I am coming to a new way of thinking about death. Which inevitably also means I am coming to a new way of thinking about life. Writing about Owen is one way I am getting there, and reflecting on an article I read in The New Yorker magazine about a beautiful big idea and the man behind it is another.
Derek Parfit is a living philosopher who recently published a 1600-page book called On What Matters. His very original ideas about self-identity and on, well, things that matter, is so exciting to me I am hesitant to read more, just in case I am wrong about what I think he is saying. So, with all due to credit to Mr. Parfit for these ideas, I take these notions as my own and continue to refine my own thinking.
I am captivated by the idea that there could be a non-religious universal morality. A set of principles that exists whether we (as humans) perceive them or not. I don’t yet want to call myself an atheist (just in case) but I shudder at the trappings of man-made religions – which is to say I shudder at religion in general. So you will see why these ideas appeal to me. Parfit tries to synthesize various philosophical approaches to morality, which include many variations of the old chestnut: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He is not offering a list of commands carved in stone – rather, he suggests that there must be a universal way for us to approach morality, which when adhered to, will have the benefit of serving our collective humanity.
So with the idea of a universal morality in hand I follow the breadcrumb trail to considering an individual life and what it is for. What does it mean, what does a ‘good’ one look like? An answer I like: our individual measure can be weighed on what we contribute back into the whole, most notably through the memories and work of others. And the contribution should be offered with the intention of not harming–or better yet, supporting–future populations.
We could ask ourselves, how will others hold us in their memories? What will they tell their children about us? How will we leave a mark that in some way, big or small, makes a difference to people who don’t exist yet? Before you let this stress you out, there is no need to be too literal – rest assured, our actual contributions will inevitably fade over time, as will the memories of us. But an impression on the organism, humanity as a whole, will have been made. The one act of kindness or love to another will ripple through and out and down in ways we can’t even imagine. We just have to trust that it will, and not look to see the results of our influence – otherwise the ego takes over and makes it all about us as individuals again.
Here’s the exciting part for me: I think this is the missing piece that I have been seeking, consciously or not, pretty much since the day Owen was born. I can articulate in clearer terms now how Owen’s contribution to the world was and continues to be meaningful. And how my work with telling a part of our story, writing a book, offering it back to the whole, matters hugely.
And this, which I am keen to write and talk about more and more: scurry and panic and individual striving don’t contribute to what matters. Pushing our selves (or, to bring it back to a topic I know intimately, our disabled children) to meet a ‘norm’ or to keep up with others is literally wasting our lives.
Bodies come and go. But the human organism will continue to grow, evolve, shift – and all of us here, now, are responsible for its future. Surely we don’t need religion to tell us how to behave?
(I took these photos on a tour of the Academy of Realist Art in Toronto, where my friend Jen was a student this summer. Hers is the last painting (a work in progress), created during a Caravaggio class.)