There are phrases that stick in my head. These can come from anywhere, often the oddest places. Like I remember when the Killers’ song ‘Human’ came out. The first line of it was “I did my best to notice, when the call came down the line.” It stuck with me.
I decided this was a maxim by which to live life. I figured if you could say on your deathbed how you had always done your best to notice when the call came down the line then you could say you’d lived a good life. It doesn’t mean that you always noticed or you always answered the call, but you did your best, you tried to notice, you endeavoured to be alert for the call.
We don’t know what the call is or from whom it might come but I think we know it when we hear it. It’s a matter of discrimination as well. Many calls will come, but it’s about knowing the important call, and trying to do the right thing.
And you won’t do it sometimes, and sometimes you’ll do it but you’ll mess it up, and you’ll let yourself and others down, but if you do your best, and if you try to notice, then you can say that was a life lived reasonably well.
The song came out in 2008. I’ve a Celtic Tiger snapshot in my head. It was late and I was in the house of a fashionable artist of those times. We were well refreshed and the song came on. I felt it was important at the time to convey to the artist how important this maxim for life was. He thought I was deranged.
Another phrase that has haunted me recently was something someone says about Thomas Mann’s in-laws in Colm Tóibín’s book The Magician. “They had never known loss.” That phrase keeps going around my head because it’s, in one way, the key to everything. There are two types of people in the world: those who have known loss and those who have not. I never quite broke it down as simply as that before, but it’s one lens through which to look at things.
There are some people who are fundamentally different to me. They have a whole different outlook, and a whole other kind of expectation of the world. I used to think that it was that they were rich and had been brought up rich and knew that they would inherit money, so their attitude to life and to the future was fundamentally different.
Having money was something they took for granted, and gathering a pension or even buying a house was not a major guiding force in their lives so they had a different life, where they could think about other things. But actually, I realise now, that the new lens is more accurate.
Of course, when we talk about those who have never known loss there is an important word we need to include: “Yet”. For it’s a rare person who gets out of here without knowing loss. My mother would always say you don’t write anyone’s story or form any judgement on how great or otherwise their life is until they’re in the grave. We all know that loss can happen anytime – in one second, one phone-call.
And we know too how everything is different then. There is a before and an afterwards. And how you deal with the loss is what will define you and your character. So, as the A-Team's BA Baracus would say, in a way, I pity the fool who has never known loss. Because, for most, it’s a deluded state in which to live. Not only have they never known loss, but they don’t know what their loss is going to be, and they don’t know how they will cope with it.
If you’ve never known loss, and you get used to thinking life’s like that, then you are what we would call, in pandemic terms, a naïve population when it does come. The rest of us are in some way inoculated, and we have an immune response that prevents it from killing us.
Anyway, the point I’m getting to, such as there is a point, is this: I had one of those great unplanned evenings recently with relatives, and there was wine drunk and even a bit of singing, and we probably had two, maybe even three, drinks more than was advisable, because I think we had a sense it mightn’t exactly happen again in this configuration so we should make the most of it.
Anyway, I had the best text the next day from a cousin of similar age to me, who I meet about once a decade, and who I enjoy and envy for being a bit of a bohemian and a free spirit. She used the immortal words, “Will we ever get sense?” And I heard generations of the women in my family in it. It wasn’t said judgmentally, more in a resigned fashion. And I laughed and texted her back to say I didn’t think we would, that it’s too late now.
So that phrase haunts me now. There were generations of us who never got sense and I always thought I would have to eventually. But I realise now that as long as we don’t put ourselves or anyone else in danger then we must never get sense. And I actually think I’m out of the danger zone now. If you get past 50 not having got sense, you have a clear run to the end then.
So there might always be the odd time when you have one or two too many and maybe even sing a song, because we don’t know when we might do this again, what loss might be around the corner.
So we must, as the man said, do our best to notice when the call to dispense with sense comes down the line.