Thoughts for the day

June 21st, 2012

Thoughts for the Day

The campaign to persuade Radio 4 to open their daily sermon to non-religious speakers goes on, so far without a breakthrough, something that most of us humanists find intensely irritating. But little victories are being reported, on BBC local stations – although how many of those will survive the BBC’s next round of cost-cutting measures to preserve management jobs is not clear. If you have any contact at your local station, don’t delay – get in there!

BHA celebrants Gary Vaudin and Simon Nightingale have both appeared on local stations this year. A tough call for Gary, working as a humanist celebrant on an island he describes as ‘a close-knit Island community of only twenty-four square miles in which there exists fifty-seven Christian churches’.

Here’s a transcript of consultant neurologist Simon Nightingale’s ‘Pause for Thought’ as broadcast on Radio Shropshire in August of this year:


Good morning Mike … As a doctor I talk to my patients about their symptoms and the diagnosis and treatment but, most important for them, we discuss the prognosis – what they can expect of the future. Often that’s uncertain, but sadly some have a condition that will in time inevitably take their life and sometimes these people whose lives will be much shorter than they had hoped, may say: “I don’t understand. I was born and I lived my life and now I learn that I’m going to die – so what’s that all about? What’s the point?” It’s times like these that we sometimes ask the big questions – what philosophers call “metaphysical” questions – What is it all about? Is there a purpose to all this? What is the meaning of life? Not easy questions to answer!

Now you know that as well as working part time as a doctor, I also lead humanist funeral services for those who are not religious. Sometimes when I meet with the family so that I can prepare the funeral service, they have difficulty in describing the person they knew so well. They might say: “well… he had a shop till he retired and he was a keen tennis player … “. But of course what I need to know is – what was he really like? What was important to him? What in his life had meaning and value? And perhaps that’s the important big question – not what is the meaning of life, but what is the meaning of a life – an individual’s life – like the life of person whose funeral I am taking – like.. well.. anyone’s life. What is the meaning of your life and mine?

What’s important? Is it success? Is it being happy or being good? They seem likely candidates, but not everyone can become rich and famous – and whether we are happy or not, may often be outside our control. If it’s success in achieving a great ambition, then does failure mean your life has no meaning?

It makes me think of that old film (almost as old as I am!) called “It’s a Wonderful Life” It starts with James Stewart playing the part of a man standing on a bridge contemplating suicide because he thinks his life is without meaning and value and that he and his family would be better off if he jumped. Well he doesn’t – because in the film a trainee guardian angel talks to him and persuades him through a series of flashbacks and visions of what his world would have been had he not existed – …persuades him that his life – an ordinary, unexceptional, small town, mid-American life was a good life – a life that he lived well – a life that touched and influenced for the better so many other lives. It’s an uplifting film because it says something important to us all – that we each make our own meaning and value in life. Sure what you do is important, but it’s really the way you lead your life that gives it meaning; the many little everyday but important things we strive for are often of far more value than a few glorious triumphs.

At the end of the wonderfully silly Monty Python film, “The Meaning of Life”, a presenter says: “Well, that’s the end of the film. Now, here’s the meaning of life”. She is then handed a gold-wrapped book which she opens and says: “Um.. well, it’s nothing very special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations”.

Well… it may not be quite as simple as that, but I think the movie may not be far off the mark, because – as a humanist – I’d say that life’s meaning can be understood by anyone. It isn’t a mystery that can only be explained by a philosopher or theologian. When for, what ever reason, you ask yourself “So what’s it all about?”, you can look around and see for yourself the many ways that life can be meaningful.

You can see the value in happiness without believing it’s everything – for there will times when happiness may be difficult to find. You can appreciate the pleasures of life without becoming slaves to your desires. You can see the value of success, but appreciate that it is the striving to achieve that may be more important than fame. You can appreciate the value in helping others to also lead meaningful lives – without fear that others will demand more than you can give. And finally, you can recognise that it is love that moves us to lead lives of meaning and value; love and respect for the fragile world we live in; love and compassion for our fellow men and women. So think about the meaning and value of your life – now – don’t wait until it’s almost over – ask yourself the big questions about life while you are living it.