“Now Fiddler's Green is a place I've heard tell
Where the fishermen go if they don't go to hell
Where the weather is fair and the dolphins do play
And the cold coast of Greenland is far, far away”
--from the song “Fiddler’s Green” (1966) by John Conolly
It didn’t take much reflection to realize it was nothing at all like the future I wanted.
Sitting in a coffee shop, working on the outline for an upcoming talk to be given near the end of the month I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation among the three people at a nearby table. A financial planner was working with a young couple: setting goals, making plans for the future; you know how it goes.
I worked away as diligently as possible, but the always-easily-distracted mind couldn’t help but overhear the odd bit here and there. It was enough to get the gist: apparently they needed to be financially independent by age 55 so that they could pursue a life of leisure.
I bit my tongue. Really. I’m about that age, you see, and retired. A life of leisure is something that is within my grasp.
Only I just plain don’t want it.
Now please don’t misunderstand. You are not reading the scrawls of some hard driving workaholic. No, these are the writings of a person who has many personal interests and can do leisure as well as anyone. It’s just that there was a realization a long time ago: The traditional view of heaven would be, for me, a personal hell. If it doesn’t include some conflict and strife; something to overcome, I don’t want any part of it
Have you ever heard “Fiddler’s Green?” Written in 1966 by John Conolly, it describes a utopian view of what’s commonly referred to as “the afterlife” for a fisher. Here’s a videp of the song performed by its author:
Not exactly my cup of tea. Bottles of rum on the trees translate to hangovers under the same branches. Besides, I don’t need the captain to make my tea—that’s just plain lazy— and would much prefer it if she would mind the GPS or the charts…or whatever it is she spent the past 30 years learning how to do well.
Nonetheless, I find myself thinking about the afterlife a lot.
No, not THAT afterlife! There’s too much to be done, too many interesting things to do in this life to try and speculate about stuff that’s beyond understanding. The afterlife I’m referring to is the one that remains right here after I’m gone…long gone.
Think about it for a minute. What about the best work you do? Is it to provide benefit right now or for some time in the future? Easy, unless you are pathologically self-centered it’s for the future. You want to keep those you love healthy, safe and prepared for a good life. Now think about the best work we all do; the things we do when we pull together; things like: aiding the less fortunate, drafting better policy and laws, building bridges–all kinds of bridges, healing wounds—all kinds of wounds. Yup—future too.
So we work, for the future; and therefore, to a large degree, for the afterlife. We work for those who come after us, hoping that, through our labours, things may be just a bit better for them.
But let’s play for just a minute. Suppose we were capable of imagining what that other kind of afterlife might be. Lots of people have done that and, limited by their own horizons they have provided visions of what they see an ideal perpetual future to be for them if they could have anything they wished for. There’s a single common theme: bliss. People have done it various ways: endless time spent with people who are special to them, and doing the leisure things they love best; things like playing golf, relaxing on a tropical beach, experiencing music. On and on.
I’d give it two weeks, no more. Look, there’s only so many times you can whack a golf ball, eat cake, hear that musical piece, climb that mountain or lie in the sun before it becomes a total crashing bore. Fine for a few days, but eternity? Come on!
Here’s a twist for you: My own (and equally flawed & limited) view of that afterlife still includes pain and struggle. That’s not nuts. Why? Go back to the previous comment about the real afterlife; the one that occurs right here. If our best work and our strongest motivator is toward the betterment of those in the future then why would it not be a part of that imagined afterlife too? Betterment means conflict to resolve, obstacles to overcome and pain to endure.
Why, then, do the banks and the finance people pitch a life of leisure as the ideal?
Would you like my answer? No need, right? You’ve already figured it out for yourself so it can be left unsaid.
So is this to suggest that a life of ongoing, dreary hard work is supposed to be the ideal that we all should aspire to? Of course not! And, yes, the past question was a deliberate “framing” mislead, deliberately posed to evoke a desired response. It is really all about point of view, isn’t it?
I wish I knew the source, but for now, “some cop show I saw about 25 years ago” will have to do. Two detectives were sitting in a car on a stakeout and talking to pass the time. The younger of the two was finding the job quite a downer and said something like this, “This sucks! Day after day we go out there to catch the bad guys only to find that for every one we lock up there’s another one ready to take his place. I’ve had it!” The older, wiser cop’s reply, “You take out the garbage every day too and each and every new day there’s another load of trash. You might feel like giving up there too but then you realize just what it would be like if we stopped taking out the trash. It can be a lot worse and that’s why we’re here.”
It can, indeed get a whole lot worse. Consider poor, ravaged Haiti. It was once the jewel in the French crown. In the 1700’s the production of sugar from that (at the time) French colony was so valuable that, almost by itself, it supported the French empire. But what a price! Generations of slaves, poorly fed, beaten constantly, and worked to death produced that great wealth. Their efforts went unrewarded and the wealth went elsewhere. The land itself suffered a similar fate. Centuries of ecological rape reduced the soil to nothing more than barren dust. And today Haiti bears the scars; a broken land, its soul immolated.
It can happen anywhere. It is happening now. Look around at the wanton destruction that still occurs; the work of human hands. Societies, economies and environments; all under siege. From us.
And what’s to stop this? What’s to repair the damage? Us, too, of course.
So, is that all there is to life: taking out the metaphorical garbage; striving to, as the old saying goes, “stay one step ahead of the devil?”
Well, as a matter of fact, yes. But let’s realize that the previous paragraph also had that pesky framing problem. Let’s try it again, this time using framing in the opposite direction. “So, is that what life is about, living life with a sense of grace, knowing that there are challenges ahead that we may not completely overcome, but also knowing that, overall, the struggle is worthwhile?”
Yes, it is.
Have you ever heard of “flow?” Surgeons, musicians, pro athletes and artists know it well. It’s the feeling that comes from doing something you find personally meaningful; something that, through years of practice has become almost second nature; performing tasks that hardly anyone else can do as well as you; something you take pride in. It’s a great feeling. For the “expert” it’s what defines them.
But it can partially define the rest of us too.
And it’s why I’m never buying what the financial planner was selling. Thirty-five years of being an educator is not something I want to turn off. Probably couldn’t even if I tried. And I won’t.
John Conolly’s Fiddler’s Green is not completely wrong–he did get a lot of it right in his song. The last part particularly nails it, especially for those us lucky enough to always experience breezes and good rolling seas, with the odd gale to keep us sharp, of course.
“Now I don't want a harp nor a halo, not me
Just give me a breeze and a good rolling sea
I'll play me old squeeze-box as we sail along
With the wind in the riggin to sing me a song”
Epilog: Have you ever heard of project Broken Earth? There’s hope for Haiti; hope for all. Check out those who have so freely given of their skills, money and expertise. Their version of the afterlife also includes pain but lessening it for others is a big part of what defines them. They would add it’s probably the best part.