• 29 Sep - 05 Oct, 2018
  • Shahed Sadullah
  • London Eye

It is now common language to refer to western society as being in the ‘post-religion’ state, a state wherein religion is not the factor that forms the basis of the value system or of whatever goes by the word ‘morality’. For societies whose values are based in religion, as indeed for people now living in the West who have come from such societies, this is a concept that most people struggle to come to terms with, for if religion is not the guide in defining good and bad, and drawing the line between the two, what is?

It was a question that arose in one’s mind after reading a piece in The Guardian that would perhaps as moving as anything I have ever read. It was written by a writer called Joe, only in his early thirties, who has been diagnosed with motor neurone disease. This is the same illness which the famous British scientist Stephen Hawking, perhaps the greatest scientist of the post-war generation, fought against all his life. Hawking, however, lived with it for the better part of almost fifty years, but there must be more rapidly advancing forms of the illness for Joe, it seems, does not expect to live beyond a year or a year and a half at best. To write this Guardian piece his wife had to lift his hand to his computer; he could not do it himself.

The piece is mainly about his coming to terms with his affliction after being told about it, although to begin with, he was told that it was not motor neurone. Britain still has a great National Health Service but after all, it is run by humans. Of course, like anyone else, Joe cried after he heard his diagnosis. This is how he put it:

‘I had no previous facility for crying, no real experience of it, but after my diagnosis this is what I did for the next five nights and five days…..I’ve had conversations about the value of laughter but I no longer believe it is the best medicine. At the end of my five days of crying I felt calmer, more at ease and more content than at any time in my life. I know the glass is thickening and the figures in my life are blurring. I know this is happening and I know how it finishes. And I know that, despite all this, the end of my life is becoming the best of my life; not the worst.’

He has come to terms fully with his impending death and one of the ways he has done so is by deciding to write 33 birthday cards for his two sons aged 6 and one and a half, for them to open on each of their birthdays till they are 21. His calculation is based on the expectation that he will probably see one more birthday of each, so the younger boy will be two by the time he goes which means he will be having another 19 birthdays till he is 21 and the older will be seven so he will be having another 14 till he is 21. And 19 plus 14 makes 33.

He expects these cards to be kept in a cardboard shoe box, the traditional British storage place for family memorabilia, and that their mother will take the box out of a drawer on each birthday to give one card from the box till the box is empty – and the boys are emotionally fully and entirely independent, albeit the younger one will probably not be old enough to have any memory of his father and will know him only through what his mother tells him – and the birthday cards.

Yet, the process of letting go, as Joe puts it, can only work so far. He says in his piece:

‘There is a process to the letting go. And it begins with a soft severing. It was there in the moment Jimmy cried and I knew I’d lost the strength to hold him in my arms; and the first occasion Tom just assumed that I wouldn’t be the one taking him swimming…..I just assumed that we were formed from a single piece, a little family of four pinched into human form and then set firm – so that one figure could never be the person observing all these parts from the outside. That it will necessarily become a single entity made up of three figures is a concept that I look at and look at and look at, and cannot understand it.’ The younger boy is called Jimmy and the older one is Tom.

What I thought was remarkable was the fact that throughout the piece and the extreme mental condition that it sought to describe, there was no reference to any religious percept or idea, not, as per the Christian doctrine, any reference to any promise of salvation, of going to heaven or any fear of hell. None of that seems to have played any part in his coming to the amazing conclusion that the end of his life was best part of his life, not the worst. It may be argued by some that this final inner peace that Joe has now, must have come from a Source outside and above him, but Joe does seem to know that and I don’t know if he would agree with that. One way or the other, the fact that he has it is all that counts. •