In his book Rain Upon Godshill, J B Priestley describes a dream. He’s standing at the top of an immense tower, looking down on a vast river of birds, all flying together in the same direction. The sight moves him deeply.
Then time accelerates and dream turns to nightmare as he is forced to watch bird become generation of bird. He watches as each bird hatches, flutters into life, soars away, grows weak, falters, then dies. He watches as wings grow and crumble, bodies swell then shrivel. Everywhere is death, striking at every second. He watches and can perceive in all he sees before him – all the striving to live and keep on living – only an immense futility. He watches and becomes sick at heart.
Time speeds up even more and the flow of birds becomes “like an enormous plain sown with feathers;…” and “…along this plain, flickering through the bodies themselves, there now passed a sort of white flame, trembling, dancing, then hurrying on,…” As soon as he sees this, he knows the flame to be, “…life itself, the very essence of being.”
This is one of my favourite inspirational texts. I read it when I’m bogged down in the small and the petty, and worse – those moments when personal disaster has struck out of the blue, or maybe some graphic news of a terrible cruelty to a child or an animal turns up in my mail. These are times when I find myself looking heavenward, the why? question on my lips, any trust in a Grand Design slipping away.
The excerpt from Rain Upon Godhill reminds me of the bigger picture, in which I’m only a fractal, a tiny yet absolutely necessary part of a whole that I can access, on this plane of existence, in my current state of being, as only infrequent and fleeting illuminations.
And when anyone sneers at the idea of meaning in life, I ask them this question: “If you believe there is no meaning to life, what is it that makes you choose to keep on breathing?” Not an incitement! An invitation to consider the nature of choice.
Rain Upon Godshill: J B Priestley, (1894-1984), Pub: Heinemann, 1939