Is there something you would die for? Better still, is there someone? And how do you know that you would give your life? Do you quantify it by how energised you feel when you envision the necessary circumstances? Do you often place your life on a scale?
I’ve always assumed that I’d offer my life for that of my parents, then, for my siblings, and after them, I suspect I’d die for anyone really; for legislation that protects millions of lives (no less), or for a watershed moment in the history of humanity. I say this because it feels good to say, because it’s unlikely I’ll need to prove it. In 21st century London, there are no death marches to join.
Last week, I was in Northern Ireland for work. I booked a bus tour of Belfast for my dad and I to meet the city. On our way to the peace wall, we saw the 1981 hunger strike memorial murals. My sunglasses hid dewy eyes, I was trying not to blink. Everybody found it moving. ‘How easy do we have it?’ I said, ‘where’s this passion now?’ I said, as if I were not a part of now. Here in 2023, in the first world, a chance to transcend our humanity is something we might do, if noble causes were knocking door-to-door; presuming we wouldn’t wait for the street to clear to tell them to shoo.
I suspect that’s why Westerners are leaving home to fight on foreign frontlines. Around 3000 British volunteers are fighting in the Russo-Ukrainian war, while several hundred fighters from overseas joined the Kurdish forces in Syria. We’re shipping out our courage to the places that can do something with it. And those of us who stay put have ideas about the ones who leave. ‘It’s a certain type of person who needs to take it that far’ we think, but daren’t say. For death to be on the table, when it isn’t for family, or for romantic love, you need a certain type of psyche– we believe, but we are wrong. We’re in need of a hard reset. Heroism is considered a human default. It simply takes the right thing to enter the state of 0. So why have hardly any of us found it?
You can’t expect to find anything at the surface. These days, the noble causes are slivers of corned beef betwixt fluffy white bread; thinned and processed to within an inch of their lives by the media and the internet and talk of them for the sake of talking. Now, you can eat all the meat sandwiches on earth, and still feel underwhelmed. But I think we all do know that ingesting something is not the same as believing in it. And, if you were to choose a cause and dive headlong, the smartest choice would be the one that remains when all the others subside. You could be waiting until death. So, better to go with the most eternal.
No one needs to die anymore. A 25-year old in 1969 knew a world with both army conscription, and the draft lottery. We’re no longer living in that place, or reeling from the mass deaths of the ones who seem to count. We’re in an age of survival, of adopting beliefs so we won’t get killed, not so we can die for them. That means we’re less connected to death these days, thus, eternity. But that doesn’t stop the eternal cause from being the cow, and not the corned beef. I’d die if God asked me to, there’d be little point in saying no. Though he doesn’t really ask people to do that anymore, he prefers for us to die while we still live.
(image: ‘Requiem’ by Ignacio Trelis)