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Dad’s letter to my brother

Dear Michael

It occurs to me that I have never written you a father/son type letter and maybe I should. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the imminent prospect of painting the high facia boards and falling off the roof… Or maybe it’s an urge to write down my own philosophy of life since we Walmsleys never speak of such things.

There seems to be in all men an urge to commit acts of cruelty, synonymous with evil in my vocabulary, and it’s not very far below the surface. If we can find some reason for believing ourselves superior to some other identifiable group, and particularly if our actions win approval from our own mob, we are prepared to do ghastly things to the other lot. Race and religion provide convenient ways of identifying and stigmatizing the other lot.

Different religions hold different beliefs. Modern churchmen like to say they are simply different ways of looking at the same thing. But many folk have died because of those differences and I find it difficult to see it that way.

I believe that only one decision, one act of faith, has to be made. One has to decide whether or not it matters. Does it matter how one lives one’s life? Saint or sinner, does it matter? I feel instinctively that it does matter. But that may only be because the opposite is too awful to contemplate. Can everything really be aimless, pointless, meaningless? Once you accept that it does matter, it is useless to debate the finer points of theology – or even somewhat significant things like is there a God? One is not doing things in an effort to sneak into Heaven or anywhere else. One is trying, simply, because it matters. Why it matters is interesting but no longer vital.

Ok, so what matters? The goal, it seems to me, is human happiness. It is clear to me that the ripples caused by our lives, every word, action and even thought, spread out in space to influence those around us and those around them. They also spread out in time and influence our children and their children. And those around them. Those ripples had better cause good, ie add to human happiness, rather than the reverse. We need to be uppers rather than downers. The sum of human happiness must be increased by our lives rather than diminished. Mum did well in that area, hence her large circle of worthwhile friends. In my doubtless naive scheme of things, good equals human happiness (and animal happiness, I guess); evil equals cruelty in whatever form. The ripples of good caused by Gautama Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed and others still influence us – despite the ‘interpretations’ of their message by lesser men. So do those caused by men like Stalin and Hitler. The difficulty is to remember the significance of everything we do all the time. It’s like posture. I remember to brace up about once a day. If my shoulder problems are to go away, however, they say that I should stand straight all the time.

Be a Samaritan. I once walked past a black schoolgirl lying on the pavement in Cape Town. I told myself that she was asleep – but I didn’t really believe it. The fact that I didn’t help with whatever her problem was is going to haunt me, as they say, til my dying day. But I think that you would have stopped. That reminds me of various texts that I have pushed in your direction at different times. ‘Desiderata’ is one which encapsulates great experiences and wisdom, as does the one about ‘life is a challenge ….’ So here I go again. There is a famous and anonymous saying which goes as follows: ‘I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.’ You’ve probably come across that before to. No matter. We need reminding. Frequently.


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