Earlier this year I returned with my son to the campsite of my childhood holidays. As an early teen it was a haven of peace for me. There I did a great deal of formative thinking staring at the sea, so it is an important place I wished to share.
The bay, Hell’s Mouth, represented a closing in of the world as much as a broadening, and this sense intensified upon my return. Now I can accurately gauge how big the beach is, I know exactly where it is in relation to everywhere else. I understand how it was formed, from what, and when. On learned knowledge I overlay my own experience. The same man runs it, many decades older, now ancient. The campsite is dirtier, the beach cleaner. Like my own potential, it is all so much smaller, and yet the sea remains seemingly boundless, and the sound of the surf pounding the sand still awakens an atavistic yearning for something I have not identified and probably never will.
We stayed for three nights. I took my son surfing for the first time. We stayed up late playing superhero card games. We visited castles, talked, went on a moonlight beach safari, ate very bad food, and worried our tent would blow away in the strong wind. We had a great time.
A few days after we returned, Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a different beach. For a moment, the world’s attention blinked. A couple of days ago, there was a massacre in Paris. Once again people are out en masse on the internet, debating what it all means, why it happened.
I shy from arguments on the internet. I like to see people’s faces when I discuss something important with them. At times like this the digital realm takes on the aspect of the sea, a roiling, chaotic system only understandable at the highest level of aggregate numbers. In it our individual opinions are motes of indigestible plastic. Well meaning person argues with meaning person to no great effect. Every human skull contains a universe of its own. They might touch, but remain isolate forever.
History is a mind-numbing, four-dimensional web of interrelated factors. A historian is an interpreter, parsing a mountain of facts to fit an opinion that can only ever be partly true. Most of us lack even that limited level of overview. We live our lives in the right now, with a slippery understanding of the past and a vague apprehension of the future. We cast out lines of understanding to snag this truth or that, to say a=b or c or d, to say that this book fits this genre and that does not, that this is right and this is wrong. We defend these opinions stubbornly.
On that beach I thought a lot about causality. I still do. Fate and free will inform much of my fiction. On my better days I like the Christianity-lite philosophies of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, with his involuted universe of ever-greater complexity. On most others, all I see is the clockwork of atoms winding down to entropy. Does history repeat itself thematically because it is bounded by the constraints of the human experience. or does it only appear repetitive because humans look for patterns in everything? In either case, ultimately history is finite because the human race is finite. Ultimately, as John Maynard Keynes said, we’re all dead.
A friend of mine was discussing the experience of doing business in Israel recently. In what he described as an eye-opening moment, his statement (and it’s not an uncommon one) that British and American society is quite different was challenged as superficial by an Israeli who said: “If your brother murdered someone, would you turn them in?” My friend of course said he would. The Israeli said that would not occur in the Middle-east. Westerners, he stated, are loyal to their state, Middle-easterners to their families.
Regardless of the whole loaded gun nature of who was saying this, where and why, there is an element of truth to the Israeli’s opinion, but it is not fully accurate. It is not that we hold the state more dearly than our loved ones, but that we trust to the state to ultimately safeguard their lives and welfare. To preserve the power of our society to protect us means occasionally going against strong, immediate ties. If this truly is a cultural difference, it is facilitated only by political stability.
Human society works so marvellously well because it is a fine balance between selfishness and altruism. We work to further our own genetic line (or our own self-determined life goals, in this increasingly childless age), often against the interests of others. Simultaneously we are programmed to help others because the success of the group promotes the overall success of the species and, often, ourselves. The group can be small, it can be large. The size of the group is dictated by its stability, which is dictated by its prior successes. Groups behave the same way as individuals with other groups, as do groups of groups.
These are not moral choices, but are deeply ingrained into our psychology. Monkeys have a sense of fairness. A desperate man will kill to save his family. A corporation will exploit a nation, but not to the extent that its market collapses. The single most important driver of all history is the tension between human self-interest and human altruism. It is why we appear so hopeless at getting along. It is why we rule the planet.
While the human race may be so dominant as to usher in its own geological epoch, the components that make it up – individuals, families, nations, cultures – are vulnerable to the selfsame driving tension that promotes the species’ success. For example, competition between ruling families helped doom the Roman Empire. I see parallels between then and now. A large, powerful civilisation, past its military height, the “values” (and I use the word not as an absolute) that propelled it to power eroded. Large inward population movements of people drawn by its relative peace, technology and demand for manpower (no, I’m not obliquely bashing immigrants), a declining population, and a sense of cultural superiority and immortality. Cultures are like people. They never think they’re going to die. Hindsight allows us a slow-motion view of the fall of the Roman Empire, I’ll bet it was a shock to the people living there. But then, Rome’s civilisation did not truly end. We live in its successor. Who knows where time and tide will take us next?
If I were another man I might conclude this post by expressing what we all should do in the face of the current crisis, or how we all should feel about the suffering of our fellow creatures, how guilty or outraged we should be, and give the deeply felt, entirely subjective, a to b to c to d justification of my opinion. I have no right to do so. My brain is too feeble to encompass the complexity of the situation. As a human being I am fundamentally unequipped to formulate an objective truth.
My mind and body are in thrall to the genes slowly deteriorating inside my cells, my soul to the thundering of waves that I can, if I stop to listen, always hear. The waves all have their own voices, and they all say the same thing, over and over again, until one day they won’t. One day, long after my own demise, the last wave will lap a shore somewhere on this world. One day, the last human will die.
For myself and those around me, I can only try to live as well as I can, to harm no other, to attempt to understand, to leave the world behind in no worse a state than I found it. All these things I am failing at, but I am at least aware. As I watch my son play in the churning of the waves I can only hope others will extend the same courtesy to him.
I am lucky, as is he. To us, the sea is not a deadly barrier between poverty and prosperity. No matter the ephemerality of life, a world where our children may prosper is worth fighting for. That is why people do.