On Life and Living
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
To live, to really live, what does it mean? I guess that depends on each one of us, our backgrounds, our education, our culture. W. H. Davies wrote one of my favourite poems “What is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” To know how to live is also to know how to stand and stare, how to make time for oneself, how to take joy in the simple things.
But what if the simple things are no longer accessible or ‘within easy reach’ as my poet friend, Jane Tims, would phrase it? When the cost of living rises, when we cannot afford to heat our homes, when we have to choose between eating or heating, or between food and medicine, can we truly be said to be living? Then, like it or not, existence, in the words of Sartre, precedes essence, and the very act of existing, surviving, maintaining body and soul together, takes over from any thoughts that may strike us, any time we may have to stand and stare.
Do the little things in life, said St. David of Wales, Dewi Sant. But what happens when so many of these little things are taken away from us? Some of us are lucky, privileged, blessed – and we are able to heat the house, run the car, meet a sudden unexpected bill. We do not have to choose between heat or eat, between food or medicine. Others are not so fortunate. They may have lost their homes. They may not have a car, or they may be living in it. Their transport may be a metal trolley, ‘borrowed from a shopping mall before it was lost’. Their only unexpected bill may be the Old Bill, coming to arrest them for loitering, with or without intent. For these people, on a daily basis, an hourly, basis, life’s hard choices are upon them. They are faced every day with a very different choice in answer to Hamlet’s question – ‘to be or not to be?’.
I see them, the people making those choices, sitting on the sidewalk outside the super-market, plastic coffee cups before them. Heads down, eyes closed, scarcely able to look me in the eye. I see them at the traffic lights, holding up their cardboard signs. I look at them as they sit there or stand there or walk up and down, sitting, standing, staring at the traffic.
They also give a new meaning to the last couplet of W. H. Davies’ poem – “A sad life this, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” They have the time to sit, and stand, and pace, and stare – indeed they do – but do they live, or do they just exist? And for how long? These are the real questions.