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On the occasion of an afternoon tea to mark this significant milestone...
|When I was one, I was just begun;
When I was two, I was nearly new;
When I was Three, I was hardly me;
But then I was sixty, and as clever as clever;
Wouldn't it be nice to stay sixty for ever and ever?
(With apologies to AA Milne)
Hang on! Now I'm seventy? How did that happen?
Am I getting close to the end?
To check this out I got out my trusty King James Version.
Psalm 90 tells me:
|The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
yet is their strength labour and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away
In my Bible the Psalms are attributed to King David, the father of Solomon – around three thousand years ago – firmly pre-Christian.
Psalm 90 seems to be about eternity, sin, retribution, and perhaps forgiveness, but it goes on to say:
|So teach us to number our days,
that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
So when people ask what I've been doing in retirement I'm inclined to reply: "Applying my heart unto wisdom."
No.... I'm not on the road to conversion.
But since I retired we've spent a lot of time travelling and I've found the World’s religions to be a constant source of wonder.
The bizarre things that otherwise perfectly sane people believe, to the point of being prepared to kill or be killed for their beliefs never fails to amaze me.
For example in Taiwan we watched people using game of chance with sticks and stones to determine their future.
Otherwise intelligent people were ignoring the obvious change to that future that a believed outcome was bound to induce - thus invalidating the prediction.
On this latest trip we visited some temples in Sicily that are close to three thousand years old. But these ones had nothing to do with Solomon.
Not for the first time I was struck by the persistence of religious structures. They are generally the most solidly built and the longest lasting of buildings. Temples, other places of sacrifice and mausoleums are generally built by man to influence or appease his Gods or in an attempt to secure a life after death.
The most ambitious of these structures is the Great Pyramid of Giza built 4,600 years ago during the late stone age.
In Sicily we saw the foundations of one of the largest sacrificial alters ever discovered. Hiero II of Syracuse built it around 2,300 years ago. It was a huge building in its day: 192 meters long by 23 meters wide housed in a columned portico. To give you an idea that’s from the front wall of this house to the front of the one across the street in width, and halfway up to Spit Road, in length.
But big was good. Appeasing the gods was important. Sicily is home to Mt Etna one of the largest active volcanos in the world and it suffers regular eruptions and earthquakes. The alter was designed to facilitate the sacrifice of up to 450 oxen simultaneously, to protect Syracuse from the wrath of the gods or to buy them off in blood.
The concept reminded me of Herod's Second Temple in Jerusalem, where Jesus was said to have expelled the money lenders. Special drains were required to carry the blood of sacrificial lambs and goats away. It is said that John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus were particularly distressed by this. Defiling the Temple was the crime for which Jesus was crucified.
In any case the Temple was soon destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. 70 - is that significant?
When we visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem last year I was obliged to wear a piece of cloth around my legs. I was happy to do it because Wendy had had to cover-up in the Damascus and Delhi mosques - and I’d had to do it in Thailand, to avoid my knobbly knees shocking their gods with cloth obscured vision. But my skirt was to little avail, I still got expelled from the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
This very day the blood of Israelis and Palestinians is still being shed over these religious subtleties on the Temple Mount.
After Sicily we visited Pompeii. It’s interesting to see the immediate evidence of the Roman religions, that all sensible, educated people then followed.
In the Vesuvius eruption in the year 79 eleven thousand inhabitants were killed by the gasses from the volcano and then buried by ash and pumice. Some inevitably attributed this disaster to the destruction of the Jewish temple nine years earlier.
Meanwhile, in the modern world, Vesuvius is still active. From time to time it belches fiery larva and smoke but subsequent eruptions have never repeated the destruction or loss of life in 79.
Today geologists monitor it closely and evacuation plans are in place. Like earthquakes and Tsunami we no longer believe volcanoes to be the result of human sin or heresy; or attribute these events to the wrath of the gods; or build temples to the High God of the mountain - Yahweh; or sacrifice goats to prevent reoccurrences.
Anyone who did so in secular educated societies would be laughed at. Mind you, there are still societies in the world and some families in Australia, where these natural events are believed to be divine retribution with mankind at the centre.
So no, I don't look to religious teachings for wisdom. But I find that there is wisdom to be found in studying religion.
Here with us today is a person who's very existence depended on mine. Overseas, in Berlin there are two more. During my life how many others might I be responsible for?
No, I don't mean that way.
I mean through the people I selected for jobs. I mean people who worked on projects I conceived or directed. I mean people who might never have met but for me. And what about people I inadvertently delayed or assisted and their impact on their friends and relations? I've made the point elsewhere. If there's the slightest change in the timing of a conception then a different child will be born in place of the sibling who might have been.
Those of you who have read another essay on my website Adolf Hitler and Me will know that I was conceived in a British Royal Air Force Rehabilitation Centre.
RAF Rehabilitation Centre Hoylake 1944 - hand coloured by my father
My father was there because of the actions of Adolf Hitler.
So, but for Hitler, I wouldn't be here nor would my daughters.
But it’s not just Hitler. Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt all had a role to play in the exact events that led to my conception.
And it is not just me. It's you too. And all the Jews and gentiles and Hindus and Muslims and sceptics and believers who were born during or after World War 2.
It's probable that the war affected the circumstances and timing of every conception on the planet. Think about your own family.
During different visits to India we saw the work places of both Ghandi and Mother Teresa. Unlike Hitler they are regarded profoundly good people - saints perhaps. Yet there are those who point to the endless inadvertent harm each did while trying to do good.
But who could tell what harm their good actions would lead to?
It's just like those ancient temple builders and pagan priests who inadvertently laid the foundations of this World.
In the World they brought into being I'm standing here talking. And you're here too. So from our perspective Voltaire's Pangloss must have been right and indeed: ‘All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.’
But is this the World that the ancients would have wanted or imagined? I somehow doubt it.
The ancients were concerned with more immediate issues, like the success of next year's harvest; or victory over enemies; or to appease the elements; or to confirm power structures and maintain social elites; or to secure a place in their version of eternity after death; or perhaps simply in their ongoing employment as a temple builder or priest.
This World is not something the temple builders and god creators might have hoped for. In this World mankind has left the planet and we've discovered that our planet is an insignificant speck amongst trillions of billions of other worlds. And we've realised that their gods had feet of clay and play no role in earthquakes; or storms; or drought; or in the days of our lives.
So this is the wisdom of my 70 years that I can pass on to you.
First: Forget any issues you have with the past. Without it you and your kids would not be here to complain.
Second: The slightest thing you do irrevocably changes the future.
Third: Who knows what good or harm you might be doing? So what the hell! Do what makes you feel good...
Have a scone.