A short while ago, I saw a film called “Red Tails” about American fighter pilots in World War Two. In it, an older man says to a new pilot, “Experience is a cruel system. You take the exam, then you learn the lesson.”
How true this is. It’s not always possible to learn the lesson first. Children, for example, have to discover pretty well everything in the beginning by experience; it’s only through acquired understanding and learning that lessons may be learnt before experience.
When I was very young, harsh experience thrust learning upon me. It was painful, made all the more acute by a display of nature, which whispered to me: Nothing is the same now.
I was five years old and my brother was nine. In the early summer, our mother took us to our aunt and uncle’s farm. It was idyllic. One of our walks took us “up the fields”, through a gate into the dingle field, down to the brook, where there was a tiny island in the stream. It was only a couple of feet from the bank, so I was able to jump on to it. The grass on the island was tufted fresh and green, and covered with little white and yellow flowers. It was like being in a different world, a magical place, where I felt I belonged. I remembered the island when we returned to Manchester.
Later in the summer, to my delight, Mother took us to the farm again. We arrived very late and my brother and I went straight to bed. The next morning – while we were eating our breakfast, I asked our auntie, “Where’s Mummy?” Her reply hit me like a hammer: “Mummy’s gone. She had to leave very early.” I started to cry and was so upset that Auntie told my brother to take me up the fields for a walk. With hurt in my chest, I followed him to the dingle field and along the brook, where I looked for the little island in the stream. When I saw it, my despair was complete. Now, in late summer, the grass was grey and flat, and there were no flowers. That day was September 3rd, 1939. War. Evacuation. Nothing is the same now.
I learnt that lesson after the experience. It was the only way. Now, with understanding, I could speak to the child that I was, with words that my mother said to me in the good times: “It’s all right. It’s all right”, and it would be so. Learning before the experience is grand – you feel, “enabled”. But I have had jobs without proper training, when learning the lesson was painful. In a small travel agency, I could do accounts with a cash book, a ledger and a journal up to trial balance. Then I got a job in the accounts department of a big company, where everything was done by computer, involving huge stacks of pages of figures, with few words among them. The little world of my account books fell apart, and I left: I was helplessly out of my depth. But with other jobs, I was properly trained before the event. Result: happiness. This applied to my entry into the ministry. Preparation brings success and happiness; we learn from our own experience, from the experience of others and from their teaching.
This goes on all our life, preparing us for most kinds of eventuality – but not all. Not many people today prepare for death. Most ignore it until the subject is thrust upon them. But if a minister can’t talk about death, who can? And if we prepare for so much in life, then surely what is perhaps the greatest event in our lives after birth should merit mental – and spiritual – preparation. Too many people fear death; we are brought up to fear it.
In orthodox religion, people are “instructed”. In Unitarianism this cannot be, but it is important that everyone should develop some kind of faith, or at least a form of philosophy, or attitude, so that as our years close in on us, we do not face death with fear. Religion balances the psyche and, as Jung says, it helps to keep you sane. The trouble is that so many people approach death with nothing to lean on: even a dedicated atheist may feel supported and able to face death with calmness. Preparation needs to be made. I believe that I will survive death, and I recommend that someone who doesn’t believe, but has an open mind, should read about survival in the hundreds of books available, – some good, some bad. But, whatever your belief, please work out a faith, or a philosophy. You will be blessed by the comfort and light that will shine out of the darkness.
The brave saying, “I believe in life before death” stands well until we run out of life. Then, when “the darkness deepens”, a person who may be sick, old and frightened needs words of comfort, life and hope.