By Gabs Brown
A few weeks ago, I took a walk in our local woods. The bluebells were out creating a spectacular carpet of vivid indigo. It was like an illustration from a children’s picture book; not something you would see in real life. It was a sight that would be made no more spectacular by the addition of fairies. Nature had slam-dunked a scene of unnecessary splendour, for no reason. I am not a botanist, but I’m certain the number of flowers in those woods was beyond purpose. I had a fleeting sense that they were there just for the joy of it – the joy of being seen and of being, well, just fabulous.
While I was taking my walk, James was visiting his mother, Cindy, in her nursing home. She is bedridden with Alzheimer’s. She spends her days staring out to a grubby, neglected courtyard. No one knows what she’s thinking, or even if she’s thinking at all. She makes no sense, and we suspect nothing makes sense to her. It’s quietly horrifying. Is she there? Is she afraid? Is she suffering? Will death be better than this for her?
As I looked at the bluebells and their insane, generous life, I thought about Cindy, and the apparent cruelness that’s taken her and destroyed her brain for no reason. The contrast between such beauty and such beastliness gripped me, and I had a feeling that it was entirely intended.
The power of this contrast made me believe that there was some kind of design behind it. It was too awesome. For a moment, everything felt as if it made sense (this was definitely a feeling, not a thinking).
I have dabbled with atheism, and I recall watching an interview with Stephen Fry explaining why, if there was a God, he would be outraged at Him for creating cruel and needless suffering, specifying an eye worm that can only live by eating its way through human eyeballs. Why would any good God design such suffering?
But, although a great deal of my secondary education is a blur to me now, if there is one lesson I recall it is a Religious Education class in which my teacher explained why if there is good in the world, then there must be bad – evil, even. I remember feeling incredibly awkward and disturbed at this proposition. There was something very unsettling about someone of such apparent authority (my teacher) asserting that there must be a very dark side to life. Life can be as dark as it can be light.
It makes sense, but it’s terrifying.
I don’t have a defined faith or follow a particular religion, but I know that suffering is an inevitable part of living. We cannot escape it, and indeed, any attempts at orchestrating a life without suffering inevitably strips away the chances to experience suffering’s opposites: pleasures, reliefs, and joys.
I do not like suffering, but I can accept that it contributes to the fullness of life.
Life has to have the full spectrum of experience, or experience has no meaning – no shape, no place.
The contrasts between those things that bring us suffering and those that delight us give depth to our experience. It’s what makes us feel alive, even if it doesn’t always make us feel good.
Recently, Cindy has been brighter. She’s been smiling, reaching for James’s hand, stepping back into her life for only a quick, perhaps last, glimpse. When you see a person come and go from themselves like that, you can’t help but be reminded that to be alive, to be a being, is indeterminate, ungraspable and extraordinary.