By Tinomudaishe Chinyoka
A long time ago in these pages, l quoted an innocuous line from a Tom T Hall song: “…and God was on vacation, for a while.” The vitriol that l received from people that do not know the song (Don’t forget the coffee, Little Joe) was as unfortunate as it was vicious.
“My God does not go on vacation”, was the general theme, despite the fact that no one had claimed otherwise: in the song and in my article, the words are said to emphasize extreme poverty and prayers that went seemingly unanswered.
Then again that is what we get when we use a borrowed language and a borrowed religion to communicate: no matter how well we understand them, we will never quite be good at either.
I can almost guess that if anyone is going to comment on this column, it will be to insult and lay some unfounded claim about my intentions in writing this in the first place. Politics will be invoked, despite this having nothing to do with that hackneyed subject.
In fact, this week, l expect a few fundamentalist Christians to depart from the teachings of their holy book and appoint themselves excoriators in chief, using words that would in all likelihood (if certain accounts are to be believed) make a certain Jewish gentleman who likely lived some 2000 years ago very ashamed to be associated with them.
I do not possess powers of divination: though that really is probably more out of laziness than reality: these days all you need is the title of ‘prophet’ and you are good to go. But, I know that God will be invoked this week.
But still, the question must be asked: what if this is it?
What if like on earth is indeed exactly like Shakespeare said:
Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
We spend so much time wondering how we must live, what we must say or not say, in order to conform to the expectations of others or those of a book (or books) whose compilation we had no part in and whose coming to our parts of the word was at the tip of a sword.
We judge our fellow men based on standards that we ourselves can’t meet, and when we are exposed, we say “I seek your forgiveness for I have failed.” Why is that? Failed on whose standard besides those we create ourselves? What if what we call failing is really just, life?
We live as if at some point after we are dead, those in whose eyes we tried to be “good” will congregate and pat us on the back and say, “well done you, you did everything exactly as we wanted you to, here is your reward.”
Many a time you hear “I wanted to do this or that but my parents said no” or, worse, “I wanted to do this or that but then I thought what would people say.” This nebulous concept of “people” is never defined of course, because close scrutiny would show that it is but a motley group of individuals each of whom is equally afraid to live their lives as they would want to because of “what people would say.”
There was a lot of sanctimonious condemnation when a popular pastor “failed” his family (his characterization not mine, I think he was just human and lived and loved like we all should). There were (and still are) many opinions when a politician was revealed as someone who engages in the most heinous crime imaginable: consensual heterosexual intercourse with fellow adults, sometimes in his office.
We have normalized condemning the mundane and the obvious, all in the name of pretending that there is a moral bar that we all manage to meet, when in fact we never do. Church leaders have made careers out of pointing at other people’s wrongs, when in their private lives they are just as fallible as the rest of us. We have, in fact, created for ourselves moral prisons, because we pretend there is a way in which we must all live: when in fact life is so much simpler. It just is what it says on the tin: life.
Back to that Jewish man. Those who lived with or just after him claim that he actually said: all you need is love. To be right in his eyes, just be good to your fellow man. Only.
Quite why that means rummaging through someone’s private life and embarrassing them and their family with innocent but private conversations and deeds which we all engage in is hard to know. Quite how that means a whole section of society ganging up on the daughter of a politician they don’t like for the crime of defending or speaking good of her father beats me. Quite how that means attacking some civil servant about where his wife lives is beyond me.
You look at how we describe ourselves in the public spaces, and you find that most of those leading in the finger pointing and moral approbation have one term in common: Christian. Lori Verstegen Ryan and Christine M. Riordan define desired moral approbation as the amount of approval that individuals require from themselves or others in order to proceed with moral actions without discomfort.
I know a “devout Christian” who wakes up every night without fail to pray from midnight until 3am. I also know a person who cries at night almost daily because of something that this devout Christian said to them about their life choices, something so vile it should have never been allowed to leave anyone’s lips.
What if there is no accounting afterwards? Suppose for a second one of two scenarios. In one, we all die, and that’s it. In another, we all die, and all go to the same place (try all you might but I will never buy into the concept of a God who creates people only to then watch them burn in an unending fire for all eternity – why anyone would see no contradiction in the existence of such sadism in a being about whom it is said ‘God is love’ beats me). So imagine if you will, these scenarios.
If we die and that’s it, wouldn’t it be a shame that we wasted so much time worrying about how other people viewed our choices regarding how we spent our lives? You get one chance at something, one, and you use it not to do what you want but on what some people you don’t know would approve of? Really?
Or, if we all do go to the same place: can you imagine the shock some will have? Someone said to me the other day after some famous socialite died, you spend your time on earth never doing anything for “fun”, and you show up in heaven and find those you accused of whoring and carousing in the same place and God says: “l gave you all the same chance, and they too loved their neighbour.” Makes you wonder, don’t it?
What if this is it? What if life is really just a short time on the stage and is heard of no more? Do we really want to spend it reveling in the stumbling of others? Knowing that this is the only chance, do we really have time to waste making fun of some old man who is making up for lost time, or doing things that come naturally? Do we want to waste time pretending in the public spaces that we meet a bar that in fact does not exist but is in fact a prison of expectations we have conspired to create against ourselves?
There is a line in arguably the best film ever made: The Shawshank Redemption. When Andy Dufranse is about to (no spoilers!), he tells Red that he had only one of two choices: “either get busy living, or get busy dying.” Uncanny, but a certain very nice and wise Jewish man who may have lived 2000 years ago may also have said: “choose life, and not death.”
Family and those l talk to ask me if I ever read the comments that people write at the foot of my articles. I say yes, I do. And then they ask: don’t you feel bad about what people say? I stop to think. Not about whether or not I feel bad (I don’t), but about the sadness around me.
That people think I should actually care what some stranger with a fake name thinks about me, my thoughts and my life choices, is really very sad. If I should waste but a second of my life on this earth caring what other people think I should do with my life, then l should be dead. To truly live, to be alive, to be truthful and free, is to live this life as if there is no other life after this one. Because there really might be no other.
I choose to live.