There's an optimism that seems to go with adversity, whether it is a band playing "Singing in the Rain" in the middle of a wet, rain drenched field at Jersey's West Show, or the "Dunkirk" spirit, when the little boats left England to pick up stranded soldiers from Dunkirk, or the Blitz, when people stayed in London and "soldiered on".
It's the same kind of optimism that ordinary people have about the meaning of life. Atheism is a very cold, bloodless creed. It says that when you die, your body is buried, and the worms eat your remains, and that's the end of it. But who lives as if that is the case - eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow we die. Very few people. They take other values to live their lives by - not necessarily firm and clear religious values, of the kind one would get in Islam or Christianity - but values that seem at odds, and contradictory, to the values of a world in which existence is just a blip, which we invest with a meaning that dies with us.
That's not a new observation. Thomas Reid, the Scottish philosopher, and one of the key thinkers with what was called the "Commonsense School" of philosophy, stated this. He pointed out the contradictions between the thinkers who said that there was no free will, that human beings were puppets, and how they lived their lives. Clearly, as he observed, they did not live their lives as if they had no motivations, no will, no ability to act, and make choices, despite their philosophy saying that human beings were automatons. That of course, is a problem with reductionist approaches to value - you end with a position that no one acts as if they believe. Albert Schweitzer described it thus:
“The question whether I am a pessimist or an optimist, I answer that my knowledge is pessimistic, but my willing and hope are optimistic.”
The world of today often seems a bleak place, with natural disasters out of our control; a reminder that we are not the masters of our destiny that we would at times fancy that we are, and an economic system which seems unpredictable, in which chaos theory seems to apply.
But we are not pessimists, and nor do many ordinary people have a creed that can be clearly articulated. They don't feel able to sign up to the exact formulations of creeds and catechisms, of fervent adherence to the pillars of religious practice.
Yet I believe there is a religious element there, although because of the baggage accrued by the term, most people today prefer the term "spiritual". How is this articulated? I think one of the best proponents of this way of thinking was Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965), whose personal philosophy was described as " Reverence for Life (in German, "Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben"), and whose thinking is profoundly modern, even though he was born in the Victorian era. Here are a few quotations, which illustrate his thinking:
“By respect for life we become religious in a way that is elementary, profound and alive. Impart as much as you can of your spiritual being to those who are on the road with you, and accept as something precious what comes back to you from them."
“You must give time to your fellow men -- even if it's a little thing, do something for others -- something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it.”
“The thinking (person) must oppose all cruel customs, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition and surrounded by a halo. When we have a choice, we must avoid bringing torment and injury into the life of another.”
“The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others.”
“Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate. ”
“No one can give a definition of the soul. But we know what it feels like. The soul is the sense of something higher than ourselves, something that stirs in us thoughts, hopes, and aspirations which go out to the world of goodness, truth and beauty. The soul is a burning desire to breathe in this world of light and never to lose it--to remain children of light.”
“As soon as man does not take his existence for granted, but beholds it as something unfathomably mysterious, thought begins."
Against the pessimism of reductionist views, Schweitzer says that there is more to life, even if we don't know precisely what that is; that values of compassion and kindness are at the heart of what makes us human beings, and that at the heart of our being is not perhaps a fixed creed, either of religion or atheism, but something unfathomably mysterious. In that mystery, lies our hope.
It may be raining, but it is a sign of our spirits, that we can still be found singing in the rain.