ultra-violet light, or a stray piece of rock slams into us, or…

Mars is a world of death and Earth a world of life.  But Earth is defying the norm of the Universe – how long before it joins Mars?  It’s as if the Universe were designed with the strict intention of making life impossible.

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Margaret Thatcher Dies at 87 (reaction)

I’ve just recently been alerted to the news that Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK from 1979 – 1990, has died.

Now, from what I have heard and read about her time in power, I believe her to have left a truly terrible legacy for Britain, in terms of what she did to the country’s industry and the damage its very social fabric, as well as her dubious international record (the sinking of the Belgrano and her support of Apartheid spring to mind).  Others – many others – will disagree, and likewise, I’m sure, a lot of people will agree.  Thatcher, even now, proves to be a controversial figure.

However, I don’t see myself either mourning or celebrating her death.  Despite my opinions on her political record, I think it would be utterly wrong to celebrate the death of another human being.  While now might be the time to have a political debate on the legacy she has left, I personally feel inclined to look back how exceptional a Prime Minister she was – for better or for worse.  Firstly, she was the UK’s first – and, to date, only – female Prime Minister.  Her 11 years in power have been the longest uninterrupted premiership since Robert Jenkinson left office in 1827.  Even considering Prime Ministers who were in power more than once, she is still has the 7th longest time in office of every Prime Minister in British history, as well as the longest tenure in the 20th century.

The Iron Lady may be gone, but she has earned herself a very secure place in the history of our country.

Hugo Chavez Dies of Cancer

I’ve just come off the stage after a relatively successful but terrifying performance to be greeted with the huge news that Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, has died.  At the age of 58, Venezuela’s very controversial leader (first elected in 1999) has been announced to have succumbed to the cancer he has been battling for many years.  He has seen strikes, coups, referendums to be removed, yet his socialist ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ has seemed to surmount the insurmountable, and with it vastly dividing opinion.

I don’t know how I react to this.  On one hand, his socialist policy really do seem to have helped reduce poverty in Venezuela.  I have no figures to hand (just rushing this) but I do remember reading impressive statistics.  He’s acted as an antithesis to US imperialism across the world, providing a necessary balance to worldwide opinion.  However, this has come at the downside of cozying up to dictators like Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad and Castro.  His human rights record is shady at best – I don’t think this article by Human Rights Watch would be his preferred obituary – and Venezuela currently lies at the bottom end of ‘Partly Free’ in Freedom House’s 2013 report (the same grade as Egypt, for comparison).

The loss of a beloved leader for the people, or the passing of a power-crazed dictator in the making?  I’ve long been unsure myself over how to classify Chavez; it seems now I won’t have to.  Whatever his legacy, there is no doubt that he has profoundly shaped the course of Venezuela’s history.

The Amber Spyglass: A Religion For Me

(Contains spoilers)

The His Dark Materials books by Philip Pullman are an incredible trilogy.  I first read them at the age of 13, and they were the catalyst for my final abandonment of my religious beliefs (which I shall discuss in a future blog post).  I’ve recently re-read the trilogy; my third reading of the books.  This post will largely focus on The Amber Spyglass and the alternative approach to religion which it presents.

The Amber Spyglass can be seen as an utter rejection of Christian values and beliefs.  This is obvious by the point Lord Asriel has founded the Republic of Heaven and is waging war against God, but should be obvious even before then by scathing comments towards the church and its hold over power.  However it is in subtle allegories that I feel Pullman creates parallels with religion most effectively, which sets him up to reject it and create a new set of beliefs which I would actually like to believe in if they weren’t fictional.

These allegories focus around the world of the Mulefa, which is never named but I believe may symbolise Eden.  This may seem a strange comparison considering the imperfections which exist (chiefly the Tualapi) and that, as Pullman explains, this world came to be out of evolution and natural processes, but that’s not the point.  A central theme which develops throughout the book is the need to build a metaphorical ‘Republic of Heaven’ in people’s own worlds, where they are, by living full lives and building stories and living in harmony with one another.  The world of the Mulefa is an example of this put into practice.  They are in harmony with nature, using the seed pods to elevate themselves to a position of dominance, given to them by their ability to travel over the lava-roads and, most importantly, through the seed oil which gives them consciousness.  In return their use of the seed pods crack them open and allow the seeds to germinate.  They live a rustic lifestyle, taking from the earth what they need and in turn giving to the earth what it needs.

The Mulefa are unique also in their harmony with one another.  Two Mulefa are never seen to argue, and everything they do is done in cooperation – such as tying nets which requires two to work concurrently on the same net and in gathering food.  There are very little politics in Mulefa society; councils exist and some Mulefa appear to have elevated positions, but every member of the society has a voice and will be listened to.

The Mulefa have their own creation story.  They believe the first Mulefa – a female, in contrast to Genesis’ Adam – discovered a seed pod and a serpent told her to put her foot through it to achieve knowledge.  This is very similar to the tale of Adam and Eve in Christianity, but where humanity see this as ‘The Fall’ and long to return to the bliss of ignorance, the Mulefa celebrate this event.  Christian doctrine goes that as a result of The Fall humanity became alienated both from God and from nature, yet the Mulefa have somehow kept the union unbroken – perhaps due to their different interpretation.  This adds to the idea that the Mulefa world is, allegorically, Eden.

It is somehow fitting then that, when Lyra and Will create an exit for the prisoners of the World of the Dead, the world their atoms are scattered into is Eden.  There is no Heaven nor eternal paradise, but in becoming one with nature conscious life can reach a form of contented harmony.  To reach this state one does not need to sacrifice their lives and freedom for a Deity – this would in fact keep them trapped forever in the World of the Dead.  People need to lives worth talking about, create stories, and strive for fulfilment.  These are healthy morals, in my view.

Another theme of the entire trilogy is opposition to authority.  The head angel is never referred to as God, but as ‘The Authority’, which shows the nature of his rule.  The fact that The Authority is a wizened, weak angel needing to be kept in a crystal case for safety, whose existence is scattered by the force of the wind, sums up the futility of his role.  All throughout the novel characters are encouraged to question authority, though this most often equates to challenging the church.  While this is most definitely a theme I would agree with, it does not seem to extend to other authorities.  When the angel Xaphania tells Will and Lyra that every window between worlds must be closed to stop Dust leaving the world, and the Subtle Knife destroyed, they blindly accept it.  They have reason to, until Xaphania tells them one window could be kept open, which would be used to allow the dead to continue flowing into ‘Eden’.  If one window can be afforded to be kept open, surely a second window would not be the end of Dust either?  Surely Lyra and Will are owed the opportunity to be together after everything they have done for the rebellion?  I love this book dearly, but this is a major flaw.  In accepting Xaphania’s words, Lyra and Will are rejecting Pullman’s message that all authority should be questioned.  Clearly, only ‘bad’ authority can be corrupt.

This brings me onto the role of Dust.  Dust is an elementary particle which has a symbiotic relationship with consciousness; one cannot exist without the other.  The Magisterium fears and hates Dust, believing that it is the cause of all sin.  It is my belief that Dust is meant to symbolise sin itself.  Christian belief states that as a result of The Fall, sin entered the world.  How this happened is not explained, but it is a very similar image to the Dust Mary Malone, Lord Asriel and others see flowing out of the world, out of the universe, into the Abyss.  But once again Christian belief is subverted.  Where Christians, like the Magisterium, fear and hate sin, the message of The Amber Spyglass is that Dust ought to be celebrated.  Dust brings conscious life to the Mulefa, due to keeping the seed-pod trees alive.  It does the same for humanity, and all life which is self aware.  Once more I agree with Pullman’s message that anything which brings greater knowledge to humanity, be it Dust, the Tree of Knowledge or science, is worth celebrating.

In Christian doctrine God is split into three parts of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit.  In the universe Pullman has created, life is also split into three parts: the body, the dæmon (soul) and the ghost.  Upon death the body and the soul, which are considered the most important aspects, dissipate and become one with the world, but The Authority keeps the ghost prisoner in the World of the Dead.  This is contrary to the Christian idea of life after death as being ‘salvation’.  Pullman takes the view that an eternal life, whether in bliss, suffering or neither, would not be desirable.  It is only through Lyra and Will’s actions that the ghosts are freed from this living death.

One final point I have on trilogy’s attitude towards Christianity is the lack of any criticism, or even reference to, Jesus Christ the Saviour.  References to the Magesterium aside, which is clearly based on the Catholic Church, the religion Pullman is criticising could easily also be Judaism.  I would imagine this is due to there being very little in Jesus’ philosophy to criticise, other than the acts done in his name.  Perhaps even, in Lyra’s world, Jesus never existed, or his doctrines never extended beyond cult status.  He is certainly a major omission, but most likely a deliberate one.

As I read The Amber Spyglass I thought this is a religion with such great messages, morals and stories that I actually wished it were true.  Dust, Mulefa, parallel worlds, death, authority… The book presents all these themes in ways I believe they should be treated.  And the ultimate theme, the idea of creating a Republic of Heaven where we are, ‘because there is no elsewhere,’ is a wonderful message.  Basically, don’t squander or waste you life because you only live once and the world is there for the taking.  The world is your oyster, if you like.  This is a positive message to take upon finishing the book, and my most significant reason for wishing that the beliefs of this fictional story are worshipped across the world in Christianity’s place.