Next stop? – Reflections on Life and Death
I have several Richard Holloway books on my shelves (writes Debbie Thrower) having long been interested in the journey this former bishop of Edinburgh has travelled, expressing his doubts and longings about faith.
His paperback edition, Waiting for the Last Bus: Reflections on life and death (Canongate, 2018) addresses old age and mortality in ways that will resonate with many who find it hard to be as certain as they once were about religious truths.
‘Fortitude’, he regards as one of the most important lessons life teaches, ‘and ageing may be the last chance to learn it,’ he writes. ‘It is the ability to endure the reality of our condition without flinching. It was defined by the gay cowboy in the movie Brokeback Mountain: “If you can't fix it, you gotta stand it.” And there’s a lot you gotta stand when you get old,’ as Holloway comments wryly.
This book is something of an object lesson in how to try not to grow old and bitter. Asserting that ‘it seems to be age that corrodes the spirit, not change as such, which is why growing old is spiritually dangerous,’ he nevertheless sets out to say ‘a rueful “Yes” to our fading energies and begin to appreciate the humour and understanding old age can bring.’
There are cautions against succumbing to envy and jealousy in our later years. ‘Envy has been defined as sorrow at another’s good. Jealousy may drive us to action, but envy only makes us depressed… It’s an ugly picture, the face of angry, envious old age.’
Holloway sits in a deeply uncomfortable place in terms of attracting criticism from different sides of any faith debate – too many doubts expressed for some church types, but still too much affection for the trappings of religion, ritual and sacred spaces for some humanists and atheists to stomach.
I am still musing on his thought that: ‘The best way to see religion is as humanity’s response to the puzzle of its own existence.’
Holloway’s wife is a grief counsellor and he thanks and praises her for helping him with the sections of a chapter entitled ‘The Day After’, which explores the human capacity for representing the world back to itself through art, literature and music.
Speaking of the risks of repressing grief, he says ‘that’s when grief counsellors have to do their work, unclogging the memory, helping release the long-silenced scream.’
In common with many others, I’m sure, the author has developed a predilection for reading people’s obituaries as he has grown older: ‘I like to hear how they played the hand that life dealt them.’
I imagine Holloway’s own obituaries one day will be divided, he is that ‘Marmite’ sort of person, for he elicits strong, diverging opinions. By looking full square at the prospect of his own mortality, though, he has brought his own style of honesty to bear on a difficult subject for which I wholeheartedly applaud him while not always agreeing with him.
Richard Holloway and Kathryn Mannix (see my 24 February 2022 blog) will be speaking at the Malcolm Goldsmith Lecture organised by Faith in Older People. It takes place on Thursday 12 May 2022, from 4.30 – 6.00 pm and you can join online. Book your place here.