“We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”
President Joe Biden
This appeal to the soul was central to Joe Biden’s inauguration last Wednesday: it featured no less than five times in his speech on the steps of the Capitol building. His appeal to unity was, of course, at the heart of his oration. When he quoted St Augustine’s definition of “the common objects of their love”, he spoke as much for humanity - all eight billion of us - as he did for America: those common objects being opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honour and truth.
But it is his focus on the soul which drew my attention - the immortal part of us which is carried within our bodies until it detaches from this precious form which we inhabit whilst on this mortal coil.
So in this commentary, inspired also by the amazing poetry of Amanda Gorman at the inauguration, we take a close look at the soul.
By some strange coincidence we were watching a remarkable Robin Williams’ movie, ‘Awakening’, just as my mother’s spirit departed her body last Thursday night. It was a difficult week: on Wednesday morning we joined my aunt’s funeral by Zoom, at which this extraordinary reading was given by her granddaughter in the United States:
“Life is but a stopping place, a pause in what's to be a resting place along the road to sweet eternity. We all have different journeys, different paths along the way. We all were meant to learn some things, but never meant to stay. Our destination is a place far greater than we know. For some, the journey's quicker, for some it's slower and, when the journey finally ends, we'll claim a great reward and find an everlasting peace together with the Lord.”
Neither death was from Covid, but so many families have suffered over the past year - the United Kingdom will report a total death toll of over 100,000 from the coronavirus during the next 48 hours and, in mortality rates for countries with over 1 million population, the UK is now in fourth position internationally behind just Belgium, Slovenia and Czechia:
‘Awakening’ is a strange movie, based on the true story of a group of catatonic patients who survived the 1917-1928 viral epidemic of Encephalitis Lethargica (sleeping sickness), which caused the death of about 500,000 people at the time. Although conscious, these survivors would sit motionless and speechless all day, only to be artificially and temporarily wakened by the drug Levodopa (L-DOPA).
If you believe in life after death, it would be hard to accept that it has real meaning unless it encompasses our individual memory: how, otherwise, would we recognise who we are/were? If you accept this premise, then the brain can be seen more as a modem through which our physical experience communicates with our spirit - much like apps on our computers communicating with data banks in the ‘Cloud’.
There is some evidence to prove this hypothesis: for example, in old age long-term memories can often be retrieved much more clearly than short-term memories, since they only have to pass one way through the weakened state of the brain. Meanwhile, there is some evidence that when part of a brain is irretrievably damaged, other sections appear to be able to reconnect with temporarily lost memories: not unlike the patients in ‘Awakening’.
No doubt Joe Biden was not thinking of these metaphysical aspects of our existence when he spoke so eloquently of the soul last week. But, in the wider context, he does encourage us to think deeper about the meaning of life.
He referred frequently to the differences between us, and how they have driven us apart: but differences of skin colour and gender are essentially features of the human body, not the soul - why should there be any such distinctions in the spiritual dimension?
And this brings us back to Amanda Gorman’s amazing poetry in ‘The Hill We Climb’, striving to forge a union committed to all cultures, colours, characters and conditions; and urging us to lay down our arms so we can reach out arms to one another, where love becomes our legacy.
The quality of her composition and oration could well have been the presidential address itself, and it cannot fail to have moved all who listened. It is truly inspiring, and a great encouragement, to hear someone just starting adult life speaking to the true meaning of the human spirit.
Gavin Oldham OBE